For Rob and Braun:
Today is November 11th, Remembrance Day. For the first time in 18 years I will not be marking the day with at least one of my two closest friends. We never had occasion to 'stand in harm's way' with one another, and our individual involvements with the military varied greatly in terms of duration and intensity. Regardless of this, we have always felt that bond that soldiers feel, that often unspoken trust you give to those who you can truly depend on with your life. I feel the absence of these friends today, those who the web of life has drawn away. So today I remember alone...
I don't remember the war in Viet Nam. By that I mean I don't remember the media event that this war had become. My mother was raising five sons alone and on government assistance, and times were tough. Although we had been given an old black and white TV set by a relative, most of the time there was not enough money to repair it's aging tubes. Because of this, I never saw the war brought home to my living room. I had joined the Canadian Forces Reserves in the fall of 1972, just about the same time as the fall of Saigon. I do remember a particular night, not long after signing up, drinking in the mess on a weekend outing with the Regiment. I was all of 17, and two beers had given me a glow of comradeship to those around me, all equally young and inexperienced. Our Regular Force military advisor, a Korean War vet, was regaling us with old war stories, events softened by the passage of 20 years of retellings. Suddenly he jumped up and exclaimed "I bet If I told you we were going to board that bus, and instead of heading home, we were going off to Viet Nam, you'd all cheer!" I remember the stunned silence. And how he didn't really understand us, and how we didn't understand him.
I remember how it felt to be a member of the Military, any military, in the days marking the end of the war in Viet Nam. Of how, in an era of long hair and peace and love, those of us 'in the unit' were shunned. How we were called 'baby burners' by those our own age, all of us in Canada and in reality a million miles removed from all of that. Of the time I had a beer bottle hit me, thrown from a moving car, just because I was hitch hiking while wearing uniform. Of how we styled ourselves as the 'short haired hippy freaks' and insisted that although we weren't against fighting, we were against war.
I remember how fiercely we love Canada, and how we knew we would fight to keep it ours.
I remember the regular force master corporal who was my section's instructor on my Junior NCO course at CFB Petawawa, three years latter. He had quit the Canadian Army, enlisted in the American Army and done a tour in Viet Nam to 'fight the Godless Communists'. He never talked about it, a sign, I was to realize latter, of those who really had been 'in the shit'. He was hard on us, brutal to our point of view. I remember the time he had quietly moved the rifle I had propped up against a tree behind me while I distributed ammo to my section mates. And how he yelled at me as I frantically searched for something I KNEW I had placed close to hand. I figured out much latter, when I was the one instructing new recruits, that he was trying to teach me something he had learned the hardest way, that might save my life.
I remember the people I met when I was in college. The friends who were American draft dodgers, who refused to get killed for someone else's 'foreign adventure", but still could never go home again. The couple I was introduced to who had smuggled others across Lake Ontario in their sailboat, in a kind of 'underground railroad'. The fellow who said he had been the second man into Me Lia. He had turned and just walked away when the first child was shot. Seems the Army figured the bravery medal he had earned the week before just sort of cancelled out his 'dereliction of duty', so they sent him home on a dishonourable discharge - which was were he wanted to go anyway. "Don't mean nothing, not a thing."
I remember the only person involved with that war whose story made me hate them. A girl who had been dead set against the conflict, but had worked summers at a munitions factory. She had been a quality inspector for fuses on mortar bombs. She gleefully described how she had passed defective parts, to "Get those baby burners!". I thought of all those poor bastards, drafted and in hell through no fault of their own, cowering in the mud waiting for fire support that never came. Or of the men that got blown to bits because the rounds exploded in their mortar tubes. I wanted to throw her out the window of the 20 story hotel bar we were talking in.
I remember the close friend who had done two tours with the 101st Airborne, a Canadian who had signed up for 'Fun, Travel and Adventure'. There were a lot like him, over forty thousand Canadians all told. Two of his buddies crossed over from Windsor to Detroit to enlist with him. One never came home, the other died two years ago of a cancer he contracted over there because of defoliants. I had known the man for years, been close, swapped Canadian Army stories over countless beers. He had never said a thing about it. A little bit of the truth came out on one of our annual Remembrance days to stunned silence on my part. He had shown up wearing his medals, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. When we saw the film 'Hamburger Hill' together, all he would say was "I lost two friends in my section there".
I remember the American helicopter pilot that I never met. A close friend to a close friend since high school and my days in the Reserves. A man who had flown gun ships in 'Nam for 3 tours, and was only ever shot down 'going back to the world' in between tours. Then flying for Air America, in SE Asia and Africa. He then flew the bush in the North, reputably still with the same kit bag at his feet he'd carried in the war. It contained two aluminium flasks of scotch - and a MAC 10 submachine pistol. He ended up smearing himself across a mountain face in British Columbia, contour flying in the fog.
I remember all the men I've met and known who have gone overseas on Peacekeeping duty. How all of them speak of how hairy it often is as part of that thin blue line. Of how they never have the right equipment, or enough of what they have got to go around. The Canadian who got a medal from the British Army for pulling someone out of a burning tank, under fire, in Cyprus. He said " Hell, you would have done it if you'd of been there. I just got caught doing it by some major." The military Doctor I know who was on the line between Iran and Iraq, armed with a pistol and without enough air support to get evacuated should the fighting start again. The woman who's brother was going to Bosnia to set up communications at a hospital who said " He'll be all right. After all, he's a civilian".
It's true, as more than one commentator has said today, that my generation has never fought a war. But I think we know enough. Enough so that every November 11th I spend the day thinking about what Remembrance is to me. Enough so that when I raise a toast, as now I do, "To absent friends" - the empty room will fill around me.