William H.A. Willbond MSM, CD

(Stand Down Soldier)

It’s a 104 mile ride from Trenton down to TO.
The hearse leaves the ramp, as off to the Coroner’s they go.
They leave that banner on the fence glaring and on show.
Citizens stand in the wind, in the rain and the snow.

See the CAV and the Blue knights all standing out there.
Regimental Patches, ribbon bars, beards and long hair.
As the hearse passes, bikers come to attention and salute
With a sharp click of the heels on those big motorcycle boots.

Stand down soldier, your job is now done.
You can go home as you drive out there towards the sun.
People stand on the fence line, in various dress.
Where they all came from is anyone’s guess?

The Jet black hearse exits out of the 8 wing highway gate.
Police car escorts radio ahead to those Canadians who wait.
Standing on each overpass, up there in the cold air,
Are the old folks, the children and Canadian others who care.

Cops and Fire Fighters Ambulance Drivers and more,
Be-medalled old soldiers from far away foreign wars.
The folks from the RC Legions in each passing town
Form up on the overpass and they salute looking down.

Patricia Calder Colborne read: “Soldier stand down”
As the casket goes forward, towards the big town.
What a strange feeling our presence it now creates
As the hearse and the escorts leave CFB Trenton’s gate.

A unique made in Canada ad hoc message of honour was sought.
Afghanistan returns the soldiers who died and who fought.
A high cost is being paid in shed blood, as often as not.
Attendees feel richer as Canadians, but sadder in thought.

Dedication of the Royal Canadian Legion Peace Park Hamilton, Ontario: August 7, 2010. The poems, “Our Fallen” and “Highway of Heroes: Stand Down Soldier” are by William H.A. Willbond MSM, CD.

This You Tube video is of Ginny McIlmoyle. The song was written by a local writer and a production company saw Ginny perform it on a show in Warkworth, Ontario and got everyone together to do this video. It is a great song and video shot in Belleville, Ontario at the Armories with footage from repatriations at Trenton, Ontario.

Stand Down, Soldier

There is a banner someone brings to the fence of Canadian Forces Base Trenton whenever there is a repatriation of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. It reads: “Stand down, soldier. Your job is done. You can go home.”

People line up along the fence surrounding CFB Trenton waiting for the aircraft from Afghanistan to touch down, open its cargo door, and offer up its burden. Some of the onlookers are civilians, some are retired service men and women, some are on leave from active service and dress in uniform for the occasion. Some of them even bring young children.

There’s a large contingent of bikers, the Blue Knights, wearing distinctive blue vests. One couple is visiting from Nova Scotia. Another man has just come home from Europe. The gathering spreads farther and farther along the fence.

Soon, a drone is heard overhead and the CC-150 Polaris transport plane comes into view. A hush falls over the people standing at the fence. The aircraft circles into position near the hangar where a family stands in the wind and cold to receive their loved one.

The silhouettes, especially the shoulders, speak of their exquisite pain. Their eyes are fixed on the wooden box that is now being hoisted onto strong shoulders and carried in measured steps toward the hearse.

The only colour in the whole scenario is the Canadian flag draped in its sombre duty like a blanket over the fallen comrade. It seems to speak the words from the banner: “Stand down, soldier. Your job is done. You can go home.”

After a 20-minute repatriation service, the casket is loaded into the black hearse. The family members board a limousine. Slowly the convoy exits the gates of 8 Wing-Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

The black vehicles are escorted front and back by two police cars as they drive out of Trenton and onto the celebrated Highway of Heroes. A signal is sent to a police car waiting on the ramp of the next overpass along the way to Toronto: “Cortege en route. ETA 15 minutes.” Messages are radioed to the firefighters and ambulance workers in commuter parking lots all along the way to Toronto who have been anticipating the final good-bye. Each fire truck and ambulance rides to the top of its respective overpass where the crowd welcomes the shelter from the wind.

The police car drives down the ramp to block traffic from entering Highway 401. The crowd on the overpass is watching for that space of several minutes when there is no traffic in the westbound lanes. Then a whisper is telegraphed from one person to another: “They’re coming. They’re coming.” By this time, not one space is left unoccupied along the railing.

I stand on the side of the hill by the sign that welcomes drivers to Brighton. I want to be as near as possible to the cortege. My student will be passing by. His sister, also a former student at my school, will be sitting in the limo with her mom and dad behind the dark glass. The last time I saw these siblings they were sitting innocently in a classroom.

On my one side is a member of the Legion, a retired Sergeant-major dressed in khaki. He is the first to sight the cortege and barks instinctively, “Heads up!” to everyone on the overpass.

I am frozen in place, steeling myself against an onslaught of emotion, tears burning behind my glasses. The Sergeant-major snaps a salute and, even though he is a complete stranger, I feel supported by his experience and professionalism. Behind me, the people who have come to the overpass for just this moment wave their flags. The dark glass of the limo opens and a long arm in a black coat ending in a black glove answers in silent acknowledgment.

In less than a moment the cortege is gone. Only now do I notice how many young people have also been standing vigils at the overpass. They look to me like students skipping school.

Who are all these other people? Does each of them have a connection, as I do, to the fallen soldier? Some of them are relaying messages by cell phone – to other overpasses down the line. Are all the on-lookers on all the overpasses along the Highway of Heroes connected, like a web that stretches from Trenton to Toronto cradling the casket of the fallen at its centre?

What a strange experience our presence creates: a unique made-in-Canada ad hoc ritual that leaves participants feeling richer, and sadder, and more connected for having spent this one moment in the wind.

Patricia Calder Colborne