To say it’s about time is absurd. The fact it has taken decades to fully recognize the veterans of the Korean War is nothing short of criminal.
The federal government officially designated 2013 as the Year of the Korean War Veteran. On Monday, the handful of veterans who remain from that war will join their comrades from other wars at the National War Memorial.
Of course, this isn’t the first time they’ve taken part, but their recognition in the days leading up to this Remembrance Day has been more than they’d usually get. Still, it is almost too little, and a bit late.
In 1950, Canada was one of 16 members of the United Nations that contributed combat forces under the United States’ command to defend South Korea.
I grew up hearing that war being referred to as “the Korean conflict.”
Someone once explained it wasn’t really a war because there was no official declaration by Parliament.
I didn’t question it at the time, but over the years I’ve had more than a handful of veterans pointedly correct the wording. Don’t tell those who went overseas that it wasn’t a war.
Doug England served in Korea. He was an engineer and would be in the minefields on his hands and knees in the pitch black trying to clear a gap for patrols.
Charlie Williams was with the artillery. Like England, he is quick to recount specific incidents of their time in Korea, including when a Newfoundlander was killed.
They volunteered for service, did their jobs and came home. It wasn’t to an ungrateful nation, but perhaps to a country that didn’t fully realize or understand that they had offered their lives to fight for freedom. As one veterans’ website put it, they “dared to die, but lived.”
A recent get-together with England and Williams took me down the path of the days since their decisions to help fight off communism in the early 1950s. They spoke with pride of their time overseas, the buddies they made and the importance of remembering.
“It was a war,” they agreed. “Give us the same respect as other veterans.”
England beamed as he showed me a framed letter from the president of the Republic of Korea and another from the U.S. Government, thanking him for his service.
Their homecoming after a year at war wasn’t the kind we see today. England remembers getting off the train with his pack on his back and not a soul around.
They are blunt in their anger and hurt, that it took so long to get their deserved recognition — decades, for example, before they would qualify for pension and health benefits.
There was a time when some Korean War veterans felt they were being looked upon as less, even by their colleagues in the Royal Canadian Legion. They felt shunned and neglected by government and their First and Second World War comrades.
The Festival of Remembrance earlier this week gave them their due, but even during this commemorative year, there were other events where they felt left out.
Still, they have seen thanks in different ways. Williams was brought to tears when, in recent years, a young girl he met from South Korea bowed to him over and over and said, “I want to thank you for what you did.”
It seems the schools there do a good job of telling the story of the Canadian soldiers’ efforts for that country.
Both veterans note how the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies make a difference. They shine as they talk about how the applause from the crowds along Duckworth and Water streets takes away the aches and pains during the annual march to the war memorial, filling them with energy and pride every year.
We joined Canada in 1949. The Korean War veterans who are left were among the first Newfoundland and Labrador Canadians to go to war.
On Monday, we will remember the men and women who served and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in wars gone by, and in peacekeeping operations around the globe. We will remember them. All of them.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former
broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.