One by one they filtered into the Fernie Legion, removing their hats and holding the door for their loved ones. Tall, short, old and young, each took their seat. Above them, a ceiling colourfully lit by a dozen different flags, some representing a country, others a global symbol of peace.
For years, veterans, first responders and their supporters have met for Branch 36’s annual Veterans and First Responders Dinner, but this year was special. The 75th anniversary of D-Day attracted a record turnout of over 80 people, including over 20 veterans from around the Elk Valley, Cranbrook and Kimberley.
Together they ate, toasted each other and their comrades, and listened to memoirs of veterans read by special guest Peggy Simons.
Two 50-foot long tables ran parallel to each other, headed by a table honouring special guests Reverend Andrea Brennan, Fernie councillor Kyle Hamilton, Legion Branch 36 president Jeannie Watson, her husband Keith, and an empty seat for the Unknown Soldier.
“It really is an honour to do this for you guys every year. We have a special group of veterans from Kimberley, we’d like to welcome you – thank you so much for coming,” said president Watson.
Simons told stories from the memoirs of her family members, including her father’s journal, which recounted the horrors and harsh realities of war.
“One of the events that left a lasting impression occurred in the spring of 1943,” read Simons.
Simons’ father wrote about being a part of a convoy of 80 ships and their ship was the slowest of the lot. In the first seven days, they broke down three times.
Stranded and alone, they repaired the ship and attempted to find the convoy once again. They were the last ship in row six, on the port side of the convoy.
A week out from Halifax, at dusk, they were attacked by submarines. Twelve ships were sunk in the first few minutes. For the next few days, they had little rest; the ships were torpedoed day and night.
“By this time the whole port side of the convoy was gone, along with all the front row of ships and numerous others,” read Simons.
“Instead of having five rows of ships to our port side, we now were the port side of the convoy.”
A sound occasionally emitted from the back of the room; a rumble, a deep sigh. Close to the source of the sound sat an unfamiliar face; a man with a dark beard and strong shoulders. Occasionally he would stand up and walk outside, followed by a dark, furry shadow.
A few years ago, Kyle Dalum would have never attended a dinner such as this. Now, 17 years after his military service ended, and thanks to the support of his Irish Wolfhound service dog, Phelan, he is finally starting to feel a sense of normality.
Dalum served as a 2nd Combat Engineer with the Canadian Army for three years and toured in Bosnia in 2003. His job included everything from building bridges to detonating explosives.
“The unofficial motto of the combat engineers is to allow our forces to move and fight, while denying the enemy the same,” said Dalum.
Dalum’s transition back into society took much longer than the time he spent in the military. Re-entering society felt, for Dalum, like stepping through a portal.
For the past five years Dalum has undergone counselling and received much support from his service dog, Phelan.
“She has been an incredible tool with counselling and medication, and everything else, to get me to a position of actually being able to enjoy things and be productive,” said Dalum.
For Dalum, his service dog is everything. He referenced several studies, which showed service dogs have the power to eliminate the need for medication completely.
He hopes that the Canadian government can soon take the results of these independent studies, as well as their own studies, and create a national, federal standard for how service dogs are viewed, and funded.
The stigma surrounding mental health, explained Dalum, is something that he’s working to break down.
“For well over a decade I fought with myself and didn’t understand the challenges that I was facing, and what I was going through,” said Dalum.
“Overcoming those challenges; I’ve been in counselling for five years, I’ve tried different medications to try and find the one that suits me, and fits with my body,” he added.
Dalum explained that at the time, the incredible amount of medical testing he underwent was overwhelming. Looking back, he now realizes how crucial it was.
“I wouldn’t have been out at this dinner five years ago,” said the now 38-year-old. “And I definitely wouldn’t have made it through the dinner.”
Not all veterans have been able to seek out and complete the necessary therapy to treat their stress injuries. Asked what needs to change surrounding the stigma of mental health of veterans, Dalum said there needs to be an increase in openness and inclusivity for people who need help. He said this applies to both the military and emergency services.
“… If you have challenges, for it to be acceptable to look for help. Rather than being in a closet situation where people are abusing alcohol or drugs or whatever addictions they (may use to) cope,” said Dalum.
He was one of several young veterans that attended the Veterans and First Responders Dinner in Fernie for the first time this year, and said it was great to see the inclusion of veterans, young and old.
Dalum, as well as several others, attended the dinner with the support of Military Ames, a group which is dedicated to supporting veterans in Kimberley and Cranbrook. The program was launched in 2014 by Cindy Postnikoff.
Dalum said it takes some serious strength to accept your vulnerabilities and get help.
“If you have things that you don’t understand, why you’re lashing out and snapping, and having different reactions to things, and you think that you’re strong enough to do it on your own, be strong enough to get help,” he said.
The Veterans Affairs Canada Assistance Service provides psychological support, which is available 24/7 to veterans, former RCMP members, their family members, or caregivers. Call toll-free: 1-800-268-7708.