He appeared to be in his late 20s, this man in my supermarket line, but it was the military medals hanging from his jacket that caught my eye.
Such poor taste for a costume, I thought. Then I caught myself. This is today’s military veteran.
I doubt I’m the only one who thinks of a war vet as a senior, likely in their 80s or older.
There are no living veterans of the First World War. We still have the privilege to share this Earth with some who served in the Second World War and the Korean War.
Our forces have seen action or kept the peace in Cambodia and Congo, Cyprus and East Timor, Egypt, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Balkans, Syria and Haiti.
We’ve also fought the more well-known wars in recent memory from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan.
Can it really be more than 20 years since Canada joined a 35-country, American-led coalition to liberate Kuwait?
My first memory of a veteran was my Uncle Bert. He served in Korea and there was a picture of him in uniform on my grandparents’ wall.
Bertie never talked much about the war, but at a family wedding, I shared a table where he and several buddies told a few stories, and showed the camaraderie they had developed overseas. I was always proud to say my uncle served in Korea.
Isn’t it funny how that happens? There is something special about visiting the Beaumont Hamel Memorial at Bowring Park and recognizing a family name.
It was almost cool a few years ago to know someone, family or friend, who was serving in Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf.
Still, as we approach Remembrance Day, many of us will forget that today’s veterans walk through life with us, as us. They are in our schools and fish plants; they are prison wardens and police officers, firefighters and office workers.
The group, Our Duty, has been calling on veterans to put themselves out there. Their Veterans Among Us campaign salutes all veterans and asks them to celebrate their achievements by donning their medals on the 1st and 30th of November. Awareness is part of that.
Spokesman Jeff Rose-Martland says, “Citizens are used to seeing old men in wheelchairs on Remembrance Day and that is the image they have of veterans. So we set out to change that by making veterans more visible.”
Donald Hookey is 37. He did tours in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. He doesn’t think younger veterans get the respect they deserve.
He says there are those who look at them as “not old enough to be vets,” and that some people don’t realize that the older vets were young men/boys, too, and they all deserve respect.
It wasn’t so long ago when there was no fanfare for returning soldiers.
Mark Gauci recalls, “no one came to the airport to welcome us home.”
Now 36, he’s been connected to the military for almost 20 years and did a tour during Operation Apollo in 2003. Apollo was Canada’s military contribution to the international campaign against terrorism.
Gauci wore his medals on Nov. 1 and Nov. 30 last year while walking around Memorial University’s campus.
He said he felt completely ignored, and heard someone musing about whether the medals were fake. He figures people only want to deal with anything Remembrance-related when the veteran is in uniform and currently serving or when they have died.
“I’m thinking that speaking with living veterans may be too much to deal with,” he said.
As Gauci puts it, for the duration of their service, veterans signed a blank cheque with their lives and gave it to our country to use as it saw fit.
“People can protest the military all they want, they can hate it, sing songs about it, spit on us for doing what we have done, but it was we who put our lives on the line so they could do so.”
He says Remembrance doesn’t end when the poppy comes off the lapel.
I can’t say it any better than that. For our older veterans and our younger ones, we remember.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist
and former broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org