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LOIS LEGGE FEATURES WRITER
NEXT: Ron Clarke has always been a bit of a scrapper. He used to fight oppenents in the ring. Now, this tough, feisty senior is in a battle to oppose the federal government. Read it Tuesday in thechronicleherald.ca
Duncan McKeigan was wounded three times in war. But he kept going back to the front lines.
Once, he captured 10 German soldiers while bleeding from a shrapnel wound in his arm. Once, he caught a piece of the searing hot metal in his jaw. Once, he ran across a minefield in the dark to rescue a soldier shot in the head. And held the wounded man's tongue, so he wouldn't choke, as others carried him to medics.
Having just turned 90, the Battle of Normandy vet still has that piece of shrapnel in his arm. And memories of war in his head.
But he shakes his head in disgust at the fight he and other Cape Breton veterans now face, far past the bloody fields and shattered cities of a different world.
SEE ALSO: Nazi photos haunting souvenirs of war
Battling a government they say is doing them wrong when they tried to do what's right — over and over again, as bombs dropped and shrapnel flew and buddies died through the days and nights of war.
"It's an awful thing to see your friends getting shot and killed and you can't do nothing about it," he says, sitting in his Sydney Mines home.
War mementoes — a Nazi belt buckle, a pin and a sword — lie by his side.
War memories — dead soldiers and bombs and starving civilians — move in his mind.
Second World War veteran Duncan McKeigan shows a sword he took from a German soldier. (RYAN TAPLIN / Staff)
"You wake up dreaming," he says of those days and nights 70 years ago. "All this stuff comes to your mind. … You can see this stuff. It never goes away.
This is the refrain from vets of all stripes and circumstances, from new wars and old.
They'll never forget. But has their government?
Once in the bloody fields and muddy trenches of Normandy or dusty and sewage-stained roads of Kabul, these men now live in more peaceful places. Florence and Georges River and Sydney Mines. North Sydney and Sydney, where they used to have what McKeigan calls a "great" place, "one of the best places to go."
He's referring to the local district Veterans Affairs office the government closed in January — along with seven others across the country — despite protests and pleas from men who've faced fear by the years and seen entire cities and entire bodies destroyed.
There, at the Sydney office, caseworkers knew them by name, they say. Came to their homes to assess what the estimated 4,200 area vets needed. Gave them the kind of one-on-one services and personal support they still need while facing everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to the ailments of age.
Physical and mental scars as real as the lump of shrapnel in McKeigan's left arm or the anxiety in Afghanistan vet Terry Collins' chest. Anxiety that brings shortness of breath, tunnel vision and cold sweats, and has become so intense, he says, "it was like my blood was boiling."
And his whole body "tingling," from the PTSD that feels as explosive as the guns and bombs he used to handle, service or destroy.
"It was like a pressure cooker," says the former ammunition and explosives technician, now physically safe in his Florence home, muscular arms inked with the flames of an ammo tech's insignia and Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen and ammo techs and others risking sudden death.
"Constant pressure," Collins says. "Always there, for years."
Afghanistan veteran Terry Collins in his home in Florence on Tuesday. (RYAN TAPLIN / Staff)
He worried he might accidentally blow himself or his buddies up. He wondered if enemy mines or bullets or sticky bombs waited just around the corner.
And there's more pressure now, he says, wondering how to get services — previously provided at the Sydney office — by phone or Internet or by driving all the way to Halifax, where Service Canada staff now deal with the bulk of local cases.
It's something these and other Cape Breton vets know a lot about.
From McKeigan and Collins to Second World War vets Charlie Palmer and Dan MacNeil. Or peacekeeping vet Ron Clarke, who's become an unofficial leader for their past and current fight.
Like McKeigan, Dan MacNeil fought long ago, although his memories of combat aren't as clear. He saw dead, of course, as he crossed Juno Beach on D-Day. And he faced enemy fire and saw cities and villages destroyed by people who seemed as though they "didn't have any feeling for human life."
But most vivid for this 94-year-old North Sydney resident are the people who stayed alive and suffered. And the people who saw them and suffer still.
Especially the people of then Nazi-occupied Holland, whose plight touches vet after vet, all these years later.
