- Created on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 19:28
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By RENAT ABSALYAMOV
It’s 18 years since the Bosnian War ended. Eighteen years during which every nightmare and paranoid trip, replays continuously; mass rapes, genocides and other acts of unspeakable atrocity.
The battles are over and the war criminals jailed. It has been gradually substituted by depression and sleep deprivation whereas the massacres and genocide he saw are no more than memories and figments of his imagination fuelled by alcoholism and chemical dependency.
Recalling the war, he takes a pint of beer or goes to sleep.
Wars do not end with a cessation of hostilities. They do not end with the defeat of an opponent or signing of an armistice. Day after day, they are constantly being waged in the imagination of people who took part.
“I live the life of a rock star,” says James Trevor Scott, a tall and well-built 48-year-old veteran of the Bosnian War.
“My morning does not even start until my hangover from the day before is over more or less. If I am not participating in something, I am drinking. I go to bed either half-inebriated or now being controlled by a lady. Most times, I go to bed because I know what is coming: I am getting paranoid trips and bad dreams, and if I am inebriated when I am going to bed, it kind of takes it away, sometime.”
Scott is a “semi-retired” corporal of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. During a conversation, his voice sounds calm and steady; it is very hard to imagine him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Neither composure nor his jokes tell people around him that about six days a week he drinks.
Sometimes he takes a day off from himself to say he is not going to take a pitcher of beer. Sometimes he
“I am still there. In my mind, I am still there.”
Without any emotion he repeats and repeats that mantra about the peacekeeping mission that turned out to be all sorrow.
Scott’s path to one of the most destroying conflicts of the late 20th century does not differ from typical stories of Canadians serving in war conflicts.
Like many of them, he always wanted to be a frontline soldier.
So infused by hostilities he watched in a movie when he was about six, he entered a cadet school and became a member of a militia in Kingston, Ont.
In the period between joining the militia and landing in Zagreb, Croatia, he went to the Canadian Forces and participated in the peacekeeping operation in Cyprus in 1991.
Then, he had training in Wainwright, Alta., and Monterey, Calif., and a post in Winnipeg.
“We landed at Zagreb, [then] Yugoslavia, at the airport. There was a missile, and [it was] unexploded. We were all watching through the windows when we were landing and [saying], ‘Wow, that is reality!’”
During his eight and a half months of service, Scott served as a patrolman and a gasoline truck driver. He has never fired a shot, but had orders to kill.
Scott had time to see not only the missiles and barbed wires, but also deceased people whose smell was so disgusting that even animals were not able to come closer.
Rapes. Destroyed buildings. Tortures.
Such visions of acts of violence as mass and indiscriminate murders became a routine part of his life and of many other Canadian soldiers overseas.
“I still have dreams,” says Alexander Lyle McKelvey, a veteran of the Korean War, fingering a white plastic cup he keeps in his hands, “but it does not bother me as it bothers him.”
“This is what they saw over there as soldiers,” says Louis Frenette, a service officer in the Royal Canadian Legion A.C. McCallum Branch 479, Niagara Falls. “Something that probably they are not used to in Canada. When you are walking home, beside the road, babies are dead, throats are cut – whole families are slaughtered.”
In comparison to Scott, McKelvey’s and Frenette’s route to the army seems easier. With a 10-year interval, they got out of a truck, crossed a street and signed up for the army.
However, behind this easiness, Frenette hides six years of a cadet school he attended before the joining the army. In total, to the forces, he devoted 11 years and nine months. This contrast with Scott and McKelvey, 75-year-old Frenette, born in Bathurst, N.B., has never participated in the war.
“I was a peacetime soldier. I was basically stationed in Canada, and also I was stationed in Germany. I spent three years in Germany, and I was there in 1968 when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia.”
Confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War played a great role in his life and in McKelvey’s when at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, in rain, 90,000 North Korean army soldiers crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korean territory.
Being inspired by tales from two brothers and one sister about the Second World War, he did not have a chance to avoid serving in the army.
McKelvey agrees with Scott, saying that to carry off dead soldiers’ bodies was one of the morning rituals he did not get
“I took three men on a ‘reccy’ [reconnaissance] patrol,” recalls McKelvey.
