Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"If ye break faith with us who die"

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives serving others. Firefighters enter burning buildings and breathe in toxic smoke. Police patrol and respond to calls, never knowing exactly what's waiting for them when they get there. Doctors and nurses risk infection - think of the SARS scare.

And paramedics are on the front lines when there's an emergency. Their intervention often makes the difference between life and death for those in need.

Every single day, men and women we don't even know put the service of others first. When the unthinkable happens they're there to help others. They're there for us.

Some are paid for their services. Others volunteer. All are heroes.

Today, mourning comes home to the city of Calgary. Flags are flying at half mast in recognition of the sacrific of paramedic Michael Starker. Calgary born and raised, Starker served the people of this city every day in his career.

He was also a reservist, and volunteered for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He served with a field ambulance, and yesterday while on foot patrol he was killed during a Taliban ambush.

He was a man with a heart of gold, a man who brought out the best in everyone, EMS Chief Tom Sampson said during a news conference. "He was one of those guys who would stand up when you needed someone to stand up."

Starker was 36... same age as me.

Sometimes, I think we take so much for granted now. Every time a soldier falls, people rise up to question what we're doing in Afghanistan anyway. It risks being insulting, inferring that the sacrifice of these lives was worthless, pointless, unnecessary.

We need only think back a few years, to the tragedy of 9/11 to remember what the Taliban was once capable of. Men and women from this country chose to go to fight an enemy that would kill civilians without declaring war, a threat without honour.

Men and women from this country chose to go to Afghanistan so that we didn't have to be afraid the next time we thought about getting on a plane. So that people working at trade centers didn't have to be afraid to go to work in the morning.

I traveled to North Africa in the wake of 9/11 and saw things I hadn't seen ever in my prior journeys. The level of security was astounding, yet reassuring. Nobody complained about extra screenings.

Everyone understood the goal was to keep us all safe.

I also traveled to the UK in the wake of the London bombings, and I remember when I got on a bus in London with a suitcase and the looks I got. I can't be angry, or dismissive. These people had their sense of security taken away from them. They lived with the fear that when they went to work in the morning, someone might try to kill them.

We're more sympathetic when the threat is real to us. The problem is, Afghanistan is a long way away, and many people can't see the good that's being done there. It's easy to reduce the situation to thinking "people shouldn't be dying, what are they doing there anyway?" when you don't have to worry about mines buried on the side of your streets, or deal with the reality of armed Taliban turning up on your property.

I'm not pro war, but I am a realist. There are times that people have had to take up arms in order to defend others. I'm thankful that if I'm the victim of a crime I can call the police, and that if I have a car accident paramedics will respond to the scene to make sure I'm okay.

And I'm thankful that I enjoy the privilege of living in a free country, where I can choose my religion, where I can vote, where I can walk down the street without fearing for my life.

I'm thankful for the service of others. They take risks - and some make the ultimate sacrifice - so that I can enjoy all the liberties that too often, I take for granted. Sometimes, hearing about people like Michael Starker reminds me of how much I take for granted, how ungrateful I can be.

If you don't agree with the mission in Afghanistan, I respect your right. As to the politicians, I only ask that you show the families of the fallen, and those who mourn this loss, the decency of a few days to heal instead of using their grief as a platform for your political posturing.

And whatever your position on this mission, I hope you'll take a moment to think about the sacrifices people have made over the years, so that we could enjoy even the liberty of reading a blog like this one.

Today, it seems fitting to quote famous words penned by another Canadian, physician and Lieutenant John McRae, after he witnessed the death of his friend on the battlefield in World War 1.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(On a personal note, WBW is now in Calgary bookstores. I signed stock in Chapters Crowfoot yesterday, and will be dropping by Chapters Shaughnessy this morning.)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Calgary's going to miss your voice.

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Anonymous said...

Just placed my order for What Burns WIthin with my bookshop. Fingers crossed I'll get it in a few weeks time. Looking forward to reading it.

Kip de Moll said...

Very nice statement, eloquent and moving. The worrth of the cause may be in question, but certtainly we must never belittle the worth of the individuals who are willing or choosing or ordered to fight. Even more so the ones who "fight" at home, EMTs and firefighters who volunteer while the rest of us sit at our TVs and computers.