Friday, November 8, 2013

Veterans come from all generations

Myles Mansell, KIA (1980-2006)

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November, 2013

On Remembrance Day, the old men stand again in pressed uniforms, medals gleaming in the mid-morning sun. They snap sharp salutes, aged muscles repeating what was once so long ago part of daily routine.

The aged warriors gather at the cenotaph on the Legislative Grounds and at the war memorial in Oak Bay. The annual ritual is comforting in its familiarity — the raising of the flag, the placing of wreaths, the bugle sounding “Last Post” and “Reveille,” as though each lonesome note was calling to mind a fallen comrade.

The old men wipe tears, though if you ask them about it they will cite the wind, or a speck of dust. Their generation remains uneasy about speaking of loss.

It is natural to think only of the old-timers on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We are such a great distance from the Great War, whose horrors were ignited a century ago, less a year. The Second World War ended 68 years ago, and the war in Korea, whose veterans never received the attention they deserved, ground to a stalemate 60 years ago.

The veterans of the First World War are all gone, the last Canadian among them, Jack Babcock, having died three years ago, aged 109. The Second World War vets are in their 80s now, so each passing year the soldiers at the ceremonies seem that much older.

They cry silently for lost friends and brothers, and it is easy to forget how young they all were at the time.
Our war dead are not all from a generation ago. We have lost peacekeepers and, more recently, we have lost 154 members of the Canadian Forces (as well as a diplomat, a reporter and two aid workers) in action in Afghanistan.

On Remembrance Day, my thoughts turn to Myles Stanley John Mansell, a bombardier killed with three comrades in 2006 when his lightly-armoured vehicle struck a roadside bomb on a dusty road outside Gumbad. He was 25.

He died with men named Turner and Dinning and Payne. Even in their sharp grief, the Mansell family sent notes of condolence to the other families.

He had been born a few months after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the beginning of a war whose outcome is still not settled. The boy, known as Smiley Myley, played soccer and lacrosse in the Victoria suburbs, but disliked swimming despite having sailors in the family. Myles came home once in tears because the teacher had said kilometres were replacing miles and he thought he'd have to change his name, too.

As a young man, he worked in the family business and joined the reservists of the 5th (British Columbia) Field Regiment, firing cannons at Ford Rodd Hill on Canada Day and at the Legislature to greet a new lieutenant-governor. When Canada agreed to fight the Taliban, Mansell volunteered for service. He was not an expert on the subject, but thought the people of Afghanistan deserved the same life and freedoms he enjoyed in Canada.

If you go to the Veteran's Cemetery off Colville Road in Esquimalt, you will find a small chapel surrounded by a squat stone fence. This is known as God's Acre, a tidy garden of grave markers. Only songbirds interrupt the silence. You will find a granite marker on which has been etched Mansell's name, rank, serial number, regiment, date of death, and age. Forever 25. He rests between plots holding his maternal grandparents and great grandparents, the men having served in the Royal Canadian Navy.

In Langford, a leafy cul-de-sac was the scene of an impressive display two years ago. A pair of 105mm howitzers flanked the entrance to the street. Artillery shells lined the roadway. A bugler played, as did a bagpiper, while a military padre intoned a prayer.

Of the 200 in attendance, only one wore a Memorial Cross. She was Nancy Mansell and it was her son after whom the quiet suburban street was being named. It was a modest gesture for so grave a sacrifice, but it meant more than one could image to a mother who wore her son's name on a medal no one ever wishes to receive.

“It's important for us to know that others think of Myles. And remember Myles. We don't want him to be forgotten,” she told me then. A mother contemplated what it would mean if her son was not remembered by name. “Just a number.” She need say no more.


Jody Paterson said...

Lovely post, Tom. My late father was a veteran - to the end of his days, I don't think there was ever a time in his life that the war years weren't the defining point for him.

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