Remembering The Next Generation

2 Canadian vets describe their experiences overseas, and their views on Canada’s international role

Edmonton Journal

The Peace Keeper Robert (Mac)Torrie, President of Kingsway Royal Canadian Legion remembers

On first sight, Robert Torrie seems like an unassuming older man, softly shuffling though the backrooms of the legion hall on Kingsway Avenue. But as soon as he introduces himself with a booming voice and strong handshake, it’s clear he’s a military man.

The 64-year-old Torrie, whom everyone has called Mac for as long as he can remember, grew up on a farm in Manitoba. When he turned 18 in 1962, there was little work for him on the farm, and his father gave him two weeks’ room and board before he was required to move out and support himself.

“I didn’t want to be a hard rock miner,” he says. “I joined the army for three years and stayed for 35 years.”

He served as a peacekeeper and military engineer in the Sinai Desert, Germany, and Bosnia, which means he did everything from fixing the tarmac at the El Arish international airport in Egypt, to accompanying officers during negotiations with Serbian forces.

Bosnia was an especially hard mission for him because events often seemed arbitrary, like when one house in the middle of a row of townhouses was destroyed but the rest remained standing. “The worst part of the civil war was the desecration of each other’s churches,” Torrie says. “Churches were burnt. They’d open up family crypts and leave them open to the weather.”

He felt restrained at times by the rules of engagement as a peacekeeper. He recalls having to check in each time he left camp in Visoko, a Muslim area, about what he was and wasn’t allowed to do that day. “I had a couple evenings when I was out with my OC [officer commanding],” he says. “You’d see a guy standing on top of a high feature with a rocket-propelled grenade. You see them walking up there, and you’re sitting down in an armoured personnel carrier, and you are trying not to show that you are excited.”

He retired in his fifties and only then became active in the legion. Currently, he’s trying to change the legion’s image as a “watering hole for the old boys,” in hopes of attracting the younger generation of Afghanistan vets.

Holding their own legion Remembrance Day ceremony instead of going down to the Butterdome is a point of pride for Torrie, who was strong in his dismissal of the white “peace poppy” debate that made headlines a couple years ago.

At the legion hall, past the lobby with the large stone cutout cross that reads “Lest We Forget” and down the stairs into the mess hall, members of Kingsway Legion meet for food, drinks and company. The conversation often turns to Afghanistan, says Torrie. In his personal opinion — an important distinction because of the military’s officially neutral stance when it comes to policy — the Taliban are what the Nazis were before the start of the Second World War, and for Canadians not to fight them now would simply result in us eventually fighting them in North America. “We play ball with NATO,” he says with a firm tap on the table.

He also thinks the public conversation on the war in Iraq has been influenced by overly negative media coverage. “We get all the bad news,” he says. “There’s more good done every day than there is bad.” He even envies the younger men and women who are able to use their combat training overseas. If he were younger, he says, he’d be in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t get into the army to kiss the enemy.”

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Remembrance Day ceremonies on Tuesday might not look that different from how they did a generation or two ago, but the veterans attending them are not as timeless. Canada’s military engagements overseas have taken on a very different character, and so the experiences of our veterans have also changed. As the soldiers from the First and Second World Wars are increasingly replaced by peacekeepers and the young soldiers recently returning from Afghanistan, we wanted to get a greater understanding of Canada’s younger veterans, as well as their perspective on the public debate on Afghanistan and Canada’s changing international role.

From interviews with each man, here are some of the views and experiences of peacekeeper and Kingsway Royal Canadian Legion president Robert Torrie and Afghanistan veteran Matt Johns.

The Afghanistan Vet Captain Matt Johns, standing in front of a tank in the training simulation room at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton, Capt. Matt Johns is cheerful as he describes the hunk of green metal as a duplicate of his home for most of his eight-month tour in Afghanistan. The exception being that on the dirt roads of that country, his tank looked like a gypsy caravan, with coolers and cots strapped to the back.

As an officer, Johns sat just above the driver, with a metal screen separating him from the recoil of the tank’s gun on the other side. To his right, the constantly busy radio spewed French, Nepalese, and English laden with thick southern American and British accents.

A dirty, crumpled map would sit pushed in among the equipment. Just behind that was his novel, in case they had 10 minutes of downtime during their excursion, which could last for days.

The 31-year-old fits seamlessly into military life as a member of Lord Strathcona’s House (Royal Canadians) as he walks around the base joking with colleagues, but it certainly wasn’t what he had planned. In his twenties, Johns was something of a directionless young man. He moved around between Calgary and Ottawa, eventually earning a history degree from three different universities.

In 2005 he considered taking a teaching degree, but it would have meant two more years in school. He was broke and already had two children. So, he decided to go into the army instead. Pointing to his self-described “stubby” legs he says: “Look at me — I’m perfectly sized to fit inside a tank.”

Johns arrived in Kandahar in August 2007. Many of his missions involved clearing bombs on roads and surrounding small villages when the army went in to uncover enemy fighters or collect illegal weapons.

“If your goal is to go in and find stuff and not get into a fight, which is most of the time really, tanks are very intimidating,” he says. “You don’t have to go in and smash stuff; you just have to sit there.”

Another common mission involved resupplying small Canadian bases. A convoy with several trucks and tanks would inch along a road as the engineers look for bombs. When they find a bomb, everyone in the convoy springs to attention, as they are often the first sign of an attack.

Back at camp, Johns would have a pile of paperwork waiting for him. “This is where we get upset about people saying that the Canadian army goes in and starts firing indiscriminately,” he says. “Well, when we go out, if anything happens, every single person has to file a report.”

Despite his dislike of paperwork, Johns has transitioned easily into life on the base and his desk job in accounts department. His difficulties have more to do with his personal life than what he saw overseas. When he returned home in March, he had a fourth child he’d never met and a son he barely knew.

This Tuesday will also be difficult, as he’s visiting the parents of Corp. Nathan Hornburg in Nanton, just south of Calgary. Hornburg died during a firefight involving Johns’ troop of tanks.

As for the public discussion on Afghanistan, he supports the mission but is pretty open-minded. He sometimes argues with his friends about the legitimacy of the mission, and after explaining what he does and how it helps Afghans — especially women and children — he will agree to disagree with those who are not won over.

“There are people that take it too far,” he says. “They say we fire indiscriminately. Well, then they are basically calling me a murderer, and I really don’t appreciate that.”

As he sees it, he’s spreading learning, freedom, and democracy, western values he holds dear. Given that world view, it would be pretty silly to deny others their opinions at home.

Still, he firmly believes that Canada can do a lot of good through military actions, citing the fierce fighting reputation Canada earned in the First and Second World Wars as the reason for the country’s later success as peacekeepers.

Besides, teams of Canadians are talking to Afghans, trying to rebuild the country in addition to the military operations. “I think the general Canadian population lacks the day-to-day reality of what people do overseas.” 

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