Corporal Mathew Ricky Andrew Hopkins of the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009 at the tender age of 21.
CAPTION: Master Corporal James Gendron, from the Canadian Armed Forces, was gifted Hoppy the koala by the Australian Army in 2009, as a thank you for piping at a ramp ceremony for serviceman Andrew Hopkins following his death in Afghanistan. Story by Belinda Barker. Photos by Chief Petty Officer Andrew Dakin.
Almost 15 years on, the Canadian master corporal who piped Corporal Hopkins’ casket to the plane for his final journey home, is still remembering the fallen Aussie and gaining strength from his memory.
During the Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023 closing ceremony, Master Corporal James Gendron held a small grey plush koala, as Games patron, the Duke of Sussex, spoke about the mental toll the active 25-year military career had on the sole bagpiper in Afghanistan.
What the audience didn’t know was the significance of that well-loved Aussie toy.
During his second tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2008-09, Master Corporal Gendron was tasked as a driver in the transport section of the Canadian Forces.
After joining his comrades on the ground, his special talents on the bagpipes took prominence.
Following an email from the task force commander, Master Corporal Gendron was soon pulled from his driving duties and taken by Black Hawk helicopter to Kandahar, where he was presented with a set of bagpipes and a phone.
“I was reading the email and it said, basically, you’re the only bagpiper in Afghanistan right now and you need to come back to the Kandahar Airfield,” he said.
“I got told I was the task force piper. What I didn’t know was I was the task force piper for every contingent that required a bagpiper. So the Americans, the Dutch, the Aussies – every contingent that was over there.
“If they wanted a bagpiper to play for one of their comrades, I would receive a phone call and information on where and when I needed to be to play for the fallen soldier.”
That “death phone”, as Master Corporal Gendron now refers to it, rang hot in the seven months he was in Afghanistan, resulting in 63 ramp ceremonies – a memorial service for a fallen soldier, held at the airport prior to the departure of the aircraft, carrying the deceased soldier’s body home.
“Every ramp ceremony was definitely a moment that I cherished and that I was very honoured to do,” he said.
The sheer number of ramp ceremonies affected Master Corporal Gendron greatly, to a point where he didn’t touch the bagpipes for four years after leaving Afghanistan, associating the mournful sound of the pipes with death.
In March 2009, towards the end of his piping tenure, the Canadian played a ramp ceremony following the death of Corporal Mathew Hopkins, better known as “Hoppy”, in true Aussie style.
“The Australian contingent reached out to me. They had lost a soldier and I needed to go play for them.
“I met up with the Australian Army, and they talked to me about Hoppy. That evening, I piped his casket to the plane.”
The following night, the Australian contingent presented the piper with a coin and plush koala toy in appreciation of his service to their fallen mate.
Over time, the plush koala helped bring together Master Corporal Gendron and his now wife of 14 years and fellow Canadian Forces compatriot, Sergeant Amanda Landry, with the pair deciding their little grey friend needed a name.
“We took him everywhere we were going. We would basically just put him in the suitcase, and we realised he was always with us,” said Master Corporal Gendron, who was diagnosed with leukaemia two years ago, on top of post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and other health issues.
“So she asked me … ‘do you have a name for him?’ And I said, ‘well, not really’.
“I remembered Mathew Hopkins and I thought it was very fitting to call this little guy Hoppy. That way, I’d always remember Mathew, although I never met him.”
Hoppy has since travelled across the globe with Master Corporal Gendron and Sergeant Landry, being snapped in scenes from Kuwait to Egypt and Zimbabwe.
CAPTION: Hoppy the koala was a support for Team Canada’s Master Corporal James Gendron during Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023.
His most recent trip was to Invictus Games’ host city, Düsseldorf, where Hoppy provided support from the sidelines of Team Canada’s sitting volleyball games and had a front-row seat to his owner’s indoor rowing events.
“It was very important for me to have Hoppy with me through the games,” the 47-year-old said.
“Because there’s a lot of soldiers that apply, and they don’t make it on the team. There’s a lot of soldiers who have been killed in action who can’t be here. There’s a lot of families who can’t be here. There’s a lot of soldiers who can’t be here because they’re fighting demons that nobody knows.
“I just think it’s really important, to me and to his family, to know that his (Mathew’s) spirit is always with me. And he’s always going to be remembered.”
Corporal Hopkins’ memory continues to live on, and Master Corporal Gendron hoped to one day have the opportunity to meet his family and share his appreciation.
“When I got selected for Invictus, I knew I had to take Hoppy with me because he is the Invictus spirit.
“We just want to get this back to Mathew’s family … I would love to be able to meet them and tell them that Mathew Hopkins is still here. And he’s going to be with me for the rest of my life.
“It’s just my way of remembering him and thanking Mathew for his service in the Australian Army.”