Veterans – Yesterday and Today

There is a saying that we should remember events in history so that we don’t repeat them.  Today, June 6th, 2019, is the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion when Allied troops stormed the beaches in Normandy, France and where so many paid the ultimate price.

 (CWM 20020045-1453/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

This year’s anniversary of D-Day seems to carry a special symbolic resonance as we see the number of living veterans dwindling in the turning pages of time and those Canadians who served in the regiments of World War II, come to an end.  Once they were young men serving as soldiers, in the navy and as airmen … all fighting for what they believed in, freedom.

D-Day was the greatest seaborne invasion in history aimed at 80 kilometres of mostly flat, sandy beach along the Normandy coast and Canada’s objective was right in the middle.

While we remember those veterans today, June 6th, we should also remember those military men and women who serve today in battlefields far from home.  They have similarities to those veterans of World War II.  They still leave their families and their homes to fight an enemy, do what they believe in and help others gain freedom.

On Saturday, May 11th, Port Elgin Legion held a Veterans’ dinner to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and also to bring to light today’s veterans, the ‘Modern Soldiers’, who have served in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, Bosnia, the Sea of Aden and others.

Sold-out dinner honours Veterans and 75th Anniversary of D-Day
Veteran Mike Pepe at 101 is the oldest RCMP officer in Canada and is helped to sit by RCMP Sgt.(ret’d) Regina A. Marini (L)

Among those who attended the Veterans’ dinner was Mike Pepe who is the oldest living Veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and who was Legion Branch 340 past-President.

Three modern-day Veterans, Mike Hobson, Private (Ret) 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment; Ryan Eyre, L. Col (Ret), Commanding Officer, 437 (Transport) Squadron and Steven J. Shute, rmc, Lt. Commander (Ret) RCN Multiple Units/Ships, shared their personal experiences in war torn areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Congo, the Canadian Navy’s role in combating pirates in the Sea of Aden or chasing down drug runners in the Pacific and the RCAF’s role as part of a UN effort to airlift Haitian residents to safety following Hurricane Matthews devastation.

Branch 340’s Alex Taylor (L) presented Awards of Appreication to Veterans Mike Hobson, Private (Ret). 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment (C), · Ryan Eyre, L. Col (Ret), Commanding Officer, 437 (Transport) (L) and Squadron Steven J. Shute, rmc, Lt. Commander (Ret) RCN Multiple Units/Ships

While each story was unique, it was the moving “boots on the ground” telling by Hobson that touched many in the room.

Hobson served in the Infantry based in Pettawawa and was deployed to Afghanistan with Charles Company in 8th Platoon where he spent more than six months overseas.

Hobson shared his story of service in Afghanistan and the relevance of war today as compared to ‘yesteryears’.  “We were the second unit deployed in 2006 as part of ‘Operation Athena’ which was the longest running combat mission in the Canadian forces from 2001 to 2014 and this was not a Peacekeeping mission. In 2006, almost 2,500 Canadian service personnel were deployed to Afghanistan and 1,200 were part of the combat battle group.  On September 2nd, air strikes began on the the Taliban and, on September 3rd, we learned that more than 200 Taliban soldiers were killed, 80 captured and 140 fled the district.  It had a huge impact on the Taliban.”

He went on to say that Charles Company was then ordered into another part of Afghanistan where they were overwhelmed and four Canadian soldiers were killed and nine others wounded in intense fighting.  “An air strike was called in but, unfortunately, the U.S. lead strike strafed Charles Company by mistake.  It resulted in 30 personnel being injured and the leadership, Mark Graham, was killed.  This made Charles Company ineffective.”

Hobson said he was part of the repatriation of those killed.  “The caskets were heavy and it’s hard to bring them home to their families.”

“We were again deployed due to the numbers that had been lost and we were on a foot patrol when a convoy bringing ammunition to us got hit and two more of our personnel were killed.  We also had to help build a road that ran through the Taliban tribal areas but that would create economic growth in the region.  Our orders were to combat any action that threatened the construction efforts.  We were met with roadside bombs, IDs and booby-traps that targeted Canadians … and we lost six more.  There were times when rockets came in so close to where we were hunkered down in a village that the buildings around us cracked.”

Hobson in comparing the ‘Modern Soldiers to those in the early wars, said that he often felt guilty.  “While we chose this, there were thousands of soldiers in World War I and II who did not and they paid the ultimate price.  Our Veterans continue to carry the torch and we are now called the ‘Modern Soldiers’.  I’m not sure when that began.  Whether it was in 1950 in Korea, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Bosnia or anywhere that Canadians have been deployed around the world or, was it Afghanistan that defined the ‘Modern Soldier’.  It will be tough for some people to understand but the people here in this room might.  Part of me feels ashamed that I couldn’t have done more.  That when we were there we didn’t suffer like some did.  There is also a part of me that’s angry that there was some fight that I should have been a part of.  That side conflicts with the side of me that reminds me how lucky i am.  I was one of the ‘lucky ones’ who had to carry the caskets instead of being carried in it. I got to come home.”

According to Hobson, “There are a few things that separate the ‘Modern Soldier’ from the incredible men and women of the early wars, but that the conditions look the same in a lot of cases.”

He said that today’s service men and women have another commonality with the early Veterans – the agonizing pain of being away from family.  “It doesn’t matter who are, young or old.  When you go away, you will miss your loved ones.  Soldiers of the early wars had to wait weeks and months for handwritten letters from home to get a small glimpse into the lives they used to have.  ‘Modern Soldiers’ have technology like cell phones, email, video calling.  There are some disadvantages though as technology has shrunk the world but, while calling home can provide strength, it can also be a big distraction.”

He also said that the modern fight is different from the early wars.  “Our fight is a different fight and our enemy is a different enemy.  Our enemy hides in dark corners and in crowds and they are hard to distinguish.  We don’t fight in elaborate trench systems or in open fields but the bombs and bullets that come at us do exactly the same thing they did back then.  We, young and old, have fought in the dirt.  We have seen unthinkable things that will never be forgotten.  I carried more caskets than I can remember, lost brothers-in-arms, friends, people who would have laid down their lives for me.  I’ve seen the terror in an Afghan child’s eyes when swinging the barrel of a cannon in their direction because the enemy has done such unthinkable things in that they have made their children untrustworthy.”

While Hobson spent three years in the Canadian Forces Infantry, that he termed “a drop in the bucket compared to some”, he said that he was “… proud to be a part of the men and women who have served this incredible country”.

“Every soldier carries ‘it’ deep inside them – an uncompromising call to go out there, stand on the front line, stare out at the battlefield and tell them “No’ and where the term “over my dead body’ is not negotiable.  John McCrae said, “Take up our quarrel with the foe, to you from failing hands we throw the torch to be yours to hold it high”. I proudly held that torch high, as have some of you, as have the soldiers before us as I’m sure the soldiers that will follow will.

We are all soldiers … and I will remember them.”