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Just Look Up.

A Remembrance Day Reminder.

By Hannah BPublished 4 years ago 6 min read
A photo from the Cassino War Cemetery, Broncs World Tour 2011.

For over a decade, I've had a seemingly uncharacteristic passion for war history and remembrance, especially during the Remembrance Day/Veterans Day season. You wouldn't exactly think a foul-mouthed, opinionated, and sometimes downright difficult woman would be one for so passionately and seriously observing respect and silence for past and present military personnel, and yet here we are. In large part, this passion is due to growing up in the strange little rural Alberta town I grew up in; home to the world's largest horse and rider statue, sports teams appropriately all called "The Broncs", some redneck overt racism, and a teacher with the most passion for respect for our troops I think I've ever met, Mr. Labrie.

Mr. Labrie brought a project in our little home town called the Cenotaph project, where highschool students are encouraged to get to know more about the men and women who fought and died in past wars by researching particular soldiers and then travelling to the places where they fought, died, and are buried. We in particular were there to search for the graves of men and women from our town, and even took charcoal grave rubbings to bring back to the legion and family members who would never get to visit them. At our school, Mr. Labrie titled this combination Europe trip and research fellowship, "The Broncs World Tour". I had the absolute honour and privilege of being a part of this project in 2/3 years I spent learning from Mr. Labrie, and was lucky to see various battlefields, cemeteries, and war memorials. I got to see France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, all because of a man who wanted me to not only observe remembrance, but to respect it and relate to it.

I was beyond flustered and honoured when I was asked to speak at his annual Remembrance Day Ceremony two years ago in front of the entire high school and community as a Broncs World Tour alumni. Of course, I didn't need the gigantic boost to my already delusional self-importance, and yet here I was sat beside the mayor and the MLA like a celebrity guest, awaiting my turn to have the entire gym pondering my wisdom and sparking a new interest in respecting time-honoured traditions in the hundreds of kids seated on the gymnasium floor. I strutted to the podium, tossed my hair and made my killer opening joke about my speech being on my phone because I'm a millennial, and before I began, I looked up. I gazed into the front row where I saw the real VIP's and celebrities: our town's legion members. They were all smiling, and yet, so many of their eyes and cheaks were glistening with tears.

I was no longer my sassy, 24-year-old, joke-cracking self standing at that podium; I was once again the 17-year-old who stood crying at the roadside memorial for a fallen soldier, and the 15-year-old holding her breath walking through the trenches that once cradled the bodies of soldiers who grew up on the same soil as me. I remembered why I was standing there. And I began. My speech was as follows:

*some names changed to protect privacy*

I’m Hannah Barrett and I have the privilege of calling myself a two time Broncs World Tour alumni, as well as a graduate of the Ponoka Composite High School, when it still existed, back in 2011.

The Broncs World Tour wasn’t just a wild and crazy Euro trip; I’m not saying it wasn’t that, I’m just saying that isn't ALL it is. I toured first with Mr. Labrie, Mr. Smith, Mr. Black, and Mrs. Brown in 2009, and again with Mr. Labrie, Mr. Adam, Ms. Spears, and Ms. Blue in 2011. I, like many of my classmates, could have been classified as “one of those dang millennials with no respect”, but Mr. Labrie saw that there was compassion and a willingness to learn in me, and he gave me a chance. With this chance, he taught me to honour remembrance in a way I would have never imagined. The months leading up to my tours of the battlefields and war cemeteries of Europe, where men and women from our very town fought and died, changed me and my classmates forever. Walking the rows of hundreds of Canadian headstones each day touched my heart in a way I had never felt before.

It is a requirement of a Broncs World Traveller to research a soldier we will be honouring while in Europe, to know this soldier and their family, where they came from, how they fought for our country’s freedom. It is one thing to sit in a gymnasium and quietly reflect as you listen to “in Flanders fields”, but it is quite another to actually stand among those poppies between each cross row on row. I have stood there. I have run up the rocks on the beaches of Normandy and walked the trenches of Hill 62. I have mourned our brothers and sisters graveside, trenchside, and even roadside, metres from where they took their last breath. It is one thing to say “we will remember them”, and it is quite another to fall to your knees in front of their gravesite. Their name looks a lot different carved into that stone, and although they are not there in front of you, suddenly it feels like they are. You know this soldier. And you are finally there in person to thank them.

I’ve got a few take aways for the students here at Ponoka Secondary Campus. One: you go to a pretty extraordinary school. I have never met anyone, from any other school, in any other town, province, or country, with as much passion or knowledge of remembrance than what is taught in this school, especially by the amazing social studies department and Mr. Labrie. There are men and women here who know your potential; please let them help you realize it. Two: you are free and able to be yourselves because men and women died for you in war. You live in a country where your voice matters and your life can be filled with choice and freedom because of those men and women. That is why you must be respectful today and every day. That is why we honour and remember.

Today and during this season, I honour the men and women that died in many ways. I attend ceremonies such as these at local legion branches. I donate each year to buy a poppy, today I’m wearing one hand stitched by Canadian Veterans at a Halifax legion branch I visited a few weeks ago, and I’m also wearing this bullet casing necklace, made by a company who donate all proceeds to veterans battling PTSD.

Every other day of the year, I honour and remember our soldiers by being involved in politics, voting, and exercising the democratic right they fought for, and I hope you will all eagerly learn about doing so as well until you’re of age to vote.

I wanted to leave you with some words from a time when I was your age. Every Remembrance Day season I flip through my BWT journals and reflect. I came across something I jotted down after paying our respects to Private Douglas Wiles at Assisi War cemetery:

Mr. Labrie had these made for every attendee of each trip.

"I don't think 'Lest We Forget' will ever mean the same thing to me after taking these trips. When you walk through each long row of stones, and as you walk there are countless flags and maple leaves, you really want to remember. Because you're right there, and those aren't just stones. I want to sit and read and thank each one because in a few days I get to go home, and that's because they didn't."

The veterans nodded, their tears flowing once more, and so did Mr. Labrie. I haven't given many speeches in my day, but it was one I will always be so proud to have given.

This year, with no permitted public ceremonies, my heart aches for our veterans and legion members. I wish I could see their faces and give them my attendance and respect. Please, when safe, be sure to visit and reach out to them. You don't have to have stood on a battle field to see their sacrifice and their pride; you just have to look up. Look up from what you're doing, and see them in all that you do; thank them for all that you have.


About the Creator

Hannah B

Mom, self proclaimed funny girl, and publicly proclaimed "piece of work".

Lover and writer of fiction and non-fiction alike and hoping you enjoy my attempts at writing either.

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