Stories of service

Marlon Hector/Times-Herald

Six mornings a week of coffee and conversation

If you’re looking to hear war stories, morning coffee with the veterans at the Legion Hall is the place to get them. You will also find lots of laughs and conversation, and lots of ragging.
“We pick on each other,” says Jim Kleckner. “That’s what we do.”
Kleckner is not a veteran, but he has a personal connection to the group. His dad was in the service and his mom was a war bride. He has always supported the Legion as an associate member.
Conversation goes from torpedo boats to duck hunting to goose hunting, then to baseball and a joke of the day best left off the record.
“We talk a lot of BS,” jokes Rene Lachance, a navy vet who served for 29 years. “It’s amazing, we meet six days a week and the stories are always different.”
Someone in the group jokes: “Well, these old guys, you can tell them the same story three or four times, and they never remember!”
Lachance’s longest tour was to Afghanistan, for nine months.
“What comes to mind, what’s the hardest, is you live in small quarters and you see the same faces every day, every day, every day, and every day,” says Lachance. “And the thing is, the higher your rank, in a way, the harder it is for you, because you are human like everyone else but you have to keep the morale up and the guys motivated.”
Tours usually run for about six months, so that nine-month tour Lachance remembers is a doozy.
“I mean your life back home goes on no matter how long you’re gone for, it goes on without you,” he said. “You can dwell on that for hours, because then you get to thinking about family. There’s a lot of divorce, kids missing you. It’s not easy. The cooks help a lot. They do special meals here and there.”
Right on cue, in walks Bob Turnbull, chief petty officer, second class, retired, a navy man for 33 years. He was one of those cooks.
“Oh, there’s Mr. Bob! I was just talking about how good the cooks were to us!” says Lachance.
For Turnball, the secret is simple.
“Don’t burn the spaghetti,” he says quietly, while the group roars with laughter.
“The first meal at sea, 99 per cent of the time, is spaghetti,” adds Lachance, nodding and smiling.
Speaking of cooks, navy veteran Chuck MacMillan tells the story of cook Harold Sebrum, who was brought up on the carpet one time for aiding and abetting the enemy.
“Remember those metal meal trays. People would stick their gum on the trays and they would stick together,” says MacMillan. “And Harold would just throw them through the porthole because he didn’t want to deal with it. And they were in the Mediterranean and of course, all these little metal trays were shiny and flashing signals, supposedly.”
Someone reported it to the brass.
“’What the hell is going on?’” says MacMillan. “’That ship is sending signals to the enemy!’ So, Harry was brought onto the carpet. He said ‘Well, sir, it was too hard to clean and I am too busy.’”
More laughs from the table. It’s stories like that which bring the vets and associate members back morning after morning. That all of them have retired here in Moose Jaw is neither an accident nor coincidence.
“Most of us retire here where we finished off our service. To retire with whatever pension you get and you go back to where you came from… the rest of the country is so expensive,” says Steve Edwards, retired military firefighter. “So basically you say ‘I am going to stay right where I am, all my friends are here and I can afford to do everything.’”
“Moose Jaw is a great place to retire,” adds Turnbull, who completed his career at 15 Wing.
Ray Taylor, who started out in army infantry, nods his head and agrees.
“That’s true, isn’t it? In your career, there are people you know and you become friends and then they’re gone for 15 or 20 years,” says Taylor. “You run into them again, and you’re a different person. So, my friends are here.”
Taylor is a little more reserved than the rest. He completed his career as an officer in the security branch, working intelligence and counter-intelligence. There remain details of his time in service he cannot disclose. He moved 29 times in 32 years of service.
“I was all over the place. I switched trades a lot. It was tough,” he says. “But I had a very full career, a very rewarding career.”
While the vets and their compatriots are generally a jovial bunch, it’s hard to forget their challenges. Lachance explains how they have to fight for disability benefits.
“You have to be able to prove that your medical issues happened during your service years,” explains Lachance. “I have two fusions in my neck because of what happened during my service, but it’s hard to prove. So, you gotta fight, fight, fight. After a while, we just give up.
“That’s a choice you make at 18 years old, and you live with it,”
Marcel Viel, master corporal, retired, tried to think back to when he was 18. He came close. He was serving in the Air Force and found himself in Egypt in 1967. His squad was suddenly and quickly evacuated out of their base in Egypt. Three days later, Israel attacked Egypt and the Six-Day War began. Viel was 23 at the time.
“You see, in a situation like that, everybody is scared,” he said. “That was the very first time I could hear shots close by.”
As is his way, MacMillan has another story to lighten the mood.
He was doing public relations once for the Legion here in Moose Jaw. He asked all the old vets to bring in pictures of when they first joined the service.
“We had a little contest going. We showed the pictures and asked people to guess who’s who,” explains MacMillan. “For some of them, there was no guessing. It was so obvious. For others, not so much.”
One lady was looking at a picture of a young officer — debonair, with a manicured moustache. He used to be in the British army.
“He looked like someone out of the old movies, like Errol Flynn,” says MacMillan.
Just as he walked by in the hall, she looked at the picture of the young soldier and she said: “Oh, I’d let him put his boots under my bed anytime.”
“I told her ‘Well, go ask him now, there he goes,’” says MacMillan. “And the look on her face when she saw him in his older years — she said, ‘That’s him?’”
She quickly changed her mind.