Learning about the Army, losing a child, and where to go from there

WATTTHUMBMichael Hornburg invited me into his house with a smile. His four-level split home sits in the southwest of Calgary, but it felt more like a small cabin, with a coal-burning fireplace, on seven acres of mountainside real estate.

hornWALLSMichael Hornburgs front entrance acts as a portal of memories for him and his family.
Photo by: Stephanie Watt
The wood paneled walls held so many frames that their nails can barely support them. I was slightly surprised the roof wasn’t sloped to support their weight. Framed jerseys, portraits and memories overwhelmed the entire front entrance.

Upon further investigation the reason for the photography overload is clear, as one face seems more prominent than the others — his son, Nathan.

Interview with Michael Hornburg

Michael, the 61-year-old retiree, crossed his hands and sat back, getting comfortable for an uncomfortable topic. He recalled the entire history of Nathan, and his time in the army.

He laughed while telling me all about Nathan, the award-winning high school athlete.

“You couldn’t get Nathan out of bed for school, let alone regimented for the forces,” Michael said with a chuckle.

Nathan’s decision to join the forces was well thought out, and something he came to do completely on his own at the age of 17. Michael shrugged and smiled while saying how supportive him and his now ex-wife were.

“It just seemed like a very normal way for him to get some discipline; a summer job, some life skills. When he joined the army he still had a year of high school left.

“I of course was hopeful he wouldn’t choose to go on any mission, just because I would miss him being away, let alone it being dangerous,” Michael said with a smile.

ARMYPICWATTNathan Hornburg joined the Canadian Forces in 2001. Photo courtesy of: Michael HornburgNathan joined the King’s Own Regiment of Calgary in 2001, and accepted to go on a mission into Afghanistan shortly after. Michael said Nathan was thrilled to become a tank driver, a high honour for a first-mission soldier.

Nathan was killed tragically on Sept. 24, 2007, while serving in Afghanistan. It was his first tour.

“It was a normal work day for me, I came home in the evening though, walked into my house, the doorbell rang a few minutes after…

“For some reason I had a premonition not even to go to the door, but I did answer it and three uniformed soldiers were standing there,” he recalled.

“It was a very chaotic, emotional and terrible evening from that point forward.”

Nathan was replacing the track of the tank he and his three fellow officers were driving in that day when he was killed.

As a child who was obsessed with heroes and politics, Michael said it suited his son’s character to die the way he did.

As for any parent, it has been a long road to recovery for Michael. He simply defined to me how things were “at first.”

“I think it’s still is ‘at first’, 50 months later. It’s still not believable,” he said. “One of the things people say when they are trying to comfort me or show connection, is ‘I can’t imagine,’ and my usual response is, “Neither can I.’”

“Losing a child is probably the most humbling experience people can have because there’s all kind of hopes and expectations that are gone forever. After that changes it’s hard to tell what’s low or high anymore.”

Several support programs are offered to parents going though what Michael endured with his son’s death four years ago. He also admitted that whether we like it or not, everyone’s a counselor in some way or another.

“In my case it was a very public grief, having my son die this way. I have had to represent myself, my son and my family in a very dignified way that I’m proud of.”

A long-awaited smile returned to Michael’s face while he told me about a little miracle that uplifted his spirits in the midst of pain.

“My daughter wisely had a baby and made me a grandpa nine months [after Nathan passed]… so that’s my job now. I’m a grandpa. It’s the best job there is.”

Michael participates in several programs in support of the Canadian Armed Forces, such as Loops for Troops. He says the forces are like an extended family and it’s the least he can do.

“One thing we like to say, as a supporter of the Canadian armed forces is “we won’t forget” and I am still doing my part to make sure that no one forgets my son.”


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