Royal Canadian Navy veteran Don Davis recalls being on a dock in London, England and excitedly phoning his parents.
“I called them collect so I heard about it when I got back home because long distance was so expensive then,” Davis recalled, adding he felt the call was warranted because his ship was sent to the Carribean to stop Soviet ships from entering Cuban waters during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We stopped four Russian ships. I served on Canada’s only aircraft carrier from 1960 to 1963.”
Davis was one of about 60 veterans who served as special invitees for the 15th annual Take a Veteran to Dinner event at the Best Western Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre Saturday.
People in the community serve as hosts at the event and pay for dinner for the veteran as a way to recognize their service, while members of the 99 Lynx Air Cadets Squadron were on hand to welcome the veterans, to help them find their seats and to lend a hand as needed.
Following a reception that allowed attendees to reconnect, the event officially kicked off with veterans and their guests standing as bagpiper Brenda Remy played the Maple Leaf Forever. That was followed by a stirring rendition of O Canada by Jim Jeffries and Jim Burnett.
From there, veterans, who served in conflicts ranging from the Second World War to the more recent Afghanistan conflict, were introduced individually before being honoured collectively by a rousing ovation from those in attendance.
World War II veteran Joe Kenny landed in Normandy during D-Day as part of the Canadian infantry.
“It’s pretty hard to describe,” said Kenny, who’s originally from Québec’s Gaspé region, but now lives just outside Orillia.
“There were 5,000 battleships behind us firing at the white coast. It was scary, but we were trained for it.”
Jack Hird served with the British Army in Egypt and later Kenya in the 1950s and noted their missions served as attempts to bring some calm to very turbulent regions.
Hird, who came to Canada in 1957 and currently serves as second vice president of Orillia’s Royal Canadian Legion (Branch 34), appreciates efforts like the dinner since it serves to highlight the selfless efforts made all these years later.
“It’s nice to be connected with all the other veterans because we have something in common,” Hird said, noting he also appreciates the city’s efforts to recognize veterans by placing banners along Mississaga Street in the city’s downtown core.
Added fellow World War II Royal Navy veteran Jim Barnett: “We get to know each other here because we’ve all been through the same kind of things.”
Sharon Weeks attended the dinner for years with her father Bud Weeks, who died last year.
“He used to come to these all the time,” said Weeks, who serves on the event’s organizing committee. “I don’t think he missed one of them.”
Bud Weeks, who fought in World War II, arrived in mainland Europe 48 days after D-Day.
“He was in France, Belgium and Germany,” she said. “He was there until the end.”
Like Hird, Weeks said the city’s banners bring recognition to those who gave so much. And in a neat twist, Bud Weeks’ banner is right in front of the Brownstone building that once housed his wife’s family bicycle shop.
“It feels good to know they are valued and we still think of them,” she said, adding she gets angry by some who say the poppy is a symbol of war rather than peace and remembrance.
“It just horrifies me. That kind of thinking needs correcting.”
While the event originally started in Orillia as a way for the community to honour its veterans, it has been used a model for events now held in Ottawa and Cornwall.
Peter DeVillers, a service officer with the local Royal Canadian Legion branch, said it’s important to continue recognizing the selfless actions of those who served.
“It shows them that we appreciate what they did,” he said. “I think this event is a great way to do that.”