Veterans past and present – a cut above the rest

By MPP Toby Barrett

Last week’s newspaper column described the Greatest Generation – those who fought with honour and valour. The very same attributes we now see in our returning Afghan veterans.

I came of age in the Vietnam era and, during two years on the road, had an opportunity to talk to a large number of US soldiers – particularly during my time in Southeast Asia in 1969. What I learned was in stark contrast to my Father’s war stories and my brief stint as a Gunner with the 56th Field Regiment.

Whether in Penang, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, those on R & R (rest and recuperation), from the front lines, told me, “Don’t stand up to get a better shot”. And those behind the lines, the REMF described a cynical war of Washington bureaucracy and fabricated statistics.

Case in point, a first hand detailed account I received in Bangkok of how patrols are done Saigon – fence and secure a park in the city, flood light every square inch and then patrol nightly and report nightly to the number crunchers set up by Secretary of Defence McNamara.

Guys my age I met during Vietnam were either gung-ho, or AWOL, or dragged there kicking and screaming. They carried M-16s but often wished they had AKs. They carried C-4 plastic explosives and burned it to heat their C-rations. And over and over they told the stories they heard of fragging officers – by grenade.

One reason I was in Thailand in 1969 was to continue on to Cambodia. I thank the guys in Bangkok for stopping me, explaining the war had just moved there too – something the US Congress was not to find out until four years later.

This year, I find myself back in the Brantford Armouries – my first parade there since 1963 – in front of 100 active duty and returning soldiers. They knew Afghanistan and we were proud of them that night.
Often, when we think of war our minds immediately conjure sepia images from the past of gun battle from the trenches and firefights

Soldiering in Afghanistan in the 21st century is different from Vietnam in 1969, but nonetheless complex and brutal. In contrast to the leeches and jungle rot of Vietnam, imagine carrying a 70 pound pack or more in combat gear through the 60 Celsius heat of Afghanistan.

It takes a toll as Christie Blatchford describes in her book Fifteen Days: “I had last seen the soldiers in early April. When I caught up with them just three months later, I barely recognized them. They were exhausted and skinny (many sweated off twenty in the heat, some as much as forty), and even if there were only a troubled few with the thousand-yard stare (and usually then just for a short time), most of them obviously had been through the wringer.”

Whether it is the stench of trenches, the bone chilling cold of the North Atlantic, or starvation in POW camps, war is hell for those who put their life on the line for the rest of us. Regardless of where they served, our warriors past and present are a cut above the rest.