Their stories emanate from almost every region of the globe.
But a group of special men and women honoured during an annual Orillia event Saturday all have one thing in common: Selfless service to their country.
“That’s something that always brings us together … no matter where we served,” explained Kenneth La Roche, who served two tours with the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam.
“It’s an honour to be here because a lot of our fellow veterans can’t be.”
La Roche and more than 50 fellow veterans, who served in conflicts ranging from the Second World War to the more recent Afghanistan conflict, were the special invitees for the 14th annual Take a Veteran to Dinner event at the Best Western Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre.
Following a reception that allowed attendees to reconnect, veterans were led by bagpiper Brenda Remy playing The Maple Leaf Forever into the main dining area where members of the 99 Lynx Air Cadets Squadron stood at attention.
From there, veterans were feted by local high students who recognized their service as well a special toast led by George Smith that served to celebrate Canada’s many attributes, including the men and women who have served the nation.
“Despite all of our problems, despite all of our taxes and some of our politicians,” Smith said, “this is a land of dreams and, with patience, where all of our dreams can come true.”
While the event originally started in Orillia as a way for the community to honour its veterans, it has now been held in Ottawa for a decade and this year marked its inauguration in Cornwall.
“This is the citizens of Orillia way of saying thank you,” said Charles Kelly, chair of the event’s organizing committee.
But as time marches on, the number of veterans attending the event continues to decline.
“A lot of the veterans who were in the First and Second World War aren’t here anymore,” Kelly said. “We now have close to 60 veterans, but when it started we had closer to 100.”
Jack Hird is one of those who was able to attend this year’s offering.
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.
“I was in Egypt for nine months and 1 1/2 years in Kenya,” he said, noting the armed forces hadn’t yet been recognized by other governments as trying to provide some sort of stability to a country in turmoil.
“It was a kind of peacekeeping, but it wasn’t peacekeeping like in today’s world.”
But Hird, who came to Canada in 1957 and currently serves as second vice president of Orillia’s Royal Canadian Legion branch, appreciates efforts like the dinner since it serves to highlight his selfless efforts all these years later.
“It’s nice to be recognized for what we did. It gives you hope that people will look at the past and prevent wars (in the future).”
Fellow veteran Fred Coulson served as a telegraph operator in Victoria during the Second World War and was responsible for intercepting Japanese intelligence that was then sent to the United States for decoding.
“For four years during the war, I was with the Canadian Navy,” said Coulson, a spry 98-year-old who’s originally from Capreol, but has long called Orillia home.
“After the war, I continued as a telegraph operator for the railroad. But I was used to international Morse code so I had to relearn the railway code.”
Coulson said it’s always comforting to meet other veterans, some of whom one doesn’t see for a decade or two.
“You have a lot of common experiences. I’ve been very fortunate. I like and have enjoyed everything in my life. That’s how I’ve lasted this long.”
Added World War II Royal Navy veteran Jim Barnett: “We all have different stories, but there’s always something in common.”
La Roche, who now lives in Copper Cliff near Sudbury, said even though he didn’t agree with the war in which he served, once he was drafted he was committed to the effort.
“My job there was saving lives, not taking lives,” said La Roche, who himself was wounded twice.
“It was a war that the United States should have never been in. I performed my duties to the best of my ability. It was a misunderstood war, yet we fought it. Unlike World War One and Two that served a purpose, Vietnam was a political war.”