NOTE: Today, May 17, 2021 is the one-year anniversary of the Snowbirds’ crash in Kamloops and the tragic death of Capt. Jenn Casey. The following column was originally published on MaY 23, 2020:
BEFORE LAST WEEKEND’S TRAGEDY, maybe a dozen or so Kamloops residents knew Capt. Jenn Casey by name. We’ve learned a lot about her since then as our community has embraced her in our hearts and mourned her loss.
We know she was 35, born in Halifax and that she was a radio journalist before joining the Armed Forces and, a year and a half ago, the Snowbirds as their public information officer. We also know she had a distinguished academic record, gathering three university degrees including a Masters, which she completed last year.
In university, she was known as “a mischievous college kid.” She was involved in student politics, running for a spot on the student residence executive, cheekily promising “cheaper laundry” and “more bands.”
She is often described as a great story teller.
Those who worked with her unanimously describe her as a joy to be around — energetic, driven, fun. They talk about her smile, her sense of humour.
“Her beautiful smile and positively infectious personality could brighten anyone’s day,” her family said in a statement released Wednesday.
We also now know that Operation Inspiration — the cross-Canada Snowbirds tour designed to lift the spirits of Canadians during COVID-19 — was her idea. Rocky Mountain Rangers padre Capt. Steve Filyk revealed this during Thursday’s ceremony at the Kamloops airport organized by the Legion.
The tour was, he was informed by a Snowbirds officer, “her brainchild.” A close friend, Meghan Groff, wrote a tribute in Halifax Today that said, in part, “How could anyone so full of life be dead?”
Groff worked with Casey at News 95.7, a Halifax radio station, where Casey was a reporter and producer after a year in journalism school (she later returned to finish her degree while working full time). She also worked at a station in Ontario. Casey was the kind of person who stepped in to make sure new people felt welcome.
Her favourite sports teams were the Montreal Canadiens and the Halifax Mooseheads, the latter a club in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. She covered the Mooseheads for the station on its play-by-play hockey broadcasts.
The Tragically Hip was her band of choice. She was a Star Wars fan. She enjoyed a good game of road hockey.
“It was impossible not to have fun around Jenn,” Groff wrote. “She exuded it. Every outing turned into an adventure of some sort with plenty of laughs.”
Other former co-workers at the radio station remember her the same way, talking about her infectious personality. Another friend, Dan Ahlstrand, told Halifax Today that Casey was the first person who reached out to him when he was transferred to the station. She schooled him on where to find the best donairs in town.
Friends have said they were surprised when Casey switched from journalism to a military career but, as Groff put it, “That’s where she truly found her calling. Being a public affairs officer for the Snowbirds was her perfect fit, and she loved being a part of that team.”
Casey later explained in an interview that she made the change due to declining opportunities in journalism. Working on the Snowbirds team was, she said, her “dream job.”
After joining the RCAF, Casey spent most of 2018 with the CF-18 demo team, travelling all over North American and Europe with them. In November of that year, she joined the Snowbirds. Lt.-Col. Mike French, commander of the Snowbirds, said it was obvious from the start that Casey was going to be a perfect fit for the world-famous aerobatic team, always anticipating what was needed.
Just the previous week, he and Casey had flown together, belting out Tragically Hip songs as they practiced manoeuvres.
Casey is described by those who worked with her as efficient and passionate about her work, a “consummate professional” and “a rising star.” Besides becoming fluent in French, she was also an expert in the use of social media as part of her job, a skill she put to good use during Operation Inspiration.
On her Twitter account, she described herself as a “master of stuff and things,” a “recovering reporter,” and an “old millennial,” adding “the military tells me where to live now.”
A nomination was being drafted for a Chief of Defence staff commendation for her work on Operation Inspiration. And then came last Sunday morning when Snowbird 11, piloted by Capt. Richard McDougall, took off from Kamloops Airport and crashed in Brocklehurst seconds later.
Without ever having met her, it’s my guess Jenn Casey had her moments of frustration and impatience — everybody does — but the thread among the many who did know her is so consistent that we can be confident she was exactly the kind, generous, vivacious person they describe. The kind of person we in Kamloops would like to have had a chance to know.
We feel a special responsibility towards her because she died in our community. The decorated fence at the airport is a reflection of how deeply our community feels the loss of this wonderful young person we never knew, and we need to establish a permanent memorial to honour her and help us find closure, if that’s possible. (Unfortunately, a proposal to change Airport Road to Capt. Jenn Casey Way has already run into nitpicking, politics and bureaucracy but, hopefully, some sort of consensus will be arrived at in discussions with her family. A simple, straight-forward solution would be to leave Airport Road as the official name but attach sub-text to it in the same way as has been done with Mark Recchi Way on Lorne Street and the Fuoco Block on Victoria Street.)
We aren’t the only community that cherishes and mourns her, of course. The flags at City Hall in Saskatoon and in Belleville, Ont. where she worked at radio station CFKQ, were lowered to half staff. An orphaned bear cub being cared for in Smithers has been named Casey in her honour. Outside the offices of Tourism Moose Jaw, where a Tutor jet sits permanently on display, posters and bouquets of flowers are multiplying similar to the fence at our airport.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Moose Jaw Mayor Fraser Tomlie have eulogized her. And there are all those people who knew her in journalism and in the military.
Jenn Casey will arrive home in Halifax tomorrow evening. After a ceremony on the tarmac of Halifax Stanfield International Airport, a funeral procession will make its way through the streets of the city, including places where she grew up.
Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington thinks she should also be repatriated at CFB Moose Jaw (home base of the Snowbirds) and CFB Trenton 8 Wing after a procession along the Highway of Heroes.
Here on the other side of the country from where she was born, she is as much a hero as in her home town. The Snowbirds will return to Kamloops at some point, maybe when a memorial is ready for dedication, and a fly past with one vacancy in the formation will be in order.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.