Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Earlier today I attended the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Edmonton Kingsway Legion (photos above). Laying a wreath on behalf of the province were MLAs Peter Sandhu and Laurie Blakeman. Laurie's husband Ben Henderson represented the city, while the son of federal MP Laurie Hawn laid a wreath on behalf of Ottawa. I approached Peter Sandhu mentioning that I grew up in his riding, and he is probably a good constituency guy, clearly adept at handing out lots of business cards. I also chatted briefly with Henderson, who makes a good first impression, as he left with his wife.

It's been a long time since I did my basic training, as this photo of me to the right in the old style fatigues attests. I did not originally plan to attend the U of Alberta, since after some time in the reserves I had my heart set on military college. But when I failed the eye exam for military college, I not only had to find another university, I couldn't rejoin my unit, 8 Field Engineer Regiment, as I was advised that I really shouldn't have been admitted in the first place to 8 FER and with the transfer of decision making about the matter from the unit to Canadian Forces HQ, my military career - such as it was - was over.

I nonetheless continued to enjoy hanging out with the guys, and in fact have recently been living off and on in a multi-room home used by current and former 41 Combat Engineer Regiment members (last year Edmonton-based 8 FER was disbanded and Edmonton-based sappers amalgamated with Calgary's 33 Fd Engr Sqn to create 41 CER). The unit's mascot, Sapper Bentley F Beaver, is pictured below right manning the C6 while on deployment in Kandahar province.

Last year's Remembrance Day, which I wasn't in Canada for, was significant for the unit. 41 CER reservists who volunteered for Afghanistan had joined the regular force 1 Combat Engineer Regiment to serve as part of Roto 5 of Operation Athena. A number of personal friends of mine were deployed, including CS, MB, Johnny P, and Jimmy P. At 1030 hrs on 20 August 2008 MB became aware that somebody had been hit since the internet was blocked on a coms lock order. The communications lock-down gives the military time to notify next of kin. Since MB happened to be tasked to the operations building at the time, he was able to see the preliminary message that noted the hit vehicle's call sign and 3 KIA & 1 PRI A CAS. Since MB could tell that it was Jim's vehicle, which was on a route survey operation, he knew that Jimbo had been hit, although there was still a good chance he was alive at that moment since Jim was quite probably the only guy in the back. Typically, an IED blows under the driver, since although insurgents can set a pressure plate further down the road from the charge, that's a more involved process they don't typically bother with. The other 2 KIA were probably half in the turret which sometimes shears off depending on the nature of the explosion, as proved to have been the case here. As it turned out, Jim was indeed alone in the back and was likely saved by the fact the deployment door blew off, dissipating some of the force. But as a priority A casualty the military deemed Jim to be in serious condition. MB knew that, having seen that identification typically followed up in the past by a VSA (vital signs absent; in ordinary English: dead) within an hour. When MB learned where the injured soldier was being brought, he rushed out of the ops centre in order to see Jimmy for what might end up being the last time. Although Jim was not conscious anyway, MB's thinking was that if he were in Jim's position and about to go, doing so in the presence of a long time friend instead of a bunch of strangers might be some small comfort. MB was later reprimanded for acting on information that was supposed to be contained within his comms group, but of course some rules are made to be broken.

Although Jim has not made a 100% recovery, when we were in Vegas this past May he was walking around with us. We had to walk slowly to enable him to keep up with us, but he was getting around with a body that was still all-Jim. When Americans asked him why the part of his leg that they could see below the pant leg appeared to be injured, he'd say he had a run-in with a hive of bees. Fact is, the guys are not eager to talk about the bad things that happened over there with the public generally. I only mention it here because I am really just a hanger-on as opposed to one of them. At the end of August 2005 I met up with CS and some others in Ortona, Italy, for an unveiling of a memorial related to the Battle of Ortona, one of the most ferocious WWII battles for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the place where 1375 Canadians were killed over 8 days. You can see here some of the photos I took in the town. In the evening 7 of us ran up a tab at an Ortona restaurant and when we attempted to pay the bill we were advised that the bill would not be coming as it had been taken care of by another table. A couple of us exchanged a look with the Italians at the other table and no words in Italian or English were necessary as it was already clear that going over there to thank them for picking up the tab would have been inappropriate since they wanted it to be a thank you to us, as representatives of the Canadians who had been there more than 60 years earlier. I felt a bit of an imposter since I was really just a tourist who had teamed up with friends, friends who had been sent over to represent Canada.

The pleasant reality today is that Canadian military personnel are held in great prestige by their countrymen. When Johnny P's wife, who is a NDP organizer (CS and MB happen to be Wildrose Alliance organizers in the Edmonton area), was introduced to a union audience as the wife of someone currently serving in Kandahar, she received a welcome that would have embarrassed a hero, an illustration of how affection for the troops is non-partisan and heartfelt, regardless of one's view of the Afghanistan mission.

I'm happy CS, MB, Johnny and Jim made it back, and not just because after he came back Jim gave me a nightstand and dresser for free that are with me in this room as I type! He's a long time friend, and it would have been difficult to deal with losing another guy when the unit had just lost someone else, someone else I had hung around with, to suicide just a couple years back. The way the government has dealt with the Jim's situation, being caught in a limbo between being not quite being able to return to his job that required full mobility and being not quite fully disabled, is in need of considerable improvement. But he has the same redoubtable attitude he did before; he swears that if his mother-in-law stays with him and his wife more than a month he is going to put in for another tour! I'm not happy that life's journey has come to an end for the other 3 guys in Jim's vehicle on that hot August day. It's not that I carry the candle for them; - I'm not really entitled to as I was never there. More than a year after it happened, CS and the others continue to wear a yellow bracelet day after day marked with the names of the three. For our veterans, Remembrance Day occurs 365 days a year. Although none of us knew SGT Eades, SPR Stock and CPL Wasden really well, they not having grown up in the Edmonton area despite 1 CER being based here, today this current civilian would nonetheless like to acknowledge the service of these three engineers. You are remembered and you are missed.

UPDATE late 11 Nov:
I took a couple photos after enjoying the company of CS and Jimbo this evening. It was a rare opportunity to catch them in full dress. The Americans give out a Purple Heart medal and Canada just grants a bar on the lower shirt sleeve (left)? You'd think it was a paper cut. I also took a snap of CS' wristband (right). Earlier this year CS showed me a bit of Taliban webbing. It had verses from the Qur'an written on it in Arabic. I pressed him for information about how he obtained it but he said only that the party who was relieved of the item of wouldn't be needing it any more. His wife insists that the item be kept in the garage as opposed to the house lest bad juju descend upon the household.
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains...
- Rudyard Kipling, 1895

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