After the poppy, then what? A Remembrance Day postscript

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 13, 2014

“As his hand…landed on mine, I, a frightened smile on my face, sat at the side of his bed trying to be brave like him.” —Sandy McLeod

After the Last Post is played, the wreaths laid, and the poppies removed from our lapels and soon forgotten for another year, some witnesses to the human cost of war must never be forgotten.

Former Bragg Creek resident Sandford “Sandy” McLeod made this point passionately clear in email I received from him over the weekend.

Sandy, a frequent respondent to these columns, was a Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Engineer stationed in France in 1962 during those dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crisis. You remember, those hours when the world was only one misstep away from all-out nuclear war? (See my column for Nov. 10, 2010.)

Over the following years, he went on to become a civilian corporate pilot and eventually a leader in the aerospace industry. (He was one of the presenters at last month’s 65th International Astronautical Congress held in Toronto.)

In spite of his 55 years of professional achievements, however, there’s one very important lesson he’s never forgotten – a life-changing lesson he experienced as a teenager while visiting a veterans hospital.

Here’s how Sandy tells it:

I LEARNED ABOUT the Great War when I was 13 in Vancouver when our squadron of Air Cadets was taken on a Remembrance Day visit to the War Veterans Hospital. We were there to visit the very old WW1, WW2 and the Korean War vets, all totally disabled and in long-term care.

What I saw in that military hospital was simply overwhelming to a small boy in uniform.

First impressions were of missing arms, legs, and eyes; some on oxygen and not breathing well, most constantly in bed. None could ever leave that hospital; they were not capable of living on their own.

I sat with one very old bald man, a WW1 veteran. He was thin, so thin that his skin was like paper. What struck me immediately was the twinkle in his eyes. He struggled to smile at me, and as his hand came over and landed on mine, I, a frightened smile on my face, sat at the side of his bed trying to be brave like him.

“Hello there,” he said in a soft, raspy voice, and referring to my uniform, added, “My, don’t you look good!”

I learned a few months later from our commanding officer that he had died shortly after our visit. I have never forgotten his face, his attitude.

He was like so many of the others at the Veterans Hospital that day. Most did not want to discuss the war and its horror. They were just happy to see us.

Many of us never get a chance to meet these people and see their conditions.

Believe it or not, they were treated with great respect and care by the hospital staff. For the most part, the entire ward was light-hearted. The staff were supportive, always joking with and at them and getting back just as much as they gave. Absolutely hilarious at times; a truly different way of life. They were on a one way road, and they knew it.

For good reason. There, they were not what they were when they left for war. They had seen and participated in the worst of the worst. For lack of other words, they had seen Hell itself.

Our world today, as expressed so violently in our nation’s capital just a few weeks ago, indicates clearly that our veterans, in memory and in present life, exist unselfishly each and every day and move forward based on their historical significance of protection. All voluntarily, for us, for our neighbours, and for our friends overseas.

The word “hero” is not expressed internally by military personnel, except to honour their own when fallen. In popular usage, heroism refers to an honest and forthright recognition of that human quality associated with the closely related word, “valour.”

“Valour” means giving of the human heart, life, will and soul at great personal risk. Valour is the quality of spirit that enables one to face danger without showing fear.

Facing grave danger is extremely difficult, and for that gift to us, veterans deserve our total respect each and every day, not just on Remembrance Day. Really, that is the life-changing lesson I learned as a 13-year-old cadet from the man of valour who held my hand.

So, visit a veterans hospital and experience what I mean. Honour and valour are synonymous and present everywhere every single minute in such hospitals. And we can honour these veterans with our own presence every day of the year – and not just when we wear the poppy.

It’s up to us, lest we forget.

—Sandy McLeod, Kaslo, B.C.


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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