P.E.I. Veterans Affairs staff prepare to accompany WWII veterans to D-Day ceremonies

Canadians have already started to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, a turning point for the Allied nations during the Second World War.

As the anniversary of D-Day approaches, some Canadian veterans are also preparing to travel overseas for ceremonies to mark the occasion — and Veterans Affairs staff from P.E.I. are preparing to go with them. 

"This time when the average age is 95, many of them expect it will be their last time over. And speaking as a staff person from Veterans Affairs who's been able to travel on a number of these, it is an incredible honour and a privilege for us to be part of that whole experience," said Patsy Bolger Gallant, acting director general of commemoration with Veterans Affairs.

There are 37 Canadian veterans set to travel to France next month, to be in Normandy for the June 6 ceremonies. And DVA staff are hard at work to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Emotional experience

Bolger Gallant says about 25 to 30 staff from Charlottetown will travel to France, and some are already there. While she won't be going on this trip, she has gone on similar trips in the past. Veterans Affairs typically marks major anniversaries, every five years. 

She's seen first-hand the emotional impact for veterans who are able to attend the ceremony, and for others there as well. 

Veterans Affairs Canada

"It's an opportunity to go back to where they actually fought. Either, you know the beaches or the battlefields where they were. But really for them the main thing is to be able to visit the graves of their comrades," Bolger Gallant said. 

"There's something that even when you try to explain it to somebody, unless you're there and you're actually experiencing it, it really is hard to convey the emotion that this brings."

Accommodations for aging veterans

Travelling with a group of veterans in their 90s brings along its own set of challenges and Bolger Gallant said staff have been hard at work planning the logistics to make sure travel goes smoothly. That includes travelling in a plane that's able to fly at lower altitudes. 

"That's very helpful for those who have any kind of respiratory issues and those who are on oxygen. So that's one of the things that we look at.… We also travel with a medical team. So we have three doctors, three nurses and three orderlies."

The one thing that stays the same is their memories. They can remember and account for everything that happened to them. — Patsy Bolger Gallant

Bolger Gallant said staff are also working to make sure the places they're staying are fully accessible, including being able to accommodate wheelchairs, having suitable bathtubs, and anything else that may be required. 

With the aging population of veterans, Bolger Gallant said one of the most significant things she has noticed with these ceremonies is how the delegation has gotten smaller.

"Of course there's, you know we've lost a lot over the years, but plus their mobility. But I'll tell you the one thing that stays the same is their memories. They can remember and account for everything that happened to them. And the stories that they have to share are amazing."

Canada's delegation of veterans includes one from P.E.I., Emard Court of North Rustico. The group will be in France June 3 to 9. 

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