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PM might try walking in vets' shoes

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This photograph of my father, Henri Besson, writing a letter to my mother (Jessie), was taken in England during the Second World War. The superimposed photo on the left is of my mother and their daughter (Ruth). It was superimposed on the picture to indicate that they were on his mind.

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This photograph of my father, Henri Besson, writing a letter to my mother (Jessie), was taken in England during the Second World War. The superimposed photo on the left is of my mother and their daughter (Ruth). It was superimposed on the picture to indicate that they were on his mind.

In light of all the negative publicity concerning the Harper government's systematic dismantling of Canadian veterans' benefits, and the overall shabby way this government treats its veterans, I would like to introduce you to a veteran I knew intimately, and who I love with all my heart and soul.

He is my father, Henri Besson. My father served with the Royal Canadian Engineers, during the Second World War on the Atlantic Ocean (where he saw German torpedoes sink ships in his convoy while crossing over), in England during the Battle of Britain and in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

This following is a story he told me, a few months before he died at the age of 82.

"We were bridging on the Leopold Canal in Belgium," he recalled, adding the Canadians had been given the task of pushing the German forces out of Holland and Belgium so they could open the inland seaport of Antwerp to allow their ships up the Scheldt River with supplies for the front, as the Allied assault had ground to a halt.

The Leopold Canal was one of many battles making up the battle of the Scheldt, and it saw the Canadians locked in some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Much of the time my father was forced to fight out of flooded polders, inch by inch through Holland, into Belgium, often crawling on his hands and knees in wet, soggy conditions. All of that, while under heavy enemy fire.

Soon his story zeroed in on the Leopold Canal.

"The Germans were on the other side, so we (the engineers) had to build bridges for the infantry to cross over.

"We could not defend ourselves while we were bridging, so we had to depend on the infantry to cover us. We were up to our necks in the canal at times and men were dying all around me.

"The Germans poured everything they had down on top of us, and it was all we could do to just keep our minds on getting the job done. But we had a job to do, and we did it."

At this point my father's face was stone cold, and tears were welling up in the corners of his eyes.

I saw that the pain in this tired, old soldier was excruciating. This was my father speaking, and he had deemed me worthy to listen as he unloaded the ponderous burden he had carried for so long.

I was now comforting the man who, at one time, had so gently cradled me in his powerful arms. I was never so proud of him as I was at that moment.

"We opened up with the flame throwers, and in no time the canal was red with the blood of both German and Canadian soldiers," he whispered.

The Canadians suffered enormous casualties during that battle, but eventually they crossed the canal.

"On the other side we were pinned down," he continued. "The Germans were beaten back, but they were putting up a fierce fight, just the same. I crawled on my hands and knees up the bank, and I saw bullets coming out of the back of the soldier in front of me. Another soldier, several yards ahead of me, had also been killed. When I reached him, he had no face left. I learned later that he was someone I had threshed with in Saskatchewan during the Depression. That was some of the dirtiest fighting I ever saw," he said.

Then he began to weep.

My father's story is only one of countless stories, told by countless men and women, who have offered up their lives for this country, in all of the wars, conflicts, and peace-keeping missions the Canadian military has built its impeccable reputation upon.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I suggest you try walking a mile in my father's battle-torn boots, or the boots of any Canadian veteran for that matter. Then see if you still want to short-change Canada's true heroes.

Maybe then you'll agree it's time that our veterans receive all the honour, respect, health care and support they are due.

God knows, they've already paid for it.

 

Allan Besson is a retired Free Press sports reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 A15

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