Soldier praised for heroism in Afghanistan dies

A former soldier whose bravery in Afghanistan almost 17 years ago won him Canada’s second-highest citation for bravery in combat — the Star of Military Valour — has died.

Pte. Jess Randall Larochelle’s death was announced on social media late Thursday by his brother Andrew and confirmed by friends and fellow soldiers in the veterans community.

A cause of death was not released immediately. Larochelle had been in poor health for several years after retiring from the military.

A group of former soldiers calling themselves Valour in the Presence of the Enemy has been pushing the federal government and the Department of National Defence to review his citation and upgrade it to the top combat honour — the Canadian Victoria Cross.

The group has failed to convince the senior leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces that newly revealed information about Larochelle’s actions on Oct. 14, 2006 in Pashmul, west of Kandahar City, merits upgrading the award.

Larochelle had been in fragile health for several years following his service as a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment.

“It is with great sadness that I must announce the passing of my brother, Jess,” Andrew Larochelle wrote late Thursday on Facebook.

“He was an amazing person that words cannot describe. We don’t really know exactly what happened and are waiting for more information.”

The family has asked for privacy. In accordance with the former soldier’s wishes, his family announced there will be a “hangout at the camp fire” in lieu of a funeral because it was one of his favourite things to do.

‘My hero and friend’

A former comrade, retired corporal Bruce Moncur, remembered being warmly welcomed to the unit by Larochelle prior to their deployment to Afghanistan.

Moncur and retired general Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, have both pushed the government to upgrade Larochelle’s award to the Canadian Victoria Cross, which has never been awarded in its modern form.

“My hero and friend Jess Larochelle, Star of Military Valour recipient, was an unassuming, quiet man,” Moncur said. “He was a superhero.”

Moncur was wounded in early September 2006. He was still in hospital six weeks later when Larochelle held off an estimated 40 Taliban fighters attempting to overrun an observation post.

“Everyone I talked to said he had to get the Victoria Cross for what he did,” Moncur said Friday. “His story resonated with me for years.”

The area of Pashmul, Afghanistan where Pte. Jess Larochelle fought off a Taliban attack in October 2006. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Larochelle and members of his section were manning a position along a stretch of road that was being built between two major Canadian forward operating bases through the arid grapefields of Panjwaii, a district in Kandahar province.

Two members of his section were killed and three others were wounded in the attack.

Larochelle grabbed one of 15 M72 rocket launchers that miraculously had not been destroyed in the initial attack. He used it in place of his wrecked machine gun to hold off the Taliban fighters, who later retreated.

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