“We went walking through the valley, and all of a sudden a flare went off. A flare lights the whole sky. The flare goes off. You freeze. You don’t move because if you don’t move, they don’t know what you are. You move; they know you are a person. When this flare went off on this rice patty, leaning on this rice patty, was a man, and I said, ‘Don’t anybody move.’ I thought it was an enemy.
“The flare died, and I went right down on top of him and grabbed him by the throat. It was a dead man. He had been dead for almost two weeks. He was in the battle we had two to three weeks ago. He was a lieutenant. He was killed out there and was never found. So I found him and got on the wire. I told the operator that I found the body. My sergeant major came out and said, ‘Bring him in.’ I said, ‘I can’t, and he’s half rotten.’ He said, ’Bring him in, anyways.’ I said, ’OK, I would break off a leg and bring it in.’”
McKelvey, as well as Frenette and Scott, laughs.
He could not have anticipated that the story that might have scared him then, 60 years later would make him smile. Exactly as he would not expect that the most shattering blow would be stricken not by an enemy’s weapon, but by his own son’s decision to commit suicide. McKelvey calls it “the most terrible” moment in his life.
“The only reason we could figure out why he committed suicide is a broken back. He was in his own construction business doing pretty good, and every time he went to work, it hurt pretty much,” an emotionless McKelvey says as the plastic cup he has been squeezing for an hour is ready to shatter.
In contrast, Scott has neither a cup in his hand nor a reason to break it – each of his six children is alive. However, like McKelvey, a few years ago, he was in a truly dark corner.
Having come from Bosnia-Herzegovina, he found himself partying all the time in the world he no longer knew: no missiles, no landmines, no spiked strips, no genocides and no comrades. He started visiting different bars and taverns, which along with the constant depression and nightmares, led his family to a split-up. He did not care what other people thought about him. He became wild.
“I lost everything,” describes Scott this time. “I lost my wife and kids. We did not know each other any more. For them, it was horrific. I was an animal, a monster. So, we needed to part because for them it was good and for myself.”
Scott cannot say he does not like to recall this time. However, most of the recollections he kept about this period are painful: divorce, alcohol, an army jail, an annual discharge, sleep deprivation.
Nobody knows how Scott would have ended up if during one of his bar trips, he had not met Leslie Foster, a caretaker assistant in the District School Board of Niagara, Niagara Falls.
“I was drunk in a bar when I first met her. She hated me because I was a complete asshole,” says Scott.
“When I first met him, he was angry,” says Foster about their first meeting in the City Café, one of the Niagara Falls’ bars he visited at that time.
“He had bad dreams all the time. He drank all the time. He did not like himself. He could be mean.”
Now, in 2014 – 10 years later – the bar at which they met no longer exists whereas Scott and Foster are going to celebrate their fifth year together.
He still suffers from PTSD, and they still live separately, but his personality turned. He became more generous and social, funny and sensitive, and the big role in this transformation was played by Foster. Meeting the woman he has today Scott calls one of the best moments in his life.
“She showed me a light,” Scott says, adding, “She saw nightmares and all these bad things; she sees that there is a person inside that can do well. She gave me a second chance.”
At the same time, Frenette and McKelvey are retired, but if Frenette is involved with the Royal Canadian Legion helping veterans, McKelvey just enjoys the rest of his life.
He wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to a park to do a morning exercise. Sometimes he travels within Canada and to the U.S.
Through the war and the army, all of them not only gained comradeship, but learned how to become a man. It taught them discipline and punctuality. Moreover, the army was not finished for them with retirement. It still comes back to them through memories, friends they made and habits they have, and the most interesting part is that even ruining lives of some soldiers like Scott, it still makes them wish to come back to the battlefields.
“I am still in the army; I am still fighting; I am still shooting. It is in my mind,” enthusiastically says Frenette.
“This is a question that I am always asked,” says Scott.
“Would I go back if Canada needed me? In a minute. I would go back, for sure. I know I am helpful. I will never forget training, and I still love this country.”
McKelvey and Frenette nod their heads, and their wives, Jan McKelvey and Gloria Frenette, unanimously add, “You can take a man out of the army, but you cannot take the army out of the man.”