ANTIGONISH: For the very first time in the history of Canada, Commendations of the Federal Minister of Veterans Affairs have been presented to a mother and son for their efforts.
Retired Cpl. Kate MacEachern and her son, Cadet Sgt. Tyler MacEachern, received the extraordinary honour during the Antigonish Legion’s annual veteran’s dinner on November 2.
“As we approach Remembrance Day, we often talk about the importance that we acknowledge the service of our veterans and remember those who’ve we lost,” Central Nova MP Sean Fraser said during the presentation. “We need to carry on the legacy of those who’ve served, either in doing what we can to help support veterans who are still with us, or to further the interest that so many have perished while trying to achieve.”
Commendations of the Minister of Veterans Affairs are awarded to Canadians each year based on two qualifications: in service to the community of veterans where they may live, or by being a veteran who serves as a role model for other veterans.
“Kate MacEachern ticks both boxes quite easily,” Fraser highlighted. “Cpl. MacEachern retires a Canadian Armed Forces Veteran, while in a military training exercise in Edmonton in 2007, she suffered a critical head and spinal cord injury and was told she may never regain her ability to walk.”
In 2012, before retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces, Cpl. MacEachern embarked on a 562-kilometre walk from the Canadian Armed Forces base in Gagetown, N.B. to Antigonish, during which she raised more than $20,000 for the Soldier On Foundation – assisting armed forces members with their physical rehabilitation.
In 2013 and recently retired, Cpl. MacEachern embarked on her second long-distance walk, this time from Cape Breton to Ottawa. The 1,600-kilometre journey took her 45-days to complete, this time she was raising money and awareness for Military Minds, an organization that helps soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Cpl. MacEachern has now completed three long-distance walks, the last and longest one in 2015, where she walked from Nipawin, Sask. to Chilliwack, B.C. In total, she has now raised in excess of $100,000 for military charities specializing in physical rehabilitation and the psychological recovery journey in those suffering from PTSD.
“Although this commendation is an honour, and truly it is, all I did was walk,” Cpl. MacEachern explained. “I stood up at a time when anyone else could have. I just spoke my truth, it was an unremarkable action, marked by remarkable outcome.”
She rather spoke on the action of her son, Cadet Sgt. MacEachern.
“Tyler has known true sacrifice before he was old enough to pronounce it. He was barely a toddler when I joined the army,” she said. “I was a single-mother and now an armed-soldier. Like most serving parents, ‘See ya later,’ became our normal.”
Cpl. MacEachern said PTA meetings were often flagged and gunnery commands were rehearsed over breakfast – and Tyler never complained.
“This child knew what a round table ceremony was from our peers, before he knew what birthday parties were from his,” she explained. “When Tyler was five, I was seriously injured in training, and Tyler began his transition from being cared for to being a fire team partner for me. Let that sink in, he was five-years-old.”
When her son was seven, Cpl. MacEachern was diagnosed with severe PTSD, her brain injury and her physical injuries were now deemed permanent. At eight, her medical release had just started from the army.
When he was nine-years-old, she started the organization “The Long Way Home,” an effort to give people a voice and cast light on the shadows of invisible injuries. It took her away for weeks at a time. At 10, it was a month-and-a-half, and at 11, it was a planned three-months.
“Whether it was the training or my walks, Tyler has never asked for more mom, he has never asked for more anything,” Cpl. MacEachern said. “Before he was old enough this child understood mission before self. He’s always sacrificed his wants for the greater need.”
She allowed her son to come with her to walk the first leg of her last journey – his part would be 500-kilometres on foot from Nipawin, Sask. to Edmonton, Alta.
“Most children would not be able to fathom such tasks that Tyler wanted to try,” she explained. “Some of the best lesson we’ll ever learn are not taught in the classroom, what I didn’t realize is that I would be the one learning the biggest lessons, not him.”
A few weeks into her last walk, the weather was horrible and she was breaking down, the compression dressings were not holding back the bleeding on her feet and everything hurt. Emotionally she was redlining.
“Beside me I had a brown-eyed little boy who was also starting to limp. He carried a miniature version of everything I wore,” Cpl. MacEachern stated. “He kept up with my every step, until he couldn’t and the mom in me told him to get back in our support truck, but being the defiant 11-year-old he was at the time, he refused.”
It wasn’t until she started to get lost in her own head again when her radio chirped; her support driver whispered into the radio that Tyler’s feet were raw and when he took off his boots, his little feet were bleeding.
There she was, in the middle of nowhere with about 2,800-kilometres left, wondering if she had driven her cause too far. Surely, this cause, PTSD, was outside of his scope, as he was only 11, but with timelines to keep she sucked up her tears and kept walking.
A few kilometres up the road, Tyler reappeared and Cpl. MacEachern demanded he get back into the truck and told him he didn’t get it, he was blistering and it was not worth it.
“No you don’t get it. Isn’t this why we’re doing this?” Tyler told his mother. “I have a choice to quit and get in the truck, a lot of people don’t. We’re trying to show people that the struggle is ok, that it’s worth it. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
After finishing his 500-kilometre trek, Tyler went on to begin speaking with youth, parents, and guardians with PTSD and translated a language most adults, let alone children can understand.
“Although I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to fully process the impact of our walks, I can process the fact that I was able to teach many by teaching my son that the world is bigger than us,” Cpl. MacEachern said. “People will struggle but we can help them, you just have to keep putting one foot one foot in front of the other. Cadet Sgt. Tyler MacEachern taught me that by being the example.”