Bradford's hometown hero, the late Sapper Brian Collier was honoured last week at the Highway of Heroes tree-planting event in Whitby.
The Bradford West Gwillimbury native was killed by an IED in Afghanistan in 2010 while serving his country.
Born and raised in Bradford, Collier excelled in sports—a defenceman in hockey and catcher in baseball—and loved to snowboard on 'Dead Man’s Hill' in town, his mother Carol Collier told BradfordToday.
Collier put himself through school working landscaping jobs before deciding to join the military.
"When Canada got involved in Afghanistan, he realized that’s what he wanted to do," said Carol. "He was a proud Canadian military engineer, proud of his trade, his comrades, his military family, and his parents, all of his relatives and friends, but there was a special place in his heart for his beloved Canada.
“Brian answered the call to serve his country to defend and uphold the values of his beloved Canada. His comrades, still to this day, are like our own family. It’s quite incredible. Every soldier you ever meet is worth thanking.”
Collier was sent to Edmonton and assigned to 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, where he became a sapper.
“They’re the unit responsible for making it safe for the infantry to move forward and travel and they detect mines and bombs,” explained Carol. “That was his job in Afghanistan and when he was first chosen to go to Afghanistan, he was so thrilled and proud. At that time, only one engineer had been killed and he kept reassuring us ‘don’t worry,’ but of course, you do worry.”
After spending just three years in the military, Collier was deployed in May 2010. On the morning of July 20, 2010, Carol, Brian’s father Jim, and Brian’s three sisters learned their beloved son and brother had been killed in combat.
“We had the dreaded knock on the door,” remembers Carol. “Brian was repatriated to Canada, arriving in Trenton on a hot and sweltering summer day. Our journey from Trenton to Toronto was almost a surreal experience. While living in a fog of grief, shock, and sadness, the rest of our country surrounded us in a giant hug."
Carol will never forget the outpouring of kind words and gestures the family received following her son's death.
"The people on the bridges were thanking Brian for his sacrifice and welcoming him home. Some on tractors on the field, some holding signs with Brian’s name on them, the Bradford firefighters with their fire truck and a Canadian flag hanging from it, and trees swaying in the breeze. That stretch was the Highway of Heroes and I remember thinking how proud Brian would be," she said.
Seven years ago the Highway of Heroes Tree Campaign (HoHTC), a national charity, set out with a goal to plant two million trees to honour every Canadian who served in the country’s Armed Forces and the 117,000 who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
As of November, the goal was reached, with over 2.3 million “service trees” planted by HoHTC within 30 kilometres of the 401 corridor in honour of all those that have served since Confederation and including the war of 1812.
The Collier family have been active supporters throughout the HoHTC campaign and have been involved in several tree planting events and initiatives to honour Armed Forces members like their son.
“As a Silver Cross mother, father, and sisters, you want his sacrifice to be remembered, his name to be remembered, and his life to be remembered. Not just Brian’s, but the 157 other comrades killed in Afghanistan who’ve travelled the Highway of Heroes,” Carol explained. “Those who died before our generation were buried in foreign lands, they too shall be remembered. This living tribute is a perfect Canadian hug, these trees will embrace our Highway of Heroes forever.”
In March 2018, Carol spent a day at Canada Blooms, the largest garden festival in Canada, and was able to meet HoHTC volunteers. She heard firsthand people’s memories of standing on the bridges to thank and honour the brave men and women of the Armed Forces.
The family was able to meet with Chair and co-founder of the Campaign, Mark Cullen, who had served with Brian in Edmonton.
“That’s just one of the ways this living tribute can connect Canadians. Our Canadian flag has a leaf as its symbol, our trees protect our lands, our lakes, our rivers, our mountains—all of the beautiful parts of Canada our soldiers have when they’re serving our country. We owe this to them and their families to protect their memories," said Carol.
Since losing her son, Carol has found solace in the journey down the Highway of Heroes.
“Driving along the highway soothes your soul,” she said. “It calms you down and it’s so good that (the HoHTC) is doing this without any reward or compensation or anything. It’s just a good thing to do.”