Bravery, love of country, willingness to defend Canadian values and confront tyranny—all are qualities that accompany our soldiers who serve overseas.
On November 11, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those who came back injured physically or emotionally from combat.
We also pay tribute to those who served in peacekeeping and police missions in the Middle East, Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor, various African conflicts and Haiti.
The average age of surviving Second World War veterans is 87; for those who served in Korea it’s 78. We spoke with four younger vets and reserve soldiers, members of the Royal Montreal infantry regiment, based in Westmount.
After the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israeli forces were attacked by Egypt and Syria, Lech Kwasiborski, now 58, of Terraces Vaudreuil, was dispatched to Cairo as part of the Canadian contingent in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
He was 20 and, being trilingual, his assignment was to act as interpreter in liaison work with Polish forces.
“On that tour we lost nine of our comrades, shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft. I knew the guys personally—we were friends—and I was supposed to be on the flight, but at the last minute I was told to be duty driver at the base in Ismailia. They flew out, from Ismailia to Beirut, and two days later they were flying over Syrian territory and were shot down by a SAM (surface to air) missile.
“We had never lost as many people as on that day, Aug. 9, 1974.”
Kwasiborski’s good friend, Master Warrant Officer Cyril Korajwo, was among those who died.
“It’s something that resides with you and you question your own mortality, and you say, ‘Why me? Why am I here and why are they not here?’ ”
In Cairo that summer, he was reading a newspaper when an Ilyushin transport aircraft crashed in front of the UN base and exploded.
“The intensity of the heat was something that has to be experienced. You could see the flames and it looked like the heat was searing the pilot’s face.”
That was his first “traumatic exposure to violent death.” It took about four years for the impact to surface.
“You wake up in dread. You do your daily functions robotically and you go to bed in dread, hoping that the next day it will go away. Eventually it did.”
Anderson (Andy) Bradshaw, 43, was a corporal when he served in Bosnia in 1992-93 when Serbs, mainly Orthodox, launched a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign targeting Muslims and mainly Catholic Croats.
“Our mission was opening up corridors. It was a police mission, lasting seven months.”
He wasn’t injured, but on Remembrance Day, Bradshaw says he’ll be thinking “about the guys who got hurt.”
“A war is a war is a war, but this one was psychological more than full-on combat. We got into ambushes, we were shot at, vehicles exploded.”
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He’s not shy to recall one moment that conveys another side of war—high tension, stress and, yes, huge embarrassment.
“I’ll always remember this one story, yeah, I thought I had been shot in the leg. But no, my body let go, and I had peed in my pants. Funny thing, my leg was burning and I shouted, ‘Oh my god, my leg is burning. And my cousin came out—he was there at the same time—and he slapped me and said, ‘man, you just peed in your pants!’
“This was an ambush that happened—it lasted not four days but 48 to 50 seconds.”
Today, Bradshaw is a professional stunt man and a military consultant for film and television. He lives in N.D.G.
Miguel Johnson, 35, is a sergeant in the reserves who went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2005, part of Operation Endurance, and again last year, for a total of 10 months.
Johnson said he never questioned his role in the infantry: “We trained to be on the ground, close in and destroy the enemy.”
Johnson was never injured and did not feel any psychological damage, but has a good friend who did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and is getting help.
“The system is working. Probably some people who do have problems will not come forward because of pride. It’s a big thing. No man wants to lose his pride.”
The macho image of soldiers can be an obstacle to facing up to post-traumatic stress, but it’s becoming less so, he said.
“People are actually understanding this issue. They are saying, ‘You know what, I need some help’.”
Johnson just completed a warrant officer’s course. On Remembrance Day, Johnson said he’ll be thinking of the soldier who replaced him in 2005, and never made it back, and the thousands of other casualties.
“They gave their lives for freedom. We should be thankful.”
Master corporal Kaz Rutkowski, 31, of Verdun was preparing to ship out to Afghanistan for his first tour. He volunteered, and expects to be there for nine months.
He explained his decision as “an intense need. Friends are there, fellow Canadians are there, I want to help people and I believe in what Canada is trying to accomplish there: to help them help themselves.”
“I love my country, my country needs me to go there. I am going to do my part.”
Since he signed up, Rutkowski said the military has opened his mind to what might happen.
“I’ve resolved issues that I didn’t know I had until I started this, and I’m going over with a clean slate. I don’t think the stress will be able to hold too tightly on me.”
When Remembrance Day rolls around, he’ll be helping train Afghans to take over their country’s defence. His thoughts will be “with the families that have taken that hit, in all our wars.”
“We are a nation that was born in war, something we shouldn’t forget.”