Dominic Varvaro served as a Canadian Armed Forces reservist with 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery from 1970 to 1989. He retired with the rank of warrant officer.
Fifty years ago, as a rash and young recruit, I wondered why veterans came to tears so quickly at Remembrance Day ceremonies. Yet I found myself sobbing when I watched the Ottawa cenotaph service in 2019.
When I reconnect with the soldiers with whom I served, we tell the “fun” stories – stories of how we beat the system, such as raiding the quartermaster stores for precious cleaning materials. The more painful stories rarely come out of the shadows, however, and we are reluctant to explain how we avoided catastrophes.
Air force sergeant, photographer and documenter of all things military, Kevin’s blunt comment slams my sensibilities when I broach the subject of Remembrance Day ceremony emotions. “We lost eight service people in 2020. People still die doing their jobs,” he reminds me. Despite 40 years of service, Kevin still limits his stories to the less-than-scary ones, such as the time he wore a tuxedo to serve a hot meal to cold and wet soldiers in the field. Thoughts of the fallen returning home and ramp ceremonies haunt him, though.
Frank, a sergeant who served for 10 years believes the military turns soldiers into risk managers. “It must,” he argues, “because all those close calls didn’t deter any of us from seeking the next great adventure.” Despite a father and two uncles having served before him, Frank laments that more stories were rarely aired at family gatherings. His sentiment hits home and reminds me of my uncle who wouldn’t talk about his Second World War bomber-aviator missions.
John, a captain commissioned from the ranks with 24 years of service, tells of emotions he experienced at the Vimy Ridge memorial. “The monument and its vast grounds conveyed a better understanding of what it must have been like on this battlefield,” he says. He went on to reflect on his grandfather’s First World War trench experience. “What they underwent is still beyond me,” he says. He regrets that the stigma of an invisible, psychological injury no one understood taints the legacy of his grandfather’s service.
Bill, a retired warrant officer and 12-year veteran, served in the Golan Heights where he was sniped at while driving dignitaries through the ruins of Quneitra. “Just warning shots, I guess.” His sang-froid comment doesn’t surprise either of us. Bill served in the same regiment in which his father and uncle had served during the Second World War, and he remembers how his father couldn’t bring himself to talk about the war or the tragic loss of a brother to a land mine.
Steve, a retired air force master warrant officer, served with me in the Middle East. We share a lot of experiences and often remark on the lasting poverty created by the many wars fought in that part of the world. “We need to be silent on Remembrance Day to honour those who didn’t come back,” he says quietly, “and also to remember the effect on their families.” Steve’s words, that “it’s not like a regular job,” stagger as they pierce the bedrock of my soul.
The experiences of my friends are not isolated – retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire would know. In a chronicle of his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, he notes the military started to notice fatigue and cognitive problems when soldiers began returning from engagements in the 1990s. As soldiers, we’re taught that duty means putting yourself in harm’s way. The conflicting messages of the lieutenant-general’s Rwandan mission, however, created invisible injuries for him and for the soldiers under his command. He describes his gut-wrenching, moral frustrations with United Nations bureaucracy and its inability to authorize a sufficiently militarized mission to stop the African country’s genocide.
Such trauma can have long-term, even deadly consequences. A 2019 study concluded that, compared to the general population, veteran men are 1.4 times, and women 1.9 times, more likely to die by suicide. Meanwhile, a 2018 nationwide, one-day spot survey of Canada’s homeless people estimates that more than 4 per cent may be veterans.
So why do I cry on Remembrance Day? I cry for the voids where the beloved once stood and for their untold stories. I cry for those whose search for relief leads them down drastic avenues. I cry for those who can’t trade close-call stories and make themselves a bit more heroic. I cry for those who no longer have the wherewithal to change their lot. I cry for leaders grappling with incongruous messages. I cry for the oh-so fragile youth who are the lifeblood of our military. And, of course, I cry for those who didn’t go home at the end of their shift.
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