Being a veteran of the Canadian military means being reminded of the passing of time every November.
“When I was a young guy, a lot of the World War One vets were still around, and most of the World War Two guys too,” says Crossley Coates. “When I got out of the military and took part in the Remembrance Day parade, I was the only member who wasn’t a Second World War or Korean war vet. Now I’m the old man of it.”
Chester Taje also says the men and women who served before him, come to mind this time of year.
“I remember them all,” he says. “I go over to the cenotaph, not necessarily to remember, but I go over there to pay my respects. There’s a difference.”
The two men — one a life-long resident, the other a relative newcomer to Nakusp — both served in the second iteration of Canadian military service, as UN peacekeepers. Both men served on the island of Cyprus, keeping Turk and Greek forces separated in the 1960s.
Keeping the peace — Canada’s commitment since the late 1950s — can be a dangerous business too, the two men say. About 160 UN peacekeepers died in Cyprus (where there is still a small Canadian contingent) including 28 Canadian soldiers.
“One young guy was killed in Cyprus when I was there,” says Coates. “It was an accidental death, but nevertheless he might still be alive today if he hadn’t been over there. I think of them a lot.”
“Accidents do happen,” says Taje. “We lost 10 guys (when stationed in Germany, before posting to Cyprus) over the course of three years. A few of those people I knew personally. So I think of those guys.”
The two men say compared to the books, movies and cultural impact of the First and Second World Wars, the contributions of Canadian peacekeepers are relatively unknown.
“Most Canadians probably don’t know what Cyprus is or where it is on a map,” says Taje.
“When I was in Cyprus you couldn’t find a paper in Canada that would print anything to do with Cyprus,” recalls Coates. “There are 28 young Canadian that are buried in Cyprus. I think Canadians think it as a walk in the park. Some days it was, I guess but lots of times it wasn’t.”
“I was in the outposts, there was nothing cushy out there,” says Taje.”We’d go out on patrol. Headquarters would radio to us that somebody had fired a shot. You’d have to go out and investigate it, and they’d lie to you. You’d go to the other side, and they’d lie to you too. It was a funny, strange situation.”
“I just went to the war museum in Ottawa a month ago,” says Coates. “You see the recreation of the Green Line, in Nicosia when I was there, and you can go down that street. It was shot all to hell. I remember you had to be on the ball all the time. You’re kind of tense all the time when you’re in that position.”
The men both downplay their roles, pointing to the vets who came before them and who passed on their knowledge to the next generation.
“All of our training personnel were Second World War, Korean War vets,” says Coates. “We got close to those guys and they could tell you a lot, things to keep you safer.
“I think of those guys this time of year, too.”
“I had an uncle who I’d say was a real war hero, with a military medal,” says Taje. “And I think of his life afterwards, when you compare his life, and the PTSD you hear about today.
“And you add the two together, and it makes sense — the reaction to the Second World War, how they changed. How they started drinking and kind of went off the deep end a little bit. They had a hard time coming back to civilian life. So I think about them.”
Canadians have spent decades ignoring our peacekeeping missions, and that obliviousness has continued to this day, say the two men. They point to our new role in active service in Iraq, where troops act as advisers, to Afghanistan, where we supported U.S. operations there.
“A lot of things are happening all the time, that’s not well known,” says Coates. “Especially right now in the Middle East. You can’t pick up a paper and find out JTF2 (Joint Task Force 2) is doing. All the young advisers that are over there. No one knows that story — me included.”
Taje thinks that ignorance about war, and the reality of what it does to young soldiers, is feeding another generation of damaged veterans.
“Some of these kids, they’re off to Afghanistan, they don’t know what they are getting into. I honestly believe that they think, ‘oh, we’re going to war, we’re going to come home.’
“When I joined the military I didn’t think about dying. You join the army you’re going to have a good time, get a rifle, jump out of airplanes and raise hell.”
“But you see the movies of the First World War? The documentaries? It’s not real. You see the movies from the Second World War? Some of the documentaries? It’s not real. You go to the Legion, talk to the one or two guys who actually served. It opens your eyes a little bit.”
“Now it’s more dangerous than any time since the Second World War,” agrees Coates. “We’re sitting here with irresponsible leaders in a lot of countries, some think even in our own, and our neighbour’s,” he says. “Things could go to hell in a handbasket real quick.”
But modern politics, the size and preparedness of the modern Canadian military, the ongoing social media battles over military policy — should take a back seat, at least this coming Saturday, to remembering the sacrifice of brave young men, the vets say.
“Think about the freedom you actually do have because if some people 50, 60, or 70 years ago didn’t do what they did, you might be living under a totally different kind of government,” says Taje.
“But not only think of the millions of people killed in the two wars. Think of the millions that were killed after for retribution. Nobody knows about that. People think peace came along one day and everything was fine the next. No. No. No. It still carried on for a long time afterwards.
“I think people should be thankful for the sacrifice of a lot of young men,” adds Coates. “There’s still a lot of peacekeepers out there. And guys who were killed in service in Vietnam. People don’t know about them. We just have so much to be thankful for.”
Coates and Taje will join other Nakusp veterans and the public for the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Legion at 10 a.m. this Saturday. The parade down Broadway to the Cenotaph takes place at 10:45.