Naval personnel don’t normally get involved in a war in a landlocked country. Unless of course you happen to have expertise in disposing of things that are hidden from view either underwater or underground, just waiting to explode and ruin the day of the next unfortunate passerby.

In the fall of 2006, a 41-year-old native of Brampton Ontario, P.O. 2nd class James Leith, now based at CFB Shearwater in Nova Scotia, is in Afghanistan for exactly that reason. As a clearance diver with the Fleet Diving Unit in Halifax and a 22-year veteran of the navy, he is now part of Canada’s efforts in Kandahar, riding along in a Bison armoured vehicle with 2 Combat engineer regiment, looking for IEDs to dismantle or destroy before they can do their deadly work. Today, the IED finds him.

A massive blast throws the large vehicle 30 feet through the air before it lands with a heavy thump. Leith checks on the driver and, after making sure he is ok, he checks on his buddy, Cpl Jim Lightle, who has been tossed clear of the shattered vehicle and suffers from a compound fracture of the leg. Two U.S. medics rush in to help. Within minutes the wounded man is aboard a Blackhawk helicopter heading for medical treatment in Kandahar. That is one problem solved.

They say that bomb disposal experts are a different breed, and after a quick survey of the bomb crater, Leith realizes he has another potentially much larger problem on his hands. In the bottom of the hole there is a second unexploded mine containing 100 pounds of high explosive and a nearby container of napalm that have not detonated in the original blast. He cordons off the area and makes sure everyone is out of harm’s way.

He then crawls back into the crater on his belly with nothing but a bayonet and goes about the ticklish job of defusing the mine and rendering it safe. He says later that with all that gasoline and explosives, he wouldn’t feel a thing if he made a mistake. For Leith at least, it is all part of the job. Finally his work is finished and the weapon is no longer a threat.

The Petty Officer finishes his tour and returns to Halifax, going back to being a sailor, when he gets a call to present himself to the admiral’s office. He thinks to himself, “Uh oh, I must be in some ka ka,” but can’t remember doing anything wrong. For most people, being called into a senior officer’s presence normally doesn’t go very well, so he is surprised to discover not only the admiral, but a host of other people waiting as well, all of them smiling. He is told he has just been awarded a medal for bravery for his actions that day on Route Comox in Afghanistan.

This is not his first award for courage – he already wears the Meritorious Service medal for his work in helping recover the black boxes from Swiss Air flight 111 in 1999.

In the spring of 2010, in a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s Governor General, pinned the well-deserved award, the Star of Courage, on his chest. This honour is bestowed on those who have shown “conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril.”

P.O. Leith exemplifies the kind of hero Canada produces and is rather shy about what he did that day. To him, it was why he was there. To us, it is an act of courage that is worthy of recognition, and a testament to the fine men and women that wear our uniform. P.O. Leith is part of a long tradition of heroes that have served this country with pride and distinction for well over a century now. With people like him carrying on in their footsteps, there is no reason to believe that this tradition will be coming to an end anytime soon.

Nick Vandergragt, of CFRA and a former navy seaman, is the author and narrator of Answer the Call.