When Melanie Murray found out that her nephew had been killed in Afghanistan, she was, of course, devastated. Why would bright, fortunate new father, Jeff Francis, voluntarily give up his PhD studies to enlist in the armed forces?
To begin the grieving process, Murray needed to find answers. She drew on her skills as a writer and literature teacher at Okanagan College to begin a brave undertaking: to investigate Jeff’s life and write a book about her findings. The result is a deeply personal yet unsentimental story, For Your Tomorrow: the Way of an Unlikely Soldier. In her research, Murray uncovers the different sides of Jeff — from his family’s historical involvement in the military, to his attraction to Buddhism and other philosophical writings.
“I wrote this book to discover who Jeff was, and to figure out why he became a soldier. I had to deal with the complexity of the issue to finally understand,” she said.
“He believed he needed to serve, to do something for a greater good.”
This belief in military action is challenging for some — including Murray herself.
“When my nephew was there, I was a non-supporter. I respected his decision, but had doubts about the viability of that mission,” she said. Delving into his motivation for enlisting helped. “Writing the book took me through a process of understanding.”
For Your Tomorrow is a success, however, because it is much more than therapy for the author. Murray encases this deeply personal story in a respectful neutrality, and reaches to confront the wider question of why anyone would choose to go to war.
Although it has been four years since Jeff was killed, the release of the book is stirring old memories.
“Certainly talking about the book, and all the publicity, brings everything back in a more vivid, raw way,” said Murray. “It is hard.”
The family wanted Jeff’s story shared. But even with their endorsement, it wasn’t easy for Murray to dig deeply into their lives.
“The family trusted me, but it was a big risk to write this book. I was worried about what might happen.”
All the same, she doesn’t shy away from difficult details. It will be some time before I forget the exacting, unflinching description of Jeff’s mother waiting at the airport for her son’s coffin. She waits silently and awkwardly among strangers, also anticipating their sons’ return — even their grief choreographed by military tradition.
From the day in 2007 when Francis died, to his family’s long drive between CFB Trenton and Toronto where flag-bearing Canadians gathered in unprecedented numbers, For Your Tomorrow walks you through in the steps of a family that paid the ultimate price.
We are fortunate that Murray took the risk to record these heart-wrenching moments, laying bare what it means to be a soldier, and at the same time, revealing how difficult it is to be the family left behind.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.