I never served in the military; I’ve never even put on a uniform.
My longest exposure to any military organization was a single evening of test-driving the L’Ardoise Army Cadet Corps during my first month in the eighth grade. (It goes without saying that it didn’t take.)
Over three decades later, in my mid-40s, I can’t even conceive the courage and strength of character required for a lifestyle that involves brandishing a weapon or putting myself in harm’s way.
However, my years in the local media repeatedly brought me face-to-face with those who have seen the breakdown of humanity up close and continue to speak out about their experiences and promote organizations dedicated to the proper treatment of our soldiers and their families.
I even found them within my own family. My Dad’s brother Jimmy spent only a brief time in the military but dedicated the final years of his life to the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Ingonish, even co-authoring a book of Victoria County veterans that included two of my own Cooke ancestors. One of my first formal interviews of Richmond County’s large group of veterans took me to the home of my cousin Todd Parry’s grandfather Cecil, who lost a leg during his own time overseas.
The other side of the story played itself out through the voice of Phillip Riteman, a Holocaust survivor now living in Bedford. I still remember sitting in the auditorium at Arichat’s Isle Madame District High School (now École Beau-Port) in the fall of 1999, watching students tearing up around me as Riteman bravely recalled the culture of death that permeated his childhood after the Nazis stormed his village on the Poland-Russia border.
Ethnic cleansing claimed Riteman’s parents, five brothers, two sisters, nine uncles, nine aunts, several cousins, and his best childhood friend. He kept silent about it for 40 years but started speaking up in the late ‘90s to counter Holocaust deniers. Judging by the continued tolerance of neo-Nazism in some corners – including the White House – it appears that Riteman’s work is far from over.
I saw Riteman speak three times in my previous line of work, and I also saw the gratitude shown by others liberated by Canadian and Allied forces.
In mid-2016, I witnessed a joyous reunion between Martin van Lierop, a native of Holland now living in Montreal, and Stewart MacDonald, whose North Shore Regiment 3rd Division led the offensive that liberated van Lierop’s village in 1945. (To this day, van Lierop still wears his 3rd Division hat in honour of those who not only freed his homeland but also gave his childhood self his first taste of chocolate.)
The get-together happened during a ceremony at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre that saw the local Quilts of Valour chapter present a lovely gift to Stewart. (I can’t bring myself to call him “MacDonald” and I suspect he would feel the same way about it.)
The previous summer, I wrote a story for The Reporter about Stewart’s trip to Belgium with a Canadian delegation to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the region’s liberation. Stewart was so elated with the story that he kindly offered to take me and Cathy out to supper. Two years later, he phoned me at home to tell me he was sorry I was leaving The Reporter. At the age of 92, the native of Port Hawkesbury, now living in St. George’s Channel, is still actively involved in many aspects of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 43, including the Port Hawkesbury Veterans’ Memorial Park.
He is but one of the many inspiring veterans, soldiers and legion members I have had the good fortune to meet over the years. Not surprisingly, many of them are no longer with us, but the legacies left behind by the likes of Belmont Shannon, Roddie MacIsaac, Roxy MacIsaac, and Jean Marie Deveaux – a trailblazer who became the first woman to lead the legion’s Nova Scotia and Nunavut Command – are not likely to be forgotten.
They were all in my heart during my 2012 visit to a Canadian soldiers’ cemetery in Europe. I am still amazed that I stood among the grave markers of thousands of young soldiers in Beny-sur-Mer, a community in northern France not far from the shores of the English Channel.
As I said in this column’s first line, I never donned a uniform and I never served in the military. I was never even a war correspondent for any media sources. I simply got to meet these people and learn of their sacrifices, decades after they happened, and write stories about them during a time of relative peace.
I’m one of the lucky ones. And thanks to our veterans and Holocaust survivors, so are you – lest we forget.