Saviours, survivors and heroes

As Remembrance Day approaches we begin to reflect on those who lost their lives to war and those who we call heroes. This term can be ambiguous as it does not serve the same definition for everyone, nor does it reflect the same experiences. However, there is a consistent honour behind it that cannot be matched.

Heroes are around us constantly, not only in the memory of a battlefield but in our homes, schools and neighbourhoods.

Speaking to local heroes, The Cord discovered their stories to find out what it really means to earn the title.

Tasha Allain, a fourth-year psychology student at Wilfrid Laurier University who fought cancer between March and August of last year, feels that a hero is defined by their actions. “[It’s] someone who has the courage to go into a situation when they don’t know what’s going to happen. They just go and do it, because they have this drive,” she said.

Similarly, Kitchener’s Bud Harper, who served as a lance corporal during the Korean War, feels that a hero is “somebody who goes out of his way to do something extra, something that he should do, but didn’t have to.”

Others believe that a hero is defined by who their actions serve. Bruce Good, platoon chief of the City of Waterloo’s firefighters, said, “[A hero] thinks more of the people they’re helping than of themselves.”

Fellow veteran Edward Pickering of Kitchener, who served in the Air Force during World War II, commented that a hero “puts his own self aside to help someone else at the risk of his own self.”

Each individual has acted in accordance with these definitions through their varied life experiences.

Firefighter Good outlined his everyday duties as a public servant. “[I] rescue people from fires, from entrapments, car accidents, industrial accidents. There are lots of opportunities for intervening when people’s lives are in the balance.”

A particular incident which stands out for him occurred ten years ago, at the University of Waterloo, when there was a fire on the main floor of a two-storey residence in which a graduate student was trapped.

“There was a lot of smoke when we got there and she was in the back of the building. We put up a ladder and got her out,” explained Good. “That was one of the highlights of my career for sure.”

Wartime presents a far different atmosphere, where the danger is just as immediate but one must act to save themselves rather than others.

Despite this, the heroism of stepping up for another can still be found.

Pickering shared a story from his time in the service. “There was one time a guy went crazy in the hut. Started chasing everybody with a bayonet,” he said. “So I was a corporal and it was up to me to stop him. I slapped him on the head with my bayonet, which is a heavy weapon. It knocked him out.”

Harper shared another example, illustrating the camaraderie of soldiers at war.

“If a guy’s in trouble or something, they wouldn’t leave him there alone you know. We had one guy, shot right through the chest and three or four had to carry him back I’d say half a mile and of course he was in bad shape and he was saying ‘take the money I have on me and send it to my mother’… but he wasn’t killed, his chums were right there with him.”

The anxiety never ends for the loved ones back home. With two major wars currently going on, many still experience the same fears.

Cancer, like war, also poses a danger to the self and those close to you — the latter being less a physical danger and more of an emotional danger.

“The toughest thing for me when I realized I had cancer was that it isn’t just affecting me,” reflected Allain. “It’s affecting everyone else who knows me, people who see me on the street with no hair and the people that I love.”

“I could either fall apart and crumble and have everyone else fall apart and crumble with me or I could find the strength inside of myself to say ‘it’s okay, I’m not giving up, I’m going to get through this.’”

Allain also shared the profound effect her illness had on her. She explained that being sick changed her approach to life. “I was always such a control freak,” she said. “I always needed to do the best thing, the right thing. Getting cancer just made me realize that life is short, it really is. It isn’t something people just say because it’s a cliché. It’s a privilege.”

Harper concluded that, despite the war being a traumatic experience, “It does a person good. You’re not hanging around a street corner; they really make a man out of you. You have a little bit of pride in yourself that you did that, they beat it into you.”

Another WWII veteran, Kitchener’s August Herchenratter of the Highland Brigade Infantry during the war, said his greatest source of pride actually came from the outskirts of war.

“What I and my platoons did and how we served for the army when the war started, Juno Beach and on, that’s what I got the medal for,” Herchenratter told The Cord. “But the thing that most made me a hero was what I did when the war was over.”

He explained, “Before the war started, we were stationed in a place where just a few blocks away there was a big hall that had dancing every night.” Herchenratter added that one night at the hall a young woman had caught his eye. “She didn’t want to dance with me because I had big army boots on then. I turned away, but then came again and grabbed her by the waist, I said, ‘You’re going to dance with me.’ When the war was over, on January tenth, we were married.”

Heroism ultimately comes down to having the courage to face whatever challenges stand between yourself and what you feel is right, whether that challenge be a house fire, a battle or a rejection to dance.

At times, we are all faced with challenges in life that interfere with who or where we need to be, and in that sense every one of us has the opportunity to be a hero.

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