"The people had a hard time," the former signal operator says in a raspy voice, in the home he shared with his war bride, Joan, for almost 70 years but now lives in alone.
"They had no food. And lots of time we shared what we had with them. … In one instance we were having our dinner and there was one man, he was outside the fence and you could tell he was very hungry. So I finished my dinner and then I took my bowl and I went on up to the cook and I said, "Here, fill that up," so I think we had rice and stuff that day and spaghetti, so he filled it right up, (it) overflowed, so I took it … and I put it under the fence for this poor man.
"I never saw anybody eat like that. It just disappeared. They were starving, see, they were eating tulip bulbs or whatever they could get a hold of to survive and especially (we) took pity on … the kids, you know, the small kids. So we tried to share what we had with them and that was about the saddest part I went through —to see those people, little kids, starving."
MacNeil feels sad these days, too. And others bring him his meals.
Joan died less than a year ago and his voice drops and his shoulders slump at the mention of her name. " Not very good," he says of how he's coping.
Second World War veteran Dan MacNeil in his North Sydney home. (RYAN TAPLIN / Staff)
But his two children live close by. And he's grateful for the services that staff at the former Sydney office arranged before it closed. People come in daily to make his meals and help him shower and go to the toilet.
"It's not very nice," he says of the closure, stressing vets didn't ask for much or abuse the services. The staff, he says, were kind and helpful and caring, familiar and comforting — never "tormented" by the former soldiers they served.
"If we need something, what are we going to do?" he asks as the sun streams in from the cold.
"It seems little enough for what we went through that they wouldn't keep that office open for us."
The office had 17 employees to help the vets with everything from paperwork to arranging medical appointments to arranging health aids in their homes.
The vets say the staff cuts leave them vulnerable and there won't be enough people now to provide the one-on-one service they believe they need.
In response to questions late last week, the department said in an email that one Veterans Affairs Canada expert is now available full time at the Service Canada office in Sydney and that vets "can conveniently visit" any of the nearly 600 such offices across the country. Spokesman Simon Forsyth also emphasized that vets can still receive home visits from registered nurses and case managers if required.
Since 2006, he said, the government has committed nearly $5 billion in additional funding to Veterans Affairs.
In the past, the department has also said vets can obtain services by phone or through the Veterans Affairs website.
But men like MacNeil don't even own a computer. And others say they don't know how to use the Internet.
Collins is more computer-literate, but these days he finds it too stressful to even go to a movie, let alone search government websites.
"To navigate through it is a chore in itself. … I remember just starting with something, trying to search it down and when I got so far, it brought me back to the beginning, so to me that's very confusing and repetitive and somebody with PTSD has not got patience to do that. We get discouraged quickly and we just discard it or put it away or put it aside. We don't get the service that we need … because that person isn't there to guide us."
The one-on-one service, he says, was "100 times better."
"Over the phone or on the computer or whatever, it's just ridiculous.
"I used to go over there and sit down with my case manager and we'd work out a plan on what to do now and how to follow it and so on and that would be pointed out to me in point form right in front of me. Now we've lost that service.
"(They'd) help me with anything, really. They could set up appointments for a chiropractor or massage therapy and anything physical as well," says the vet, whose 22 years in the army also left him with neck, back and foot injuries.
"It's like a bond, for sure. You call them by their first names and they call us by our first name."
It's a bond Second World War vet Charlie Palmer says they deserve.
The 93-year-old Sydney man became discouraged recently just trying to work his way through the "press this, press that" phone system for TV repairs.
Second World War veteran Charlie Palmer in his Sydney home. (RYAN TAPLIN / Staff)
He can't imagine how veterans with PTSD handle telephone or Internet links to Veterans Affairs.
During the Battle of Normandy, Palmer slept under trucks and braved shells from above. He saw one city reduced to a single chimney and watched a woman trying to hide her children under the rubble. He saw other children eating garbage and sold cigarettes on the black market to buy them chocolate.
He's doing OK today, he says, though he was "fighting shadows" when he first returned from war.
"I'd wake up at night and, for instance, if there was something on the wall … I thought there was somebody in the wall that was coming at me."
But he had a loving family — parents, eight sisters and a brother — that cared.
