Former Canadian Armed Forces medic Matthew Heneghan regrets not being able to say a final farewell to his best friend and former colleague Pte. Colin Wilmot, who died in service in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
So Heneghan, now living in Falkland, B.C., in the North Okanagan, was overwhelmed with joy and sadness last month when he received a surprising Christmas gift: an old Edmonton Oilers T-shirt Wilmot had left behind, neatly folded in a Ziploc bag.
“It was a lot of crying and a lot of confusion to my poor girlfriend sitting beside me, because she had no idea what was going on,” Heneghan, 39, told host Sarah Penton on CBC’s Radio West.
Wilmot, 24, was killed by an explosive device while serving as a medic in Kandahar on July 6, 2008. Raised in Fredericton, he was one of the 158 Canadian Armed Forces members who lost their lives while in service in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011.
The shirt’s unlikely passage, travelling more than 20,000 kilometres roundtrip and 13 years between friends, is tied up with Heneghan’s own journey through feelings of guilt for having survived when his friend did not.
Wilmot’s ‘infectious happiness’
Heneghan says their friendship began in 2007, when they served in the same unit at the Edmonton Canadian Forces base, training for deployment to Afghanistan. Together Heneghan and Wilmot drank at local pubs, played video games, watched films and Wilmot’s favourite: Edmonton Oilers’ hockey games.
“He had this infectious happiness about him and instantly was an easy guy to bond with,” Heneghan said.
As a medic with a corporal rank, Heneghan says he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in early 2008 but ended up not going due to personal reasons, including a struggle with alcohol.
But Wilmot, who wasn’t scheduled for the tour, asked if he could be deployed — and went.
Heneghan wasn’t able to attend Wilmot’s military funeral. He says he suffered from guilt for years after Wilmot had been killed in the line of duty while he stayed home.
Heneghan worked through some of that guilt by writing A Medic’s Mind in 2019, a memoir that includes a chapter about Wilmot.
A fellow veteran read the memoir, and was moved by Heneghan’s story. Phil Hunter had never met Wilmot but knew his name, because he had been assigned Colin’s old bunk in Kandahar.
‘Good luck charm’ T-shirt
Hunter says he was assigned as an army medic to the same Kandahar outpost, where he found Wilmot’s T-shirt mounted on the wall, covered in sweat and “Afghan moon dust.”
“It [was] kept as a memorial, a bit of a good luck charm,” Hunter, who lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., said on Radio West.
Hunter decided to take down the shirt and bring it back to Canada in 2009.
“For sentimental reasons, I thought it would be better to bring it home than have it just thrown into a burn barrel.”
Soon after returning home, Hunter reached out to Wilmot’s sister to see if she wanted the shirt, but she declined and suggested giving it to a friend of her late brother.
Finding the right person
Hunter kept the shirt for 12 years until he read Heneghan’s memoir. He reached out to the author in November 2021, although he did not mention Wilmot’s T-shirt.
“I was just so moved by the whole book,” he said. “I got in touch with him and realized this is definitely the right person to send the shirt to.”
“I never believed I should be the permanent custodian of this shirt, but I believe I have found that person in you,” Hunter wrote in a letter that he sent to Heneghan with the shirt.
“I hope you’ll still feel some Colin vibes in it.”
In the interview, Hunter reflected on the exchange. “We all pay a pretty high price for our involvement in the military and losing friends like that,” he said.
“Knowing how important the relationship with Colin was to Matthew, to be able to give him that shirt and give him a piece of it, to be honest, felt pretty good.”
Heneghan says Wilmot, in heaven, would be grateful for their reunion through the T-shirt.
“Colin was a pretty humble guy,” he said. “He’d be tickled by it, to be honest. He’d probably have that goofy million-dollar smile.”
Heneghan says he’s considering donating Wilmot’s shirt and Hunter’s letter to the Edmonton Oilers hockey club to honour his friend’s legacy.
“They can have it and know not only how important the Oilers organization was to him, but just how important he was to the country.”
LISTEN | Matthew Heneghan on his friendship with Colin Wilmot
Radio West16:32We speak to a Falkland author whose tribute to a friend killed in Afghanistan led to an unexpected gift
LISTEN | Phil Hunter on why he kept Wilmot’s T-shirt and decided to give it to Heneghan
Radio West12:51An update on a touching story we brought you earlier this week. How a well-loved, grubby Edmonton Oilers t-shirt became a healing moment for a former army medic in Falkland.