When I was a young girl, my grandmother told me to always take time to thank the veterans, because they gave me my country. I never really understood it, or why buying a poppy would make her cry. As a prairie girl who lived in a small town of 700 people, I was sheltered from war and rumours of war. But my grandmother–she lived through both world wars, and she lost a brother. Her perspective was understandably different from mine.
Still, I never forgot what she said. Every year when I see old people sitting patiently in drafty doorways selling red poppies for whatever change they can get, I hear her voice telling me to say thank you. The money raised stays in the community and helps vets who need medical equipment or financial assistance. It’s an important supplement for those areas where benefits fall short, or where there’s a need for long-term care or financial assistance. It lets veterans support each other.
One of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had, was at the Remembrance Day Ceremony in Ottawa on November 11, 2001. This was my first year in the city, and I went to the service largely out of respect for my grandmother. It was overwhelming in some ways and–so soon after 9/11–especially poignant. After the service, a thousand people took off their poppies and left them on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This was meant as an act of thankfulness, of remembrance, of honour. For me, as I watched the number of poppies grow, it left a vivid and tearful impression of spilled blood on the ground.
Lately, there’s been a counter-campaign of white poppies. The idea is that the white poppy should be worn by those who want peace where the red is worn by those who support war. I understand the sentiment. I don’t necessarily agree with the argument, but then I don’t have to–and that’s the point. I have the freedom to respectfully disagree, and to feel for the veterans who rely on the sale of red poppies in one of their bigger fundraisers.
I don’t think there ever was a soldier who wanted war. If they thought they did, well, I think perhaps that changed once they were in the midst of it. As much as we are known to be a peace-keeping country, peace has to be made before it can be kept. There is much focus on the first world wars because, well, they were the first. And for me, there’s no way I can look at these senior citizens braving November with blankets and canes and wheelchairs, and not be moved. Their faces are engraved with memorial tears. I can’t watch them and not weep myself. I have never known that kind of grief and yet I feel the ripples.
The very least I can do is offer them my respect.
Here’s the other thing. The face of the veteran is changing. One of these young women training to be an airman is my friend. This young man is part of my family. I care what happens to them. My husband will some day be buried in the National Military
Cemetery. Another dear friend is a retired Navy Seal. Whether American or Canadian, these people are future veterans, and they have shaped my world.
I care more about them than the colour of poppies. I want these men and women to be respected, and for their contributions to be remembered. That’s why I don’t think we can afford NOT to stop and remember. I’ll never be as brave as the men who fought in Normandy or the women who join the service today.
I don’t believe our leaders always made the right choices when it comes to who to fight or when or why. I don’t believe we’ve always made the wrong choices either. It’s not something I’ll debate (especially in this forum) because today it’s not the most important thing.
The important thing is this: Whether a member of the military is in battle, helping out with floods and ice storms, providing security services, searching and rescuing, healing with medical attention or spiritual leadership, whether a retired soldier or a new soldier–Thank you.
Thank you for what you have done, and what you will do. And please, forgive me for the times when I’ve forgotten that my freedoms were never free.
IT IS THE SOLDIER
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
©Copyright 1970, 2005 by Charles M. Province Used with permission.