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Veterans join forces at Airborne table

Retired Canadian Armed Forces personnel engage in opinionated conversations and laughter during lunchtime sessions at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 271 in St. Albert
0611 remembrance day DR17
VETERANS – Retired Canadian Armed Forces personnel, from left, John Matthews, Laz Tollas, Gord Carter, Linda Tollas, Gerry Vida, Marty Clavette and Bob Duncan are regulars at the Airborne table for lunchtime socializing at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 271 in St. Albert. DAN RIEDLHUBER/St. Albert Gazette

It’s lunchtime on Thursday at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 271 in St. Albert and the banter is lively amongst the retired military personnel gathered around what is affectionately known as the Airborne table.

Woven in with the profound observations of the political landscape in Canada and current state of the world are tales of military and everyday life.

“There’s a lot of lies,” laughed John Matthews of the group whose lives are intertwined by their military experiences. “But there’s a common experience, a common thread and that’s why we come here.”

Remembrance Day will also bring them closer together as Canada and Commonwealth member states honour the members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty.

“It’s a time to remember, simple as that, of the sacrifices of what people have made in the past,” said Matthews, 78, who retired in 1995 as a major after 36 years.

“I would say the first person that should go there is the person that's against war to remember that people did go into situations which were truly horrible, came back broken, whatever, with memories that never are purged out of your soul,” Matthews added.

“I’ve been going to Remembrance Day parades actively since I (transferred) to the reserves and they've all been well attended, but in the last 20 years or more if you look at the total societal thing certainly Afghanistan gelled things, but even before that people would become more and more aware of Remembrance Day and its meaning to the country and the awareness of what we did in the First and Second World War and various other operations like Korea and UN (peacekeeping missions).”

Matthews grew up in Toronto and at age 18 went to a military college in Saint-Jean, Que., which produced bilingual officers for the forces. He was commissioned into the Royal 22nd Regiment known as the Van Doos, a francophone regiment.

"I was with a battalion that went to Germany in November of '67 and come home in the summer of '71, and four years later I was sent to the Middle East with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. Their aim is to monitor the status of the ceasefire between Israel and the other parties to the conflict like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt,” Matthews said. “I got to Beirut in June of '75, and that was right at the start of the civil war in Lebanon, so I lived through that.”

Matthews was joined by the following men and women from the St. Albert area that stretched as far as Sundre as they shared their military backgrounds and the importance of Remembrance Day with the Gazette.

Laz Tollas, 68, major

A military career spanning almost 42 years began as a 24-year-old fresh out of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

“I was born in Hungary and we left there under fire and Canada took us in,” Tollas said. “I knew I wanted to be a soldier since I was pretty young and I was delighted to serve in the Canadian military, partly as a thank-you for taking me into this country and giving me all the opportunities that I've had in my life, so it's a bit of payback, as a bit of thank-you.”

For 10 months in 2006, Tollas was a senior mid-level staff officer at the brigade level with civil affairs in Afghanistan.

"We worked closely with the Afghans and I can’t say government because they didn't really have one. They represented Afghanistan’s sort of warlords, civilians, et cetera, in trying to better their lives, and I oversaw five provinces with the provincial construction teams. We sort of co-ordinated activities, et cetera, which was part of my job. We did other things, too, which I won't go into."

The importance of Remembrance Day

“It used to always mean a lot to me, and since Afghanistan it’s meant a hell of a lot more because I lost friends over there and when that happens it really becomes personal and the meaning goes much, much deeper – not that it isn’t deep if you haven’t lost friends, but the closer it hits to home the harder it is and therefore it has more meaning, at least certainly for me,” Tollas said.

“What I'm happy about is what a lot of us did, which allows people to have the choice to attend or not to attend.

“It also allows you to pay respect, not only for the men and women who served, but also for their families who stayed behind. When I went to Afghanistan (my wife Linda) stayed here. She’s my (fricking) hero, especially to not know what’s going on for nine months, whether I’m alive or not. We were rather deep in the (crap) for a while and it was exciting times, I would say. To me, that would be hard on me. I was a trained professional and I knew what I was doing, but for somebody who was not there and to be really concerned and not know what’s going on, to me that's a lot harder, so we never should ever forget the families who support or are affiliated with the lads and gals who are now overseas, including the children of those families.”

Bob Duncan, 74, major

Forty years of service for Duncan started as a 16-year-old “military brat” in 1961.

“At that time in the city with the reserves they had what they called a boys’ soldier company, so you were still going to high school and you would parade on Saturdays. We had, I don't know, probably 500 kids signed up here in the Edmonton reserve district, so that's how I initially joined,” Duncan said. “I served two years as what they called a boy soldier and then at 18 I switched over to the primary reserve and then when I was 20 I went off and joined the regular force.”

Duncan was inspired to pursue a military career by his dad, Robert, who saw action throughout the Second World War and didn't come home until February of 1946, and he also served 13 months in Korea.

“It’s either you like it or you don't like it, especially for army brats. There were a lot of kids that would just have nothing to do with it because of the constant moving and the nonsense that we had to go through, but it was something I’ve always wanted to do and they made the mistake and took me in,” Duncan said.

Tours of duty included United Nations and NATO missions.

“When you go over there your motives are correct, but it’s not a crusade,” Duncan said. “You know you’re doing good, but that's not really the most important thing why you go over there. There is no guy waving a big UN flag and getting down on their knees and thanking God for us being there. That doesn't happen.

