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Helping others helps veterans heal

Members of the Canadian Army Veterans motorcycle units pay tribute to their fallen comrades by committing themselves to improving their communities.

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Scarlet poppies punctuate the tall grasses stirring softly in the warm summer breeze. In the distance, the red and white Canadian flag flies from the Peace Tower, standing out against the cloudless blue sky. Here on the roof of the Canadian War Museum, 100 men and women in red shirts and black leather vests with a crest portraying a mounted soldier on a motorcycle stand reverently in a ceremony of remembrance and respect.

Members of the Canadian Army Veterans (CAV) motorcycle units have gathered to commemorate the 67th anniversary of D-Day. The building’s regenerative theme was designed to remind us of nature’s ability to recover from the devastation of war. The CAV aims to regenerate the lives and spirits of men and women decimated by that same devastation.

Founded following a chance meeting at a Kingston charity ride in 2003 between visionary Paul “Trapper” Cane and J.S.Y. “Doc” LeBrun, there are now more than 80 units across Canada and abroad. Based on a military model, run completely by volunteers and governed by a constitution, the country is divided into three formations, each comprised of local units named after battles that claimed sacrifices from that area.

Cane sees the motorcycle as a healing tool. “It forces you into present moment and pulls you away from the darkness of Rwanda, Korea or Afghanistan. Not only does the CAV provide a family that understands the military culture, it surrounds members with people who understand the language and the pain, and supporters to help integrate them back into civilian life.”

Engaging veterans in charitable work is key in their rehabilitation. “Charity begins at home but ends where you are,” says Cane. “Our outreach extends to countries where our Canadian troops are stationed.”

The Toronto-based Normandy unit organizes regular activities to support the Tony Stacey Centre for Veterans Care in Scarborough. High on the CAV’s fundraising priority list, it’s the only facility of its kind in Canada that keeps spouses together. “When spouses of 50 or 60 years, much of that separated through military duty, can be together at the end of their lives,” Cane says, “the world is a much better place.”

Every CAV unit is tasked to do one ride a year to raise money for the International Community for the Relief of Suffering and Starvation, which serves the poorest of the poor in Africa. Funds have purchased blood analysis machines, x-ray equipment and medications. Last year, Kenora’s Hindenburg Unit sent a shipment of a “school-in-a-box.” Designed to unfold into a blackboard, each cardboard box contained chalk, crayons, notebooks, pens, pencils — and drywall mud and a scraper to patch bullet-riddled walls.

This summer, the Vimy Unit in Kingston held a bike/sandwich competition with the residents of H’art School of Smiles, an organization for adult learners with intellectual disabilities. “They made fancy sandwiches and we decorated our bikes,” recounts 1st CAV Administrator Sherry Ann “Shadow” Downes. “We judged and ate their sandwiches; they judged and got to go for rides on our bikes. Seeing the smiles on their faces is what the CAV is all about.”

The CAV is quick to respond to needs. Bill “Drifter” Truman, 1st CAV President, recalls meeting the wife of a veteran who lost a leg. Already seriously depressed and spending his days at home in the dark, he was told it would be at least a year until the Department of Veterans Affairs could build him a ramp. “Within a week, Rona had donated lumber, our members had donated talent and time and he was wheeling down the ramp out of his house.”

Truman joined a fledging Vimy Unit in 2006 and within a year there were 146 members. “People see what we do, riding and raising money for worthy causes and want to be a part of it,” he says. It’s hard to find an open date on the CAV’s national calendar and most days have multiple events. On Oct. 29, CAV was involved in charity events in 63 cities.

Next month on Dec. 4, CAV members, veterans’ families, Ottawa schoolchildren and others will participate in the launch of “Wreaths across Canada” at Beechwood, the National Cemetery of Canada in Ottawa. This event will put 3,600 wreaths at the graves of fallen soldiers.

CAV members are highly visible at repatriation ceremonies. On June 11, the 3rd CAV Ubique Unit participated in the unveiling of a new section on the Trans-Canada Highway between Langley and Abbotsford, B.C. They escorted the 18-wheeler towing fellow CAV member Dave “Kickstand” Sopha’s Portraits of Honour mural on this summer’s cross-Canada tour.

Darlene Cushman who lost her son, a CAV member, in Afghanistan, is the CAV’s National Silver Cross Coordinator and an early point of contact for families who have lost loved ones.

The CAV has been fortunate to have Padre Don Chisholm, himself a rider and 30-year veteran. Chisholm uses his quiet strength and calm demeanour in his daily ministering to soldiers and their families who have gone through “hellish, traumatic experiences.” He and Cane have each attended 150 of the repatriations. This summer, the Padre and his wife travelled to Newfoundland, visiting not only the gravesites of soldiers, but also their families.

There’s a warm breeze at that solemn D-Day ceremony, which saw several speakers take the podium, including Chisholm and Maj.-Gen. Lewis McKenzie, founder of the CAV Old Guard.

“Remember our colleagues and especially the families,” asks Chisholm. “They are hurt the most.”

“Appreciate and respect what our troops do in the service of our country,” adds Truman. “Never forget our fallen heroes.”



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