David Mack is a Canadian who served as an officer in the British Army with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Oct. 14, 2006, Private Jess Larochelle found himself in the fight of his life.
A rocket-propelled grenade had exploded in his military outpost in Pashmul, Afghanistan, hurling him across his observation post, breaking his back, fracturing two neck vertebrae, blowing out his eardrum, and detaching his right retina. Somehow, Pte. Larochelle managed to crawl back to his C6 machine gun and open fire.
Running low on ammunition after single-handedly fending off the advances of 40 Taliban soldiers, he reached for the rocket launchers at his feet. Under the most intense pain, Pte. Larochelle carried on defending the position, shoring up his company’s otherwise undefended flank; according to his citation for the Star of Military Valour, “his valiant conduct saved the lives of many members of his company.”
To honour those few who best exemplify the virtues and standards of the Canadian Armed Forces, the courage, the gallantry, the pluck and guts to carry on, such medals are awarded. The highest of them is the Canadian Victoria Cross, which was created in 1993 to honour the conspicuous bravery, acts of valour, self-sacrifice, or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy by the members of the Forces.
And yet, in 29 years, the Canadian Forces has never done so – not for Pte. Larochelle, nor any other member. The last time a Canadian received a Victoria Cross was 77 years ago, under the British system, when pilot Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray sunk an enemy destroyer before crashing into Onagawa Bay in Japan on Aug. 9, 1945.
Awards matter. Medals matter. People serve in the armed forces for love of country, love of freedoms, love for one another; money or adulation do not drive a soldier’s motivations, nor incent decisions. And when the rounds start whizzing, the bombs start landing, the blood starts pumping, and the hairs and the hackles start rising, all the entanglements of day-to-day life recede as resolve and unparalleled focus drive the soldier toward danger.
However, the message now is that Canadian soldiers, alone among our allies, have never demonstrated courage, resolve or valour – which is not true.
Since 9/11, Britain and Australia have each awarded four Victoria Crosses. Even New Zealand, with a population smaller than the Greater Toronto Area, has granted a single Victoria Cross. The U.S., meanwhile, has bestowed 28 Medals of Honor, which are the country’s equivalent.
There is precedence among our allies of not only awarding the highest medal for bravery, but also reviewing and upgrading deserving soldiers who may have been overlooked, long after formal windows closed. Of the 13,000 Distinguished Service Crosses awarded by the United States, at least 178 have been upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and cover actions from the U.S. Civil War, the First World War and Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam, long after the fact. And in 2020, Australia took the unusual step of upgrading Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean’s Mentioned in Dispatches to the Victoria Cross for actions he took in the Pacific during the Second World War.
If the U.S. military, that great juggernaut of 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, has the humility to recognize that perhaps they did not get an award right the first time around, then surely Canada can learn from its allies and reassess some of its awards – starting with a review of Pte. Larochelle.
More than 14,000 Canadians agree, having signed a parliamentary petition calling for a review of Pte. Larochelle’s file. Likewise, more than 100 organizations from a broad spectrum have joined in the call, including the Burma Star Association, the Dieppe Veterans and Prisoners of War Association, the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council, and the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, as well as the cities of North Bay, Kingston and Ottawa.
Certainly, Canadians are often uneasy about recognizing war-fighting, and understandably have mixed feelings about what happened in the war in Afghanistan. But if anything, the current situation in Ukraine has demonstrated that national defence is a very real need; indeed, many of those who earned their spurs in Afghanistan played vital roles in preparing the Ukrainian military.
It is now time to reopen the file and consider awarding the Canadian Victoria Cross. While the Canadian military makes necessary changes regarding the dishonourable conduct of some of its members, so too should it be confident enough to reflect on those who have upheld valour.
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