Taken just outside the cemetery at Bretteville sur Laize – in a farmer’s field. 2,958 WWII vets lie there, 2,871 are Canadian. I visited in 2014. Silence, amazement, pride, horror and respect all factored in to that visit.
This story is not about me. It’s about an amazing group of people that I have been fortunate enough to work with.
On Remembrance Day we remember the fallen – those that have passed on. We all too often forget the price that the living pay and continue to pay.
This is about those that keep paying the price of heroes…
I’ve been honoured to assist our Canadian Forces, our allies, and many first responders.
Let’s clear up one thing – I have not served in the military. I point that out only because I get asked all too often how I served. I haven’t.
I’ve built software and systems for our heroes.
I have watched as they stand and run into the face of danger to serve.
I’ve seen a ton – but it’s only a light touch of what my military friends have faced. The intensity and simple focus on the missions that I assisted on was the common factor.
I will throw out a few of the varied missions I assisted with:
- launching multiple aircraft and vessels for Search and Rescue for a downed plane or vessel.
- creating a model to make sure we understand how long a person can survive in the frigid waters and conditions that we have in Canada.
- creating systems for tracking members of the military that end up in hostile territory with no backup.
- combat SAR (search and rescue) systems used by Canada the US and our allies in the war against terror.
- supporting police, fire, and EMS services that protect our nations capital.
- providing information sharing for Canada and the US during major Canada/US events.
To be clear, my role was to create systems (software) that made information flow better – to save lives largely, but also to just keep our people safe.
In my sheltered life I’ve had to live through a few too many incidents. Most never make the news thankfully, but some do. I have to explain my (small) role in them to family and friends. I’ll admit there is a semi-intoxicating glow that rubs off – I am associated with the incidents and there is a bit of a “cool factor” there. That glow is terrifying for me – and somewhat exhilarating. It’s like a huge roller coaster ride. Some amazing adrenaline and some fear, which are tightly linked. But the glow differs. It leaves a residue behind – a choking film that I can’t get away from.
Let me give you an example – specifically to give my minor perspective – the heroes in this story experienced things at levels much higher than I did. Levels much higher than most of us can even comprehend.
One of the closest incidents wakes me up at night. I wake up covered in cold sweat often due to this one – and I was just an observer really…
I was in Resolute when First Air Flight 6560 crashed (August 20, 2011). The world went into a surreal mode that day. Earlier in the morning we were doing a practice for the exercise that would start on Monday – simulating two planes colliding.
We did a dry run.
We ate lunch.
Someone ran in and said a plane had crashed.
Two of us (I was one) said “No, no, that’s Monday.”
“No duff – a plane just crashed” was the response.
My heart raced. My brain flashed out.
I stood there outside our residence staring at the smoking remains of a plane where I later learned 12 people had died. 3 made it out alive. Staring.
Just standing there.
“I can’t believe it” said the stately gentleman next to me.
“Sir, we should go now” said his aide.
And the Governor General, David Johnston, stood up a bit straighter, breathed deeply, and moved on. He was lost for only a moment – and how couldn’t we all be…
But then, as many times before, I saw the heroes show up.
The SAR Tech that I had been working with in the days prior did what all of these near-inhuman SAR Techs do… he heard the crash and ran – towards the danger. Towards the small possibility that somebody could have survived. The Rangers – and I will digress momentarily to hail these unsung heroes – immediately headed for the burning wreckage.
That SAR Tech ran directly into the burning remnants of First Air 6560. Was he callously disregarding his own safety? Absolutely not. He is a trained professional and knew bloody well what he was about to do.
I’ll note that the SAR Tech that was there was just like every other SAR Tech that I had met. Professional, selfless, and a beautiful person. I don’t name him here because I know he does not want that. He does what he does because he can.
I own a coin, just an honorary one (i.e. not an issued one – mine doesn’t have a serial number) that holds the Search and Rescue creed “These things we do, so that others may live”. I am honoured to have one – but I know that I am an outsider. I’m not the person that parachutes into the night, or dives into the water, or, in this case, runs into the burning wreckage. My SAR Tech friends are. I honour them.
The Rangers – our First Nation and Inuit Canadian Forces members blew my mind.
They reacted even faster. ATVs were gunning.
The bright orange sweatshirts that they wear were the beacons of action that moved to attempt to solve the horrific problem that many of us, myself included, could only stare at.
I have no clue how many Rangers were there along with our amazing SAR Tech – but I am quite sure that the 3 people that made it out were in better shape because those heroes hauled ass into a situation that was made of nightmares.
And let me be clear – many of the dead were their friends and neighbours.
They moved in at lightning speed regardless.
Years later I still wake up.
It was, in perspective, a relatively minor incident. Our military sees similar things all the time – and they see far worse all too often.
I’ve lived a small portion of my life under the conditions they do – days when they do months and years.
I’ve only had a taste – and that taste scared me on many levels. I’ve stood in freezing and burning hot conditions – knowing after a day or two, I was going to be somewhere reasonably luxurious and they weren’t. A warm and clean bed is an incredible luxury when you are living in tough conditions.
If this keeps me awake at night – what does living it – what does standing there as our first line of defence – even waiting and expecting bad things to happen.
When it happens what does that do to you?
What does that do to our men and women in uniform?
I’ll tell you – but I can only tell you a bit.
It breaks them down while it turns them into heroes.
And that my friends is a strange and terrible mix.
We honour our heroes. We look to them as someone that is better than us.
And they are.
But we don’t understand what happens inside our heroes.
Many times they have achieved a life mission – to save someone or accomplish and incredible goal. Other times they happen to be in the right place at the right time to make a difference.
And we shower them with accolades. We bestow honours upon them.
We see this image of strength – but we don’t look inside.
We know that our military and first responders are incredibly resilient – but we don’t understand that there are many nights when they wake up covered in sweat.
We see power in that uniform – but we don’t see the person curled up in a ball on the floor – shaking and crying.
We shake their hand and hug them in our attempt to honour them – but we don’t understand that they are often incapable of feeling that they belong.
There is a disconnect.
We don’t get it.
They seem so damned strong. And they are.
But in many ways that strength is a facade – an artificial shell that protects them from exposing the wreckage that is inside them. We’ve made them out to be heroes.
And they want to live up to that. Who wouldn’t?
Heroes are never weak are they?
They don’t break down in public. They don’t curl up into a ball.
I call bullshit on this. I’ve seen absolute heroes wrecked by the expectations and the inability to understand how to deal with the ugliness that they have live through.
To those friends of mine that have served and seen the ugly side of humanity
I honour and thank you.
You’ve living a lie in some ways.
You think you are alone but you are NOT alone.
We love you. You may not know this.
I love you. You are a hero.
But few have told you so.
You’ve seen and perhaps done incredibly terrible things – but those things are not you.
We are here but it may not feel like we are.
Us civvies don’t understand you totally – but we can talk. Many of us (not all of us) are not that far away as you think.
Reach out – you’re fighting a battle that you shouldn’t fight alone.
More importantly, you aren’t alone – even thought it feels that way.
Keep being awesome.
I love you. And yes, for those of you that are close (or even not) – that some shit you need to get used to. You are loved. No judgement. No questions. Just loved. I’ve seen all too many of you show love for others for me to hold it back in some weird ass “ but only if they… “ kind of way.
Keep being awesome. Because you are.