'The least they could do': Veterans push Canada to award its first Victoria Cross

A Canadian Victoria Cross, the country's highest battlefield medal for gallantry. It has never been awarded to anyone. (Department of National Defence Image - image credit)
A Canadian Victoria Cross, the country's highest battlefield medal for gallantry. It has never been awarded to anyone. (Department of National Defence Image - image credit)

During the U.S. Civil War, soldiers reported witnessing a peculiar phenomenon that later became known as "acoustic shadows" — a place where the sound and fury of a battle went to die in a great, unseen void.

Because of the way the din of cannon and rifle fire reflected off the contours of the surrounding countryside — aided by air temperature and the direction of the wind — great battles could rage in front of them in almost complete silence.

That image aptly describes an impassioned, ongoing debate in this country over how to define military valour, and what a Canadian soldier must do to win the country's highest battlefield honour.

That debate has raged furiously but almost imperceptibly this year among veterans, and even in the halls of Parliament.

Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press
Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press

At its centre is a growing sense of dismay among some former Canadian soldiers over the military's refusal to recognize some acts of heroism in Afghanistan with the modern version of the Victoria Cross (VC).

The military says that while it handed out more bravery medals per capita than Canada's allies did during the Afghan mission, no single act by a Canadian soldier unquestionably met the "extremely rare standard" needed for the highest honour.

Canada is alone among its major allies in not having honoured any military member with its most prestigious medal. Many with ties to the military community — including former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole — wonder if the VC has been put out of reach for soldiers, sailors and aircrew today.

It's a personal matter for some former soldiers.

'It just didn't feel right'

"It was always kind of stuck in the back of our minds. It just didn't feel right that nobody got the VC, [that] everyone else gave one out," said retired corporal Bruce Moncur, who was gravely wounded when an American ground attack jet accidently strafed Canadian troops in Afghanistan at the start of the milestone 2006 battle known as Operation Medusa.

More than 40,000 Canadian military members took part in the Afghan campaign — Canada's longest-ever overseas military campaign. For many of them, the fact that no Canadian who fought in Afghanistan has ever received the VC leaves them feeling as though their war, their devotion and sacrifice, somehow didn't quite measure up.

"We do feel forgotten. We do feel that our sacrifices are being brushed under the rug, and we do feel as if, you know, there's so many elements of us that just get overlooked," said Moncur. He pointed out that while Canadians mark notable First and Second World War events — even heroic, bloody defeats like Dieppe in 1942 — "we don't commemorate the anniversaries of what we just did" in this generation's war.

Those are fighting words on the eve of Remembrance Day.

CBC News
CBC News

"As somebody that fought in Afghanistan, as somebody that bled and got shot, I am outraged by the fact that a lot of the guys did not get their proper respect and dues for what they did over there. It's literally — quite literally — the least they could do," said Moncur.

While Canada did not award its modern version of the Victoria Cross for actions in Afghanistan, it did present a host of lesser awards, including 18 Stars of Military Valour (the second-highest designation), 89 other bravery medals and more than 300 "mentions in dispatches" — an official written report to command headquarters describing an individual soldier's gallant conduct.

Moncur and a group of other veterans — including retired general Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff — have waged a tireless campaign to get one or more of the military stars of valour awarded in Afghanistan upgraded to a Victoria Cross.

They have focused their efforts on retired private Jess Larochelle, formerly of Charles Company, 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment.

Submitted by Bruce Moncur
Submitted by Bruce Moncur

After two members of his section were killed and three were wounded, Larochelle single-handedly kept his smashed outpost in Pashmul, west of Kandahar, from being overrun by more than 20 Taliban fighters in October 2006.

For his actions, he was awarded the Star of Military Valour.

Moncur said he and other veterans have since learned that Larochelle volunteered to stand his ground, holding the entire line against enormous odds.

Based on that new information, the former soldiers are calling for Larochelle's award to be upgraded. The office of Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, who oversees the award and takes advice from the Department of National Defence (DND) and the country's top military commander, declined to make a decision and referred the request back to DND.

WATCH | No Canadian who fought in Afghanistan has recevied a Victoria Cross: 

Undeterred, the veterans collected 14,129 names on a petition for the House of Commons asking for a review of the case — only to be told "no" again in an official response last July.

They sought and received O'Toole's backing to introduce a motion in the House of Commons calling for an independent review of how Canada awards military medals. The motion was defeated by the governing Liberals.

Moncur's organization, Valour in the Presence of the Enemy, launched a letter-writing campaign to pressure MPs to review LaRochelle's case. The campaign has sent MPs over 20,000 emails; according to the database that tracks them, the vast majority of those emails were never opened.

The Victoria Cross and the Commonwealth

Three Commonwealth recipients of the modern VC — two Australians and one New Zealander — wrote to offer their support to LaRochelle, who still suffers from poor health and wounds related to the 2006 battle.

The British awarded three VCs in Afghanistan and one in the Iraq War. The most recent was presented in 2015 to Lance Cpl. Joshua Leakey, of 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment, for an action in 2013.

