Paul Nichols is riding across Canada sharing stories, encouraging discussion and bridging the gap between civilian and military communities. Canada continues to be home to more than 540,000 veterans whose average age is 56. The mission is to bring communities together through the introduction of their veterans on a horseback ride across Canada.
I speak of the disconnect between our military family and the civilian world that we find ourselves in after we transition back into regular life. Daily I see instances and examples of why I need to keep riding, of why we need to continue to work at bridging the gap between cultures.
At each end point, people gather to connect and we continue to bridge the gap.This ride has been good for me and I am growing. I am softening and I think because I am trying to be a conduit for so many of my brother’s stories I am learning to listen better. I am learning to look past the words and find the feel and intent of a story. Every once in a while people catch me off guard and surprise me with a question or tell of an experience that goes to a dark place.
Years ago I sat in the shadow of a Croatian mountain range on top of an M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier outside of towns that I didn’t know the names of and that night is burned into my mind forever. I smoked cigarette after cigarette and I remember my mind drifting to home and the Kananaskis Mountains to the west of Calgary.
It was warm and clear and the night was filled with stars. The night was also alive with tracer fire and the sound of artillery rounds; grooves screaming as they passed by… Our carrier was part of a column and we were prepared to go somewhere… A case of hurry up and wait that is so much a part of army life. I remember writing in my journal by starlight, my print large and messy as I poured my thoughts onto the pages and kept a running tally of the 155mm artillery rounds that passed over head… 120, 121, 122…
We had pulled through our rifle barrels and charged magazines. I had organized the m72 rocket launchers in their box inside my gunner’s hatch and ensured that my boxes of ammunition for the .50 cal were close by. And we waited… 123, 124…
And we waited. 125, 126…
The Croatian guns weren’t firing for practice and we had seen the results of their work in the months leading up to this point…127, 128…
I had walked on bones in Pakrac and felt the dry spinous processes of human vertebrae press into my arms, forcing me to rethink my fire position. This spot didn’t work out for the last guy so well, I should move… 129, 130…
We took turns sleeping that night and the guns carried on into the next day and still we waited… 500?… 520?… Highly trained and very prepared, we waited. We had moved as a battle group across hostile territory to do a job. Why aren’t we doing it? My mind and imagination running wild we waited for days before the carriers rolled and we went to work….
I speak with a lot of people on this journey across Canada. I dig deep and open up and tell my stories and try to put things into perspective for people that have no point of reference. I ask my riders to share their stories and add their voices to mine. Sometimes it hurts but we need to keep sharing and I understand that now more than ever.
I attended an event and had an opportunity to discuss my own military service with a gentleman. This well- educated man shared his views and together we covered a lot of ground. It was pleasant and constructive until he spoke of the burden that his grandfather must have carried. As a soldier in North Africa during WW2, his grandfather had committed “murder”. He couldn’t imagine the pain that his grandfather must have felt going through life knowing that he killed people – murder. All conversation stopped and I raged inside. Murder. I choked on my words. How dare you – you privileged son of a bitch. Murder? Your grandfather gave you the right to have this ignorant, self righteous opinion! … A big breath. Don’t walk out. Don’t take it this time Paul… This is why we are here… He was confused and clearly upset with the effect of his choice of words. How many times have I been there, looking from the other side? See it through and let’s use this as an opportunity to bridge that gap. It was an awkward conversation but we carried on and I opened a new set of eyes.
Will it matter in the big picture?
I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you that one person has a different understanding of who our veterans are and what it is that we carry.
When Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson presented the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the Commander in Chief’s Unit Commendation for the Medak Pocket, I was there.
She quoted Herodotus in her speech and said, “This is the worst pain a man can suffer: to have insight into much and power over nothing.”
How can a man live with taking a life? I can’t personally say how that weighs on a person. I’ve been spared that burden. I can tell you how it haunts me every day knowing that I didn’t.
I need to keep riding.
To follow the Paul Nichols and the riders across Canada, log into their Facebook page Communities for Veterans or visit their website communitiesforveterans.ca.