• James Alexander Niro

Heroes of the battlefield


PHOTO COURTESY JAMES ALEXANDER NIRO

Ste. Anne de Bellevue Veterans’ Hospital residents Stuart Vary (left) and Charles Bussières (right) recently shared stories of their lives with YLJ contributor James Alexander Niro.

September 1 marks the five-month anniversary that the Ste. Anne de Bellevue Veterans’ Hospital was transferred from federal to provincial ownership and also announced more beds would be available to non-veterans. This indicates the growing need for residency of our aging population as well as the declining number of veterans at the hospital. Ste. Anne’s is still home to many vets who have called it their final home and two of them recently took the time to share their memories.

“I took my training in Toronto and worked mostly on the bombers, more of an observer and air gunner,” says WWII veteran Charles Bussières. He was drafted when he was just 18 years of age, being sent to potentially die for his country before he could even vote in it. “I was based in France, Ireland, Belgium, and Germany.” He also very briefly mentions that he got a shell in one of his knees, the only injury he brings up at all.

“I came back in February of 1946…I didn’t know exactly what to do, there were all kinds of jobs!” In June of 1947, a company by the name of Household Finance ­– today’s HSBC Finance – entered Québec as one of the province’s ground-breaking finance firms. Charles joined this company and nearly doubled his salary following his return from the war. After the company grew, he was promoted and met his wife of 37 years.

Next to Charles is Stuart Vary, a Korean War veteran. “I joined the army in 1950 at the age of 19. The first job I had when I got back was as an electrician’s apprentice. I wanted to get married, but I was only making $28 a week, so I went back to my hometown of Brownsburg and joined an ammunition company.”

In 1980, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As his condition worsened, he was forced to enter the hospital system and eventually to Ste. Anne’s where he has been for the last eight years. “I had bad thoughts when I [first] came here,” he says, clearly still coming to grips with his situation. But, with time and effort, Stuart found a way to find happiness in his new home.

Their lives after the war are evidently paramount to them. Charles clearly identifies as a finance man – something that he enjoyed doing. In many ways, it feels as though the war is more of a distant memory to him than something that defined him. Stuart too is a happy guy living amongst friends today. Their laudable character in taking their life for what it truly is shows immensely in the room. The relevance of their time at war fades into the background rapidly as their accomplishments since the war become more apparent.

Despite having a mostly paralyzed right hand and being constrained to a wheelchair, Stuart is the President of the Residents’ Committee (Charles is Vice-President), which ensures that if someone has a problem there will be a solution. He gives a modest, “well, it gives you something to do,” when asked if he is proud of helping his fellow residents. Stuart inspires along with aspiring.

In an effort to redirect the conversation back to their wartime experiences, the men are asked if they had any experiences overseas that they enjoyed. “I enjoyed R&R at Tokyo,” says Stuart, “lots of women… a very clean country.” Charles, having served in WWII, also visited many of the infamous places Europe has to offer: Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc.

When asked if they made any friends overseas, Stuart pensively says “No, and that’s a shame when you think about it.” His expression gives deeper meaning to his response; as if the echoes of all the people, all the faces that he must have seen in his time there were lost in a crowd instead of being connected to him in a profound way.

“All my friends (in the war), you know, they all died,” says Charles. Neither man has anyone left from that period other than family. All of the friends that they have today, they met at the hospital, serving as a reminder of how important the hospital is in their lives, and the lives of other residents. These men have suffered great loss, some of it before their eyes, and yet they remain fighting for something else: their happiness and the happiness of their peers. This is the most important fight. And it is a fight they are winning.

Being shown around the facility, there is a sense of completeness here because so many considerations are taken for these veterans. Multiple activity rooms, gathering areas, a bowling alley, and even a smoking room for those who have definitely earned the right to live their lives on their own terms.

These people are, most fundamentally, regular people enjoying regular things. The veterans’ effort and tendency for contentment here makes them not just heroes of the battlefield long passed, but heroes of humanity.

Post-Script

Not long after our time together, the venerable Charles Bussières passed away. This only serves to amplify the impact of his efforts at the hospital for myself and, hopefully, many others. My deepest respects go out to his family. I was honoured to have known him, even for an hour.

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