A single trumpet plays the opening notes of The Last Post through the spacious funeral home, freezing the handful of people waiting. That includes the soldier clutching the urn.
The sombre song is a key part of military ceremonies, but there’s nothing traditional about this moment.
In June, Joseph Hildebrand, a 33-year-old Canadian veteran, left his Saskatchewan home to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion.
Now he returns as ash. His partner and his daughter stand still, crying. When the trumpet stops, they can reunite one last time as a a family.
It’s taken weeks of negotiating with Ukrainian and Canadian officials to get Hildebrand’s remains home this way. The family warns other Canadians will have to do the same if Ottawa doesn’t change how it helps repatriate volunteer soldiers.
A ‘constant pull’ to the military
Carissa Hildebrand and her almost 14-year-old daughter Jovi haven’t been the same since Hildebrand went to Ukraine.
“When Joe left, that’s when we started to grieve,” Carissa told CBC News in her Swift Current, Sask., apartment in early December. They were together for almost eight years.
Hildebrand enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces after high school and became a member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. He served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.
After getting out of the army, Hildebrand tried to volunteer as a fighter in Syria during its civil war, but couldn’t get in due to border closures. So he returned to Saskatchewan to work his family’s and neighbours’ farms.
- WATCH | The story about Joseph Hildebrand on The National on Monday at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.
His love for Carissa grew and Hildebrand adopted her daughter — his “Jovi Bear” — in 2020. They were becoming a real “family unit,” Carissa said.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
“When he found out we weren’t sending Canadian soldiers to go help, he was blown away,” she said.
His decision to go was one she respected, but didn’t understand.
“He always was in a constant pull,” she said.
“He wanted the farm life and the family life, but he also wanted to constantly go be with his brotherhood and go help. It’s two different worlds.”
Killed pulling others to safety
On Nov. 7, Carissa’s phone rang around 7 a.m.
“I just instantly kind of knew,” she said.
A man with a heavy Ukrainian accent told her Hildebrand was dead. She still doesn’t know who called.
Through conversations with Hildebrand’s fellow soldiers, Carissa heard he died on Nov. 7 in the eastern city of Bahkmut, pulling dead and injured teammates to safe territory. Carissa was told artillery struck and killed the love of her life.
“I want to open people’s eyes to what happens to a volunteer that goes to fight for a different country,” Carissa said.
Requesting an escort
Federal officials strongly advise Canadians against going to Ukraine during the war.
“Your safety is at high risk, particularly if you engage in active combat,” the travel advisory warns. “Our ability to provide consular services in Ukraine is severely limited. You should not depend on the Government of Canada to help you leave the country.”
So, when Hildebrand died, Ukrainian officials were in charge of what happened next.
Assist Ukraine, a third-party company working with Ukraine’s army, started the repatriation process. The group got his body to the crematorium and organized the cremation. It also lined up documents like a death certificate.
The company normally ships remains to the home country.
“That just feels wrong,” Carissa said. “He’s all alone on a cargo plane. It’s hard to trust.”
Carissa and Crystal Martens, the Swift Current Funeral Home director, then worked together and asked for an escort to bring the remains back to Canada.
The company said it had to follow the original plan.
At that point, Carissa and Martens were emailing several agencies: Assist Ukraine, the Canadian Embassy, Global Affairs Canada and the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine — the unit Hildebrand fought with.
Martens said it seemed like none of the groups were communicating with each other, so she became a “relentless” liaison.
“Some people were very uncaring and wondered why we were arguing about this,” she said.
Didn’t want remains shipped ‘like an Amazon package’
In Niagara Falls, Ont., Steve Krsnik was also fighting to get his friend home from Ukraine. He had helped Hildebrand sign up to fight in this war.
“We didn’t want him alone being shipped in a box like an Amazon package,” he said.
The Princess Patricia veteran helped train Hildebrand as a new soldier. They served in Afghanistan around the same time.
“Many guys that served overseas, when they come back, they have trouble adjusting to civilian life because it’s so drastically different,” said Krsnik.
“Guys always strive to experience those highs again because they’re so addictive. The amount of endorphins rushing through your body when you’re at those peaks — it’s euphoric in a way. Guys will supplement that feeling with thrill-seeking activities … but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t answer the call that we want.”
They kept in touch while Hildebrand was in Ukraine. Krsnik said Hildebrand believed he was “doing the right thing,” and felt accomplished gaining ground on the Russians.
When Hildebrand died, Krsnik knew volunteer soldiers don’t get ramp ceremonies or convoys down the Highway of Heroes. They also don’t get extensive help from Ottawa.
“The Canadian government didn’t really step in to do much as far as the repatriation was concerned,” he said.
Krsnik raised more than $27,000 through an online fundraiser for repatriation costs, lawyer, funeral home and accountant fees, and other unexpected costs. Whatever’s left will go to Hildebrand’s daughter.
A volunteer, veteran escort
Krsnik, Martens and Carissa spent November trying to convince the agencies to release the remains to their escort — who was already in Ukraine.
Josiah Napier, another Princess Patricia veteran who knew Hildebrand, was on his second voluntary tour in Ukraine.
Though he was preparing to return to his own family in Alberta, Napier delayed his trip by a month to be Hildebrand’s escort.
“If it had been me and there had been no advocate here, it would have been a pretty hellish process,” Napier told CBC News from Kyiv in early December.
“So I stayed. It’s the right thing to do.”
Hildebrand would be ‘severely disappointed’
The four Canadians worked daily on their mission, organizing paperwork, including passport copies and a letter of consent from the Canadian Embassy, approving the escort.
By Dec. 2, everyone agreed Napier could take Hildebrand home.
Martens said a repatriation process like this would normally take months, so doing it in weeks was “phenomenal.”
The one major caveat was the family had to pay for the journey home — a cost they have yet to tally.
Carissa said she never expected the federal government to pay for the repatriation, but she wanted more coordination for her partner’s remains.
“He’d be severely disappointed in his government right now,” she said, reflecting on his time in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“He fought for Canada.”
Company says repatriation didn’t face ‘a single delay’
In an email to CBC News, Assist Ukraine said it did “more than was necessary” to get Hildebrand’s ashes back to Canada without delay according to Ukrainian law.
Veterans Affairs Canada can’t comment “on the files of individual veterans, even after they have passed away,” according to a spokesperson. Minister Lawrence MacAuley was unavailable for an interview.
A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson says the organization is providing consular services to the family, and is “taking the necessary steps to ensure that the family is well supported and treated with compassion.”
Napier traveled from Kyiv to Lviv, about 550 kilometres west, to collect the urn. Then, he hitched a ride out of Ukraine with another foreign soldier.
Direct international flights to Saskatchewan are rare, so the team decided Napier would fly from Frankfurt to Calgary, Alta.
On Dec. 10 — almost six months to the day since Hildebrand left for war — Carissa, Jovi and Martens went to pick him up, meeting Napier at a funeral home in Medicine Hat, Alta.
The journey is over
Napier walks steadily toward Carissa and Jovi as The Last Post ends.
“Hi, Josiah,” Carissa whispers. Jovi clutches her arms around Napier, who hands Carissa the urn in a black velvet bag. She takes it with both hands. Martens puts her arm around Carissa.
The only sounds are gasps of air between quiet sobs.
“Thank you so much,” Carissa says to Napier. They hug for a few more minutes, then sign paperwork to prove the urn’s journey is over.
Before hitting the road, they all agree on one thing: if another Canadian soldier dies in Ukraine, they want to help the family.
“At least I can help them walk through this a bit,” says Napier.
Carissa agrees: “That’s the whole point.”