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Jess Larochelle: A Canadian soldier

Afghanistan veteran Private Jess Larochelle died in August without receiving the Victoria Cross many felt he deserved.
Courtesy of family/Valour In the Presence of the Enemy
Wounded warrior Jess Larochelle, whose magnificent defence of a strongpoint in Afghanistan earned him Canada’s second-highest award for valour and spawned a campaign to upgrade it to a Victoria Cross, has died. He was 40.

“He was found in his shop and there wasn’t anything that could be done for him,” his brother Andrew wrote in a social media post from their home in Commanda Lake, Ont. “As per Jess’s wishes, there won’t be a funeral and services.

“We know one of Jess’s favourite things to do was to hang out by a campfire, and that he would appreciate it if you had one in his honour.”

A private with 9 Platoon, Charles Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, Larochelle volunteered to man a perimeter observation post (OP) in the face of an impending attack by a numerically superior force of Taliban fighters.

It was Oct. 14, 2006, and Larochelle had no sooner taken up his position than it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), throwing the machine-gunner several metres back and into the rear wall of the OP.

The concussive blast and impact had knocked him out, broken his back, fractured two vertebrae in his neck, blown his right eardrum and detached his right retina. His spinal cord was intact, but he was peppered with shrapnel.

Larochelle regained consciousness, gathered his wits, and made his way to the position’s one surviving C6 machine gun. He didn’t know it yet, but two of his comrades were dead and pretty much the rest of his LAV III crew wounded by another RPG strike just a few metres away.

Their armoured vehicle, the forward-most of several on-site, along with its 25mm chain gun and machine gun, was virtually disabled for the duration of the battle. Larochelle was alone up front, the point man as some 40 enemy fighters closed on his position.

Larochelle loved the outdoors, and his Harley. His brother said the war hero would appreciate it if Canadians so inclined had a campfire in his honour.
Courtesy of family/Valour In the Presence of the Enemy

“I don’t think you want to put somebody through that who hasn’t been through it before.”

Under heavy fire from AK-47s and RPGs, including 75mm munitions packed with cluster rounds, Larochelle fired continuously in bursts of three to five 7.62mm rounds, his gun barrel smoking and shell casings piling up around him as he shot.

He fired multiple rounds from his position’s cache of 15 disposable M72 rocket launchers—lifesavers and devastating killers.

By the time the remaining attackers withdrew and the fighting had all but subsided an hour or so later, Larochelle was down to two M72s and the last 100 of his 800 heavy machine-gun rounds. The ground outside his OP was littered with dead Taliban. He was restocked after he volunteered to remain at his post for the night.

“I don’t think you want to put somebody through that who hasn’t been through it before,” he told his platoon warrant.

Larochelle was awarded the Star of Military Valour, one of 20 presented to Canadians for actions in Afghanistan. He was unable to attend the award ceremony at Rideau Hall and received his medal on the day he left the army, almost two years after the firefight.

“Although he was alone, severely injured, and under sustained enemy fire in his exposed position at the ruined observation post, he aggressively provided covering fire over the otherwise undefended flank of his company’s position,” said his citation. “Private Larochelle’s heroic actions permitted the remainder of the company to defend their battle positions and to successfully fend off the sustained attack of more than 20 insurgents.

“His valiant conduct saved the lives of many members of his company.”

Efforts to have Larochelle’s award upgraded to the first-ever Canadian VC, spearheaded by the advocacy group Valour In the Presence of the Enemy and backed by a 15,000-name petition along with endorsements from at least three living VC recipients, failed on technical grounds.

A fresh-faced young private. The founder of Valour In the Presence of the Enemy described Larochelle as “nonchalant and unassuming.”
Courtesy of family/Valour In the Presence of the Enemy
The decision not to upgrade Larochelle’s award came down to a matter of timing.

The group’s founder, wounded Afghanistan veteran Bruce Moncur, remembers Larochelle as a “baby-faced 22-year-old with piercing blue eyes, nonchalant and unassuming.” Back in 2006, he welcomed reservists like Moncur as equals—a relative rarity among regular force soldiers.

“It was after all the others began to come back from Afghanistan in January of 2006 [and] I had already been home almost five months that I began to hear about this incredible story about this private from 9 platoon,” Moncur said. “Everyone I talked to said he had to get the Victoria Cross for what he did.

“His story resonated with me for years and, there is nothing anyone can tell me, he deserves the highest medal of bravery. The refusal to acknowledge what Jess did that day was another failure by an officer corps becoming more and more disconnected from the rank and file.”

The decision not to upgrade Larochelle’s award came down to a matter of timing. Nominations for bravery decorations and valour awards in Canada must be submitted within two years of the event, and no duplicate awards are considered.

Furthermore, King George VI instituted a five-year deadline on award nominations in 1950, which still stands despite the fact the British awards system no longer applies in Canada.

“So, the timelines for [Larochelle] are long-elapsed,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, head of the military’s Directorate of Honours and Recognition.

Moncur said Valour In the Presence of the Enemy, which is lobbying for reviews of valour awards both from Afghanistan and earlier wars, has not given up on Larochelle’s case.

“In death our fight will not waiver,” he said in in a statement. “We had tried to warn that it would have meant so much more to have at the very least an Independent Body Review sooner than later, but those pleas fell on deaf ears.”

A changed Larochelle with his new Harley-Davidson Sportster.
Courtesy of family/Valour In the Presence of the Enemy

“Jess was simply an incredible young man, a fiercely proud Canadian, and a true hero.”

Larochelle, a Sioux Lookout, Ont.-born son of military veterans, lived with pain and post-traumatic stress disorder for 17 years. He accepted the VC decision with humility. He never asked for the Commonwealth’s most-coveted medal hemself.

“Jess made it out to a small meeting with other veterans earlier this summer where he spoke of his being at peace with not receiving the Victoria Cross he so incredibly deserved,” said a post by Blackbird Industries, a North Bay, Ont.-based marketing firm owned and operated by military veterans. “He said he appreciated everyone’s efforts but that his Star of Military Valour was enough.”

Larochelle died on Aug. 30, 2023. His aunt, Bev Day, said that, despite his sufferings, “he never complained and took each day as it came.”

“My mom loved him and he was good to her when we visited. They both loved a campfire and would sit and talk watching the fire for hours. Jess was not only our nephew he was our war hero!”

The former defence chief and face of the VC campaign, retired general Rick Hillier, called Larochelle’s death “the most tragic, the saddest news.”

“Jess was simply an incredible young man, a fiercely proud Canadian, and a true hero,” Hillier said. “Our country is lesser in his absence.”

Nearly 100 Canadians are among the 1,353 original VCs awarded across the British Empire until the 1990s, when Australia, followed by Canada and New Zealand, created its own. Canada is the only one of the three that has not awarded one.

The last Canadian to earn an original VC was Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a navy Corsair pilot whose posthumous award came for actions on Aug. 9, 1945, when, under heavy fire, he sank a Japanese destroyer and crashed.


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