Charles Sheppard was born on July 11, 1962, in the small western Ontario town of Galt, and raised in nearby Preston. He was the only son of Carol Ann Laurence and Charles Havelock Sheppard.
His mother worked jobs at the local post office and hair salon to support him and his two sisters, Cheryl and Cynthia, after their father left the family.
As a boy, Charlie was a freckled, pale redhead, a scrawnier version of the man, but just as resourceful. When the batteries ran out on his walkie-talkie, he tried rewiring it with a lamp cord. “Of course he got electrocuted,” says his brother-in-law Jamie from Elliot Lake,
Ont., “but he always liked to go that extra mile.”
He enjoyed stuffing pillows and blankets inside barrels so he and his sisters could climb in and roll down hills in their backyard. Bath time was an opportunity to don goggles and flippers and leap into the tub yelling “Bonzai!” It seemed natural, says his older sister Cynthia, of Tillsonburg, Ont., that he would join the army.
He signed up in 1983, a few years after his marriage to Karen, with whom he had two daughters, Holly and April, now 20 and 18, respectively. (The marriage would end in 2002.) He did a stint in the Canadian Airborne Regiment in the mid1980s, and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in 1991, and then a warrant officer in 1996. Charlie also earned the titles of pathfinder and ranger, before serving with the army in Bosnia in 1997, as part of the NATO Stabilization Force. Most recently he was a member of Edmonton’s 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He was slated to leave for Afghanistan in 2006.
His appetite for danger extended to his hobbies. He rode a motorcycle, and enjoyed hiking in the backcountry. On one occasion, he had to be revived after plunging through the ice and being swept downriver while trudging across Kananaskis country, in the Alberta Rockies. The next year, he was caught in an avalanche, and had to be dug out of the snow. “He was like a cat with nine lives,” says his niece, Jessica Dickens.
Charlie’s main passion and source of excitement was parachuting, and his army life revolved around it. He took courses to become a jumpmaster, rappelmaster, parachute instructor, and military free
fall jumpmaster. With more than 5,000 jumps to his name, he was renowned as the paratrooper who could teach proper technique to junior ranks. “He has trained so many young soldiers, shown so many the Standard, and touched so many military lives,” wrote one colleague recently on an army website. “Every soldier he trained will train others.... The work we accomplish in the name of Canada will be due in no small part to his instruction.”
Even when off duty, he went parachuting, and wanted to teach
others. He trained civilians on the weekends, and went out for fun by himself. “This was work he was doing every day,” says Jamie. About 15 years ago, Charlie coaxed his sisters and several others to go parachuting with him in Fergus, Ont., remembers Cynthia, while their mother “sat by the phone,” fearful she would be left alone to take care of all the grandchildren.
In the past year, Charlie had taken over a bungee-jumping business in the West Edmonton Mall called Centre of Gravity. His daughters both lived with him in Edmonton, and accompanied him on camping trips and mountainclimbing treks. At Christmas, and on birthdays, he was known to wrap presents with duct tape, the common military style.
He was often on the move, flying from base to base to train soldiers across Canada and the U.S. Many of those stationed in the Middle East, and those who served during previous conflicts, were his students. Charlie most recently had been dispatched to instruct a military free fall course at the Canadian Parachute Centre in Trenton, Ont., where paratroopers dot the skyline as commonly as evening stars.
“He got an awful lot done in 20 years,” says Cynthia. “Not a lot of people live on the edge that long.”
On Oct. 3, he boarded a leased civilian CASA-212 aircraft for the first training jump of the day. There were blue skies and light winds, perfect weather. Charlie pushed himself off the rear ramp and embraced the free fall. When it was time to release his parachute, it failed to fully open. The reserve chute launched, but became entangled in the nylon fabric and lines of the first chute.
Warrant Officer Charles Sheppard died upon landing amid the rural landscape of the Mountain View detachment at CFB Trenton.
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