By Jessica Lovell
For many of the teens who filled a high school library to hear veterans talk of their experiences with war, the idea of going to war might seem alien, exotic or even scary. But many of the veterans on the panel had enlisted when they were just teenagers themselves.
The panel was gathered to talk to the youths and answer their questions as part of Veterans Week activities at Our Lady of Lourdes high school.
It featured Second World War veterans from the navy, Canadian Women’s Army Corps. There was also a Korean War vet, a Vietnam War vet, a United Nations Peacekeeper from the Cold War era and an Afghanistan War vet.
All told a different story about their war experiences, but it seemed most were young when they started.
“I finished as the youngest navigating officer in the Canadian navy,” Second World War vet Bill Winegard told students. He had joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a coder at age 17, he said.
Frank Bayne joined the army as a “boy soldier” during the Second World War, and he stayed with the army following the war, going on to fight in Korea, he said.
Eleanor “Bobby” Freeman, the only woman on the panel, heard the call for help in 1941 at age 18, heading to Toronto to work in a factory and free up men for active combat. She joined the army corps soon after.
She described for students her parents’ feelings upon hearing that she had enlisted, following in the footsteps of her two brothers.
“They were proud of me, but they were so scared to have another child join the war effort,” said Freeman.
Evan Shields, a veteran of Afghanistan, has also started his army career young.
“I joined in high school,” he said.
The 27-year-old began his army career through a co-op program at John F. Ross high school and went on to do a seven-month tour in Afghanistan.
With so many of the panel enlisting in their teen years, it seems unsurprising that the first question asked by a student was: “How did your parents feel?”
“They stopped me the first time I tried to enlist,” said Winegard. “They didn’t like it,” he said, explaining that it was important to his parents that he finish high school first.
“My father was dead against me going into the army,” said Bayne. “He wanted me to go to school.”
It was his mother who ultimately signed the enlistment papers, he said, relating to students the memory of leaving his house to go to the army base and looking back to see his mother crying at the door. “That’s still in my memory,” he said.
“I didn’t dare asked permission, because I wouldn’t get it,” said Freeman, whose parents had already lost a son by the time she had enlisted.
The veterans were also asked if they were scared, and the answer seemed to be a universal yes.
“Yes, you’re scared,” said Vietnam vet Gerry Conway, a Canadian who enlisted while in school in the U.S. “If you’re not scared, you’re either a fool or a liar,” he said.
For Conway, who was speaking publicly about his experience for only the second time, going to Vietnam was not something he would do if he had it to do over again.
“I buried a lot of this for the best part of 40 years,” he said. “It’s only with the help and support of the Legion that I’ve started talking about it.”
When asked why it’s important to remember the sacrifices of veterans, most of those on the panel spoke familiarly of the hard-won freedom, and paying respect to those who had fought for it.
For Freeman, remembering is about preventing the next war.
“War is horrible,” she said. “I would far rather talk, talk, talk peace than fight.”
Conway described war as an “absolute failure of all negotiation,” and told students that remembering helps give an appreciation of how thin the veil of civility really is in a civil society.
“It’s something you have to guard very, very preciously,” he said.