“It gets you away from the monotony of serving in Canada,” Duncan added. “You’re on your own. You get the best of equipment that's available, or most of it, so it’s a real job as opposed to other things.”

The importance of Remembrance Day

“We’ve got to remember what the sacrifice was from the boys and girls that served,” Duncan said. “I’m not that naive that by going to Remembrance Day is going to stop wars, but it certainly should bring attention to those who are non-military, that we have people serving and you should remember that.

“We should remember the lessons from the past with what was involved with our veterans, and we should look to the future to make sure that we don't get caught again in those situations.”

Gerry Vida, 78, captain

Vida was almost 18 living in Winnipeg when he decided in December of 1959 to continue his father’s military tradition, as Geza Vida served with the Hungarian Army during the Second World War.

“It taught me responsibility big time, as well as leadership skills, working with people. I had interesting experiences,” said Vida, who was followed into the Canadian Armed Forces by his sons Shandy and Russell.

Vida taught at the Airborne Regiment’s school, became the officer in charge of the Skyhawks’ parachute demonstration team and participated in peacekeeping operations in the 1974 Cypriot War as well as four tours in the Middle East and one tour in Africa.

“I spent a year in the Western Sahara as an unarmed military observer between the Moroccans and Western Sahrawi military. That was interesting. The first eight months of the year I worked with the Sahrawi guerillas, that was interesting, and the last four months I spent with the Moroccan army," Vida said.

After 37 years as a military man, does Vida see the world as a better place today?

“Our world was a lot simpler before. With the technical revolution, that absolutely changed the whole world, no question in my mind, and the political scene has changed big time,” Vida said. “I’m not so sure whether I like living in this world better than 40 years ago. We had more fun 40 years ago. Political correctness, I’m sick and tired of it.”

The importance of Remembrance Day

“The last 10 to 15 years, civilians are becoming more aware of what was going on in the past. The press is doing a fairly good job of putting this kind of stuff in front of the general population and the awareness is picking up,” Vida said

Marty Clavette, 85, sergeant major

Clavette was 21, living in Winnipeg when he enlisted in 1956 and eventually ended up with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Calgary.

“It was a mobile striking force unit, so we were all Airborne. I took a jump course and then I stayed Airborne for 33 years," Clavette said. “I was always Airborne, except when I went to Indochina.”

There was no jumping in Vietnam as a moving control non-commissioned officer driving high-ranked officials.

“I worked for a major and sergeant. I was the bottom of the pile,” Clavette said.

The year in Vietnam “was different. I had no experience, didn't know too much about the country, but the people were very nice and they were also terribly poor, especially in the country,” said Clavette, noting, “The whole (fricking) country was shooting you up.”

The importance of Remembrance Day

“I was looking at this album this morning for a picture of these old guys I knew. They were in World War Two with the para regiment and it struck me these guys were tough old birds. They didn't have too much equipment and it was amazing they were still alive and sane after all that. That was impressive to me,” Clavette said. “But here in St. Albert, it’s amazing what they do. Last year, I presented a wreath for the veterans and I looked at the city hall all the (flags) were down and that was impressive.”

Gord Carter, 87, captain

As a 17-year-old in St. John’s Nfld., Carter joined the military in 1949.

“It was right after we joined Canada, I couldn’t get out of Newfoundland quick enough,” he joked.

Carter was a lance bombardier in Korea from March of 1952 to May of 1953.

“What stands out about Korea besides the poor food and poor clothes? Well, it was a war, so the first time you’re in combat it’s pretty terrifying, the first time you come under fire,” Carter said. “"It was a very good experience. I was glad I went. I learned a lot.”

Carter’s 38-year military career in artillery included two tours of NATO duties in Germany of four and three years.

The importance of Remembrance Day

“It means a whole lot. All the veterans who didn’t make it back, that's the ones we feel sorry for and that's why we have the parade to remember them,” said Carter, adding the participation of the schools has increased the awarenes of Nov. 11 significantly over the years. “Once the schools got started, then it took off and we got a lot more people come out.”

Linda Tollas, 61, logistics

Tollas’ 24 years of service with army, navy and air force was inspired by her father, Edgar Damstrom, who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, and four of his brothers also served in the military.

“I grew up in a big family (of loggers and farmers in the Crowsnest Pass), and if you can’t hold your own in a big family then you can’t join the military. You've got to hold your own and be able to function as a member of that family,” Tollas said.

On being a female in the military

“There is a big difference in women in the military when I was there and women in the military today. All through my military career, one of the lines that everyone used to say was, ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.’ So for me, I was one of the boys. I lived and worked in a genderless society. We all had jobs to do and that's what it was all about,” Tollas said.

“I wouldn’t want to be a woman in today's military because there is too much political correctness. You can’t be yourself. I had a great time. I had 20 years. I met some amazing people. I had a great career and a good life and I never had any issues.

“I was in the military when women were first getting into the infantry roles and I don't believe the standards should be lowered because you’re a woman. You do the job the same as everybody else. It shouldn't matter if you’re a female or a male, and I never felt I was a female or a male. I was doing a job. My pay was the same. There is no difference in pay between men and women ... You all get paid the same, so we all should be doing the job, and for me that’s how I reacted and worked.

“But, oh man, we had a lot of fun.”

Jeff Hansen

About the Author: Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.
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