The Australians, slightly more generous, handed out four VCs, mostly to their special forces. The Victoria Cross for New Zealand has been awarded only once — to Cpl. Willie Apiata, also a special forces soldier, for bravery under fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

Since 2001, the U.S. has awarded its VC equivalent — the Medal of Honor — to 20 of its soldiers for actions in Afghanistan. Five of them received the award posthumously.

Veterans Affairs Canada
Veterans Affairs Canada

The last time Canada awarded its top medal for military gallantry was during the Second World War. Lt. Robert Hampton Gray — who died attacking a Japanese warship in 1945, days before the war ended — was the last recipient. Up until his death in 2005,  Pte. Ernest "Smokey" Smith was the last living Canadian VC recipient; he received the medal for action in Italy in 1944.

In total, 99 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Canadians or Canadian-born citizens serving with Commonwealth forces. They were all awarded back when the British still administered the medal on behalf of Commonwealth nations.

The Canadian version of the VC was created in 1993. The actual medal was not struck until 2008.

Soldiers of empire

Of those 99 VCs awarded by the British to Canadians, five were given to Canadian-born soldiers and sailors serving with British forces during the mid-to-late 19th century in campaigns stretching Crimea to Sudan. Some of them were awarded for wars that were fought before Canada was a country.

Five Canadian VC recipients fought in the Boer War. An extraordinary 71 VCs — many of them posthumous — were presented to Canadians who fought in the First World War. Another 16 were bestowed on Canadians just over 20 years later in the Second World War.

So why has no Canadian been singled out for a VC in the decades since?

It's not due to a lack of valour.

Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003179
Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003179

Ten years ago, the Canadian Press did a comparative analysis. The citations of soldiers who'd won the VC in the First and Second World Wars were placed alongside those for soldiers awarded lesser medals in Afghanistan.

The analysis found that, in some cases, the modern battlefield feats exceeded what took place in previous wars.

So what does a Canadian soldier have to do today to win the Victoria Cross?

According to Lt.-Col. Carl Gauthier, the head of DND's honours and recognition branch, a VC requires an act of "pure gallantry" in the face of the enemy, a deed that goes far beyond what's expected and meets a rather loosely defined "extremely rare standard."

'Pure gallantry'

The bar is set extremely high, Gauthier told CBC News.

"And it should be as well, because the Victoria Cross, as you know, is not only Canada's but the Commonwealth's highest honour," he said.

He acknowledged that while this "rare standard" is difficult to define, it simply suggests an action that "would be very, very rarely seen, something of an uncommon nature."

It might, for example, involve a soldier charging an enemy position single-handedly and against overwhelming odds, or someone drawing fire upon themselves to save others. Such extreme cases could involve self-sacrifice, as they did during the world wars.

Why were no VCs awarded in Afghanistan?

"It is simply a matter of nobody meeting that absolutely extraordinary high standard that is required for the Victoria Cross," Gauthier said.

Before a military member can even be nominated, at least two comrades must confirm in writing that they witnessed an act of "pure gallantry."

A 'mythic pedestal'

A VC nomination must pass through no less than three committees of senior officers — one in-theatre, one at the operational command level and one at the most senior level of the military — before it can be passed on to the Governor General.

"It was perhaps more generously given in its early decades of existence, for the very simple reason that there were not as many gallantry decorations as we have now," Gauthier said.

Asked to explain the discrepancy between Canada's approach to the VC and those of its major allies, Gauthier said that Canada handed out more bravery medals for the size of its contingent than other allies.

O'Toole, an air force veteran, said he doesn't buy that explanation and believes the military as an institution is being ultra-cautious — even stingy — with its praise.

Blair Gable/Reuters
Blair Gable/Reuters

He said he wonders whether he'll ever see another Canadian receive a Victoria Cross.

"It's been placed on this kind of mythic pedestal," O'Toole said, adding that he thinks "people were nervous about awarding it" during the Afghan war.

He said he's disappointed that the federal government wouldn't even consider an independent review of Canada's process for issuing military awards — something he said our allies do regularly.

"We have to be mature enough to recognize we don't always get it right," he said.

O'Toole said he's also somewhat mystified by how the military, with all of its symbolism and pageantry, doesn't seem to recognize the power of heroism to inspire.

"It's much like we have [with] the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It's one soldier, but he represents the generations that fought," he said.

"We also need to recognize the extraordinary valour and sacrifice represented by an individual act."

Gauthier, meanwhile, said the department is cautious about military awards because it doesn't want to undermine what they represent.

"I think it's a desire from all involved throughout the chain of command to make sure that when we award one, it will be clearly and fully earned in everybody's eyes, in order to protect the integrity and respect of that, the highest honour that the Crown and the people of Canada can give to one of its soldiers," Gauthier said.

"People will judge us when we award the first and we want that one to be absolutely unquestionable."

A review of the medals given out during the Afghanistan campaign was conducted in 2012 and it found all had been awarded appropriately.

Unconvinced, Moncur has asked for the minutes of the review board and documents associated with it. DND has not answered his request yet — something he attributes to the military's top-down mindset.

"Never question what we're doing, always just put your boots together and salute and accept the decision for what it is," he said. "And I think that's unacceptable."