Remembering Cpl. Nathan Cirillo

Brett Popplewell speaks to friends who knew the affable soldier and father killed in the Ottawa shooting

Brett Popplewell
<p>Canadian reservist Cpl. Nathan Cirillo is shown in an undated photo taken from his Facebook page. Media reports say Cirillo is the Canadian soldier who was killed in Ottawa Wednesday while guarding the National War memorial. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook</p>

Canadian reservist Cpl. Nathan Cirillo is shown in an undated photo taken from his Facebook page. Media reports say Cirillo is the Canadian soldier who was killed in Ottawa Wednesday while guarding the National War memorial. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook

Nathan Cirillo was an enthusiastic reservist who hoped for a long career in the Canadian Forces. Now he is a fallen soldier set to receive a full military funeral in Hamilton.

Cirillo was shot dead while standing guard at the National War Memorial Wednesday. A single father with an infectious smile, friends say he’d wanted to be a full-time soldier since the age of 13.

The 24-year-old was a corporal with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Hamilton, where he grew up and was raising his six-year-old son.

Cirillo died while serving in Ottawa Wednesday morning. Though his identity was not disclosed to the public until late Wednesday afternoon, his friends and family back in Hamilton feared for his life as soon as news of the shooting began to break. They all knew he was in Ottawa standing guard at the memorial because he had been proudly posting photos of himself near the site just days before the attack.

Those who knew him say he could often be spotted walking Hamilton’s downtown streets dressed in full Argyll regalia. He was proud of the uniform, they say. A former bouncer at a popular nightclub, he was known as much for his imposing six-foot, 250-lb. frame as he was for his wit. He’d recently quit working nights in order to pursue a career in the military.

Cirillo was a part-time reservist looking to set himself apart from his peers by picking up extra duties around his local armoury. He and another reservist had recently been selected to stand guard at the cenotaph, “an honour” which Lt-Col. Lawrence Hatfield says was bestowed on them because they were among the regiment’s top soldiers.

It is believed Cirillo’s honorary deployment to Ottawa was to last from Oct. 13 until Nov. 11, Remembrance Day. Friends say Cirillo enthusiastically left for Ottawa hoping the experience of standing guard over this country’s most sacred war monument would demonstrate his devotion to the service.

Cirillo’s mother travelled to Ottawa along with military officials shortly after learning of his death. She was set to return to her home in Hamilton Thursday. There, on a corner lot of a quiet street in the city’s east end, countless strangers arrived bearing flowers and letters of remorse while family members gathered inside to mourn in private.

Uniformed police stood guard at the family’s house while neighbours looked on in silence. Few of them knew the soldier or his family, since they’d only recently moved to the neighbourhood, though neighbours recalled often seeing him walking around with his son.

In Hamilton’s city hall, citizens touched by Cirillo’s death lined up to write notes of condolence for his family. Meanwhile, at the Argylls’ regimental headquarters in Hamilton, a steady flow of civilians and servicemen—friends of the fallen soldier as well as strangers—came by to lay flowers and light candles at the gates of the armoury. By Thursday afternoon the flowers were too numerous to count.

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Among those to visit the armoury were four of Cirillo’s high school friends who described him as “a real class clown” who “always wanted to serve his country.”

A former cadet, Cirillo joined the Argylls reserve regiment while still a student. Many of those closest to him were also members of the regiment, including Brendan Stevenson, with whom he’d deployed to Ottawa to stand guard by the grave of the unknown soldier. It is believed that Stevenson was by Cirillo’s side when he was gunned down.

“Nathan was very proud of being associated with the military,” says Danielle Townsend, a friend who met him at Hamilton’s Sherwood Secondary School. She and others say Cirillo’s motivations for joining the military were anything but political. “He wanted to help people. I remember in high school he kept saying he wanted to go to Afghanistan.”

At his former high school, staff wore poppies in his honour. Bob Pratt, the principal there, says Cirillo graduated in 2007. He was remembered by teachers as a saxophonist and a kind student with “a zest for life.”

Friends from his high school days say they believe the military gave him a sense of belonging and recalled that he’d eat army rations at school and tell classmates that his lunch was the same as what the guys in the field were eating.

Cirillo was a single father, raising his son with the help of his mother. Known as someone who enjoyed being out with friends, he met the mother of his son, Marcus, at the Ancaster Fair while in his teens. Friends recalled how much Cirillo enjoyed just lying on the floor playing with with his son and his toys. “He adored his boy,” says Jason Melnyk, who spent countless hours with Cirillo at a local gym. Others teared up remembering a photo they’d seen of Cirillo and his son, dressed up like Batman and Spider-Man. “It’s just so sad,” says Townsend.

An animal lover, Cirillo had at least two dogs and had recently rescued an abandoned puppy and nursed it back to health. “He was just a great guy,” says Townsend.

Cirillo was also a motorcycle enthusiast who gave up his bike after a serious accident left him in hospital. He had two sisters and is said to have been very close with his family.

“He was an energetic guy, outspoken, happy all the time,” says Melnyk. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”