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The Globe and Mail

At 90, a vet remembers D-Day and a lost brother

Juno Beach veteran Gerry MacDonald attends Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Grand Parade in Halifax on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

On Sunday, under brilliant blue skies – a welcome departure from last year's torrential rains – hundreds gathered at Halifax's Grand Parade for the Remembrance Day ceremony. It is remarkable how the faces have changed this year: so few older, lined faces now, replaced by younger and middle-aged ones.

And that's why Gerry MacDonald was so noticeable. The 90-year-old was proudly sitting in a wheelchair, his chest adorned with medals and his thinning white hair covered by a ball cap that said "Juno Beach D-Day June 1944." A young woman with a piercing and her friend came up to shake his hand and say thanks, as did others.

Mr. MacDonald has lived at the Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building, a residence for 175 veterans in Halifax, for four years now. But he was the only one who took the bus from his residence to the downtown service, likely an indication of the effort it takes now for the older veterans to come to the service. Indeed, there is a ceremony at the veterans' residence for those who didn't want to or couldn't make it downtown.

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And Mr. MacDonald rode on the 22-seat bus accompanied by his former neighbour and long-time friend, Irene Clark, who volunteered to be his escort. Never married and without children, Mr. MacDonald has some nieces and nephews but his last remaining sibling, a sister, died in the spring.

"I think it's the proper thing, isn't it?" he said, about getting out to attend the downtown, outdoor ceremony.

Besides the 21-gun salute and the haunting playing of the Last Post, the ceremony for Mr. MacDonald had other special elements. It allowed him to think, and to talk about, Ron, his favourite brother.

Mr. MacDonald made it back home to Halifax from Juno Beach, but Ron did not. The private with the Cape Breton Highlanders was killed in Italy in May of 1944 and is buried in the Cassino War Cemetery. He was 23.

It was Ron, his "hero," whom Mr. MacDonald thought of during the two minutes of silence. "I think about him every day," he says.

Mr. MacDonald was literally born into the military – his mother gave birth in the barracks of Stadacona, the base in Halifax. His father was in the army.

Joining up at 16, Mr. MacDonald was in England at 17 and a private with the North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick. On D-Day, he was a medic on the front line. "[It's] not a pretty thing to talk about, but it should be talked about," he said about that day in June. "We took care of the guys on the beach, everybody who got shot up no matter who they was, German, what."

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He remembers being excited that day and that he was seasick. "It was another adventure for me. I'm an adventurous type of person."

Despite those adventures and spending three months in a Belgian hospital with diphtheria, he says he would do it all over again – "My country means more to me than anything."

After the war, he rejoined the military in 1951 for another stint and served in Germany. He was able to go back and visit Juno Beach. When he left the military, he said, he worked in "50 different jobs," including at the Halifax Dockyard. He retired at 72 – but he has continued to be involved in the annual poppy campaign.

Although he says he wants to attend another 10 Remembrance Day ceremonies, he recently bought a cremation niche at Halifax's Fairview Lawn cemetery for himself and for his brother, Ron. He had their names and birth dates carved on to the niche. He is trying to have his favourite brother's remains returned to Halifax.

"Now we're going to bring him back to me," he says.

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