"And I didn't know that they were looking after me, but they did," he says.
Almost 70 years later, he believes vets — young and old — deserve to be looked after by their government.
In February, he stood before the province's standing committee on veterans affairs and called the federal office closure "unacceptable."
Today — in his Sydney home, the day Canada welcomed its last troops back from Afghanistan — he's saying it again.
"I was watching (on TV) today all the top dogs from the prime minister right down, right through the generals … saying how proud they were of their troops and all this stuff, you know, all kinds of nice words, the freedom that we enjoy and all that stuff, and then I think they turn around and … close these bloody offices. What freedom do those poor devils have that (are) suffering from PTSD and their families and their children?
"Just don't tell people how proud you are of them, show them how proud you are by your actions. (A soldier) mixed up in his mind, he needs help, and he needs help until the day he leaves this planet, if necessary, because he was willing to give his life."
McKeigan — father of four, husband to Freda for 68 years — was willing to give his life, again and again and again.
And at times, he's been mixed up in his mind.
His oldest daughter, Pat Canty, remembers a time when she was little, when the man his family adores went back to the war.
"He was very ill and he wasn't sleeping and he imagined he was in the war," she says.
"And he would say 'Freda, hide the girls, the Germans are coming.' And he was reliving a lot of stuff."
Just don't tell people how proud you are of them, show them how proud you are by your actions. (A soldier) mixed up in his mind, he needs help, and he needs help until the day he leaves this planet, if necessary, because he was willing to give his life.
She remembers standing by the side of the road in the middle of the night so the doctor would know where to come.
Few veterans of McKeigan's generation ever received any professional counselling.
"You had to cure yourself," he says.
But it "never leaves." Dead friends and bombs and starving children come back, in memories during the day and in dreams at night.
He thinks of the time in France when shrapnel hit his jaw and he went to hospital for two weeks and "it healed up pretty nice so I was all set to go again."
And the time on the border of Holland and Germany when a shell landed too close and stirred up dirt and temporarily blinded him until he went to hospital for a week and doctors flushed it out and he could see again.
Or the time in Belgium when he'd just flushed 10 Germans out of their bunker and a bomb from a big German 88 anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun came crashing down beside him and lodged shrapnel in his arm.
"The first thing you think is your arm is going to come off," he says, "or your face is going to be all shattered."
But that time, one of the captured Germans, a doctor, patched him up. And he propped his weapon on his bandaged arm and marched the captives, happy their fight was over, back to base. Then he discovered he'd been unarmed.
"I walked all that way," he says, laughing, "without a bullet in the gun."
"I wonder who was looking after you," his wife says with a smile.
"Well, somebody was looking after me," he says.
And perhaps they were looking after him again the night he helped retrieve that wounded soldier, running across a field he learned later was loaded with mines.
Today he can't run and can barely walk. He can't drive or withstand a trip to Halifax for services, hobbled by mini strokes three years ago that made him fall, hit his head and suffer a concussion. He's still recovering from recent gall bladder surgery, too, unable now to deliver Meals on Wheels to seniors like he used to or volunteer with his legion or sing in his church choir.
But he's grateful for the basement stair railings and upstairs chairlift that staff at the former Sydney office helped arrange for him, after visiting him at home and assessing his needs. He's grateful for all their help, over all the years.
"The women and men over there were perfect. They were the best. … If we needed anything, they would come over and talk to you. Where (are) you going to get somebody to talk to you here (now)?"
But today, he and Freda also think about how grateful others have been for his help — like the people of Holland he and other Canadians helped liberate. And the generations who never forget.
He went back there for the 35th anniversary.
Children wanted autographs. Adults organized parades.
As the former soldiers marched down the streets of Nijmegen, little ones, about the ages of the starving children they used to feed, gave them something in return.
"We used to have big chocolate bars in case we couldn't get something to eat (while) fighting," he remembers. "All these kids, they didn't have much to eat. We used to take the chocolate bars, break it up and give each little kid a piece. … (During the parade) kids lined up on the street passed each veteran a piece of chocolate."
He pauses for a moment. And his once-wounded eyes water.
"It would bring tears to your eyes."
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.