Our family—my brother, me and our children—recently received Memorial Crosses and Ribbons from the Government of Canada in memory of our father, Gord Penney: “One who died in service to Canada.” It was an unexpected honour because our father and grandfather did not die in battle or as a result of injuries sustained in battle. He died of ALS.
My father was a career military man, and very proud of that fact. He first joined the Air Force when he was 18, but didn’t last very long in that branch. He claimed they made the runways too short for him. He went home to Nova Scotia, recollected his ego, and joined the Army when he was 20. He served 35 years, retiring (as required) at the age of 55 and the rank of CWO (a rank that made the officer cadets my sister and I dated tremble). He would have stayed another 20 years if they’d have let him.
He was a lucky man, and soldier. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces during a time of relative peace, so never was required to fight in battle. He was a peacekeeper in the Congo in the early 1960s, and went through a couple of “incidents” that he played down as little “scuffles”. He almost went to Vietnam in 1971, but because of a paperwork mix-up that deployment was cancelled just days before he was to leave. My sister and I, aged 4 and 6, in our innocence, were disappointed because he had told us he was going to bring us back black silk pyjamas with roses on them. We didn’t even know what silk was—we thought it was like velvet—but that sounded pretty special and we were sorry we weren’t getting those pjs. Years later, when I learned about what happened in Vietnam, I was relieved my father didn’t go there (and embarrassed at my childish selfishness). Dad went away to far-off postings, like Alert in Canada’s North, but never really into danger. He got to travel around the world, and back and forth across Canada (sometimes with us in tow). He got to learn new things and meet great people. He was a pretty lucky guy.
Or so we all thought. In June 2015, he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease). In our preliminary research on this illness, we discovered—surprisingly—that there is a link between military service and ALS. They don’t know what that connection is, but for some reason, a higher percentage of military veterans get this disease than those from the civilian population. What a shock it was to find out that the life Dad had loved so much might have been the cause of the horrible way in which he was going to die.
While my brother and I might have been a little angry about this, Dad never was. With the courage and stoicism that had been trained into him, he faced his limited future with a positive attitude. Well, most of the time—there were moments of grumpiness and lament, and during the car ride to the long-term care home I thought he was going to jump out the window. But for the most part, he accepted the fate dealt to him.
It helped that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs provided so much assistance. As soon as Dad’s diagnosis was confirmed, they stepped up with financial and moral support. They gave him more than he ever would have expected. That was such a help for all of us. End of life health crises are so difficult, financially and emotionally. Finding out what resources are available to you is a full-time job, which is stressful enough, let alone trying to pay for what you need. DVA took a large amount of that stress away from us. I think that gave Dad the most pride of his military career, knowing that the organization to which he had given his adult life, willingly and happily, was going to come through for him when he most needed them. He died in October 2016, only 16 months after his diagnosis, under his own terms and knowing that he wasn’t leaving his family with burdens to shoulder. He would have preferred to live until he was 150, and not have had to die in a way that robbed him so cruelly of his independence and dignity; but leaving with no debts and providing something for his family was an acceptable alternative. He was grateful to the Government of Canada for allowing him that choice.
He never would have imagined that he would be honoured with the Memorial Cross. For a career soldier, this is a monumental tribute, and one that he probably would have felt he didn’t deserve. He didn’t die or get wounded in battle. He wasn’t even really in any battles. Yes, he served his country but he thought he got more out of that than Canada did. And ALS, that was just an unfortunate circumstance in a predominantly lucky life. He never blamed Canada for that. To have known that the country would not only acknowledge responsibility for his illness and support him throughout his struggle, but then pay homage to his memory with a tribute such as the Memorial Cross—that crusty Chief Warrant Officer would have grumpily brushed away some embarrassing tears.
My tears flowed a little more freely when I finally held the crosses and ribbons in my hands. I knew they were coming; I had been contacted by DVA almost a year ago to make arrangements for this. But there is something about the weight of it—both actual (it’s sterling silver, after all) and metaphorical…. I’m proud of my father, and proud of my country, for what they did for each other.
We are all touched by illnesses that we or our loved ones suffer, and for many of us there are associations that can offer us support. But we need to support them too, whenever and however we are able. My family has been touched by cancer, heart disease, MS and ALS (to name the most recent), and we have been helped by all of the organizations working to find cures for these illnesses. I have given my money and time to them when I can. I urge everyone to support the ones that are significant to you in whatever way you can. And if you or someone you love is afflicted, reach out for help.
ALS Society of Canada – https://www.als.ca
Canadian Cancer Society – http://www.cancer.ca
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada – http://www.heartandstroke.ca
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada – https://mssociety.ca