OPINION: talk with a veteran – AND BE SURE TO THANK THEM

FERGUS – As the deadline for this feature recognizing the 75th anniversary of D-Day approached, a sad realization dawned on us: we wouldn’t be able to talk in person with a veteran who was there for the historic invasion on June 6, 1944.

While there may indeed still be a few around in Wellington County, our sources, staff connections and even some newspaper ads, couldn’t produce one.

It’s the same realization noted in one of our feature articles by air cadet Captain Eugene Sidlar, who is leading 242 Ross Ferguson Squadron cadets on a Normandy pilgrimage next week.

“They will have possibly one of the last opportunities to personally say thank-you to some of the veterans of the conflict who will be in attendance,” said Sidlar.

The number of veterans who served on D-Day – and in the Second World War in general for that matter – is rapidly dwindling.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to talk to two Normandy veterans five years ago for our 70th anniversary feature.

Wellington North’s Ken Waters, who passed away   about seven months after I spoke to him in 2014, described in great detail the “hellish” experience of landing on Juno Beach.

At age 93 Waters was still troubled by the human casualties he witnessed on D-Day.

“It was the worst thing I ever saw,” he said, describing one particularly  disturbing scene of “shot-up” Canadian soldiers hanging out of a tank that was disabled during the landing.

Though injured a couple times, Waters returned to his unit, making his way  through Europe and taking part in the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945.

He went on to live a long and full life, but was haunted until the end by painful memories and flashbacks.

“I have trouble going through the bad times – especially at night,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to think of some of those guys that are gone before you, mainly because you knew them so well and had to bury them.”

At age 89, Fergus’ Griff Jackson vividly recalled landing at a corner of Juno Beach on June 7, 1944.

“The place was all shot up to hell,” said Jackson, who died in 2016. “There were people lying all around dead – mostly Germans … the whole place was kind of in shambles.”

Jackson went on to participate in battles in Belgium, the Netherlands and, eventually, Germany. His crew was in the village of Varel, Germany on May 5, 1945, the day German forces in northwest Europe surrendered.

Despite everything he saw and experienced, he said, “I don’t dwell on it at all … If you came home you were lucky.”

Yet like countless other WWII veterans, both Waters and Jackson never regretted their  decisions to join the army.

“You saw your friends were joining up and you wanted to get in there,” said Jackson.

These interviews with Jackson and Waters were two of the most memorable I’ve ever had as a journalist. Speaking with veterans is one of the most important responsibilities and one of the greatest honours of my career.

If you get a chance to talk with a WWII veteran, if only for a moment, take advantage of it – and be sure to thank them.

If my experience with these brave yet humble souls is any indication, they won’t think what they’ve done is a big deal deserving of appreciation.

But these conversations, as uncomfortable as they can sometimes be, are beneficial for both parties.

And sadly, much like the historic battles in which they took part, the opportunity to talk with these veterans will soon be a thing of the past.