Students' work to record stories of area veterans

Nancy MacPhee
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SUMMERSIDE — The frail hand quickly grasped Cody MacKay's, squeezing ever so tightly and with a sense of urgency as the man, now in the winter of his life, begged not to be forgotten.

Cody MacKay (left), Hillary MacLeod and Brendan Ronahan have been spending the past few weeks gathering information about Prince County soldiers who lost their lives in battle. The students will have also been interviewing veterans so that their stories can be included in the kiosk that will be part of the recently unveiled Wall of Remembrance. 

It’s something the young man won’t soon forget.

“He just thanked me so much for being there. He said ‘don’t leave me, just stay talk to me, please’,” said MacKay. “There was this ominous sense that he didn’t want to be forgotten. That he didn’t want me to leave. That he wanted me to stay and talk with him.”

That man, a veteran of the Second World War, was one of almost 50 MacKay interviewed last summer for a project, spearheaded by the Lest We Forget Committee, aimed at remembering those that served for their country.

It’s the stories like the one from that man, now living alone with only his memories, that propels MacKay to work to ensure the unsung heroes of war are not forgotten.

“He looked forward to every day going for a walk outside and saying hi to people. After a while people stopped saying hi to him and stopped waving at him and talking to him so he stopped walking,” said the 22-year-old history student. “The only chance he got to speak was with me. He didn’t want me to leave, so we stayed with him for a little while.”

MacKay, along with 20-year-old Brendan Ronahan and 21-year-old Hillary MacLeod, is again sitting down with veterans to record their experiences on the battlefield.

The trio has been working together now for a few weeks, first focusing on collecting information for the recently unveiled Wall of Remembrance, which pays tribute to those from Prince County who lost their lives while serving in the First and Second World Wars, the Boer War, Afghanistan and all other campaigns in between.

The focus, now, is collecting the stories of living veterans for a kiosk that will be erected adjacent to the Wall of Remembrance. The hope is, once it is complete, all the men and women who were in the Forces will be featured.

“Most are gung ho, ready to tell their story,” said MacKay. “Some are a little hesitant to approach us because they don’t want to bring up that history or talk about specific things.”

Hearing these stories, some often horrific and graphic, has been an emotional and often difficult experience.

MacKay recalled interviewing local veteran, Jim Winn, who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

“He was a phenomenal speaker. It was insane. He went into specifics about the smell, what he had seen, what he heard — every sense he gave to me,” added MacKay, a history major at UPEI. “I lived vicariously through that moment with him. It was great.”

For MacLeod, the interview with Silver Cross mother Kathy Bulger stands out the most. Bulger lost her son, Nick, in Afghanistan, his life claimed by a roadside bomb.

“She’s an amazing and strong woman,” said MacLeod, who has no history background.

There’s a sense of urgency among the trio to gather as many stories as possible as quickly as possible. Veterans are quickly aging, some forgetful and, sadly, say the researchers, many dying before their stories have a chance to be told.

Ronahan has been hitting the streets, visiting area churches to track down what he calls lost veterans — men who lived on the Island and served but later moved away.

“If you miss someone it is not like you can go back years from now and try again. Unfortunately, if they pass away, you can get second-hand stories but nothing compared to the first-hand account,” said Ronahan, who is majoring in history and politics at UPEI. “A lot of veterans will say things to us that they have never spoken to anyone else. A lot of them think their contribution or that part of their experience is not important.”

They are wrong, added the 20-year-old.

“It is extremely, extremely historically important and significant. Those type of first-hand accounts are astounding to hear,” he added. “They are excellent resources and something that needs to be passed on.

“Our effort right now is really one of paramount history. You really feel the weight of history on your shoulders.”

MacKay is leaving the project early to study in Germany. For the remainder of the summer, MacLeod and Ronahan will continue tracking down veterans, sitting with them and hearing their stories of heroics and tragedy.

“Definitely my interest in history has gone much, much higher,” said MacKay, who hopes to continue working on the project next summer, funding provided. “It has more of a personal touch now. You can hear the voices and it almost like you can feel what they felt at some moments.”

Anyone with a story to share or who knows a veteran who has not been contacted, can contact the Summerside Legion at 436-2091.


Organizations: Forget Committee, First and Second World Wars

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Normandy, Silver Cross Germany

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