Quebec's Hacksaw Ridge hero: the story of a veteran who followed his conscience

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Quebec's Hacksaw Ridge hero: the story of a veteran who followed his conscience

Quebec's Hacksaw Ridge hero: the story of a veteran who followed his conscience

When Alphonse Pelletier enlisted with the Canadian Armed Forces in 1949, he just wanted to be part of the gang.

Growing up in orphanages on Quebec City's south shore, Pelletier had come to recognize the importance of belonging and friendship.

When it was time to deploy to Korea a year after signing up, Pelletier realized he hadn't thought his plan through.

He could not bear arms.

"My conscience forbade me of it. I wasn't able to kill," Pelletier recalled.

Fellow veterans in Sherbrooke, Que., where the 87-year-old lives, call him "the guy from Hacksaw Ridge."

Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated blockbuster Hacksaw Ridge was based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist World War II medic who refused to carry a weapon, but singlehandedly saved 75 soldiers during the bloody battle of Okinawa. 

Like Desmond, Pelletier was imprisoned when he first refused to fire a weapon.

He spent 24 hours in a jail cell at the military base in Valcartier, Que., before he got to meet his commanding officer again.

When the officer asked Pelletier if he was afraid, his answer was blunt.

"I said, 'Listen Commander, I'm not more afraid than you, but I'm as afraid as you are. If you're able to find a role for me that respects my conscience, I'll go. All my friends are there.'''

He was offered a position as stretcher-bearer and given intensive first aid training on the ship to Korea.

Faith on the battle field

Pelletier admitted he was not a typical military man.

He didn't swear, didn't drink, and when pay day came along he collected his friends' money before they went out on a binge.

The next morning Pelletier would return the hard-earned cash, earning him the nickname "ti-père," French for little priest.

Pelletier said his brothers in arms accepted his beliefs and never second-guessed his decision not to use a weapon.

"Not many people wanted my job," Pelletier said.

Being a medic meant being in service for longer periods, given the job was less physically demanding.

Pelletier's emotional scars, however, ran just as deep.

Searching in the dark

Every night, the 20-year-old would go out on the mine-ridden field his regiment called "no man's land" to search for the wounded.

Sometimes these patrols would lead to gruesome discoveries: the bodies of soldiers who had gone missing weeks before.

Pelletier said he's carried these images with him ever since.

"Those things you see, when you come back…But you forget slowly. I prayed for my friends who died. But it's not intense now like it was when you're in the moment.''

The month of November was particularly hard on Pelletier. 

"It's dark, there's no snow yet. When you're called to rescue a wounded soldier or fetch a body, there's no moon, just thick clouds and you know there's a cliff steps away."

Pelletier said through his whole ordeal, it was his faith that kept him going.

"When you have faith in the grand master above, you can get through anything, anything can happen."

Once he got home, Pelletier's faith also led him to his wife, Rosaline Plourde, whom he met while volunteering for a catholic organization.

The pair raised a family in Sherbrooke where Pelletier worked for decades operating a clothing presser.

His last job before retiring was in patient transportation, caring for people between two medical appointments.

Pelletier said he finished his working life doing the very same duty he had during the war, more than six decades later.

'Once a soldier always a soldier'

In his retirement, Pelletier still likes to stay involved with the Sherbrooke legion.

He said being a soldier was a crucial part of his life, which confronted him and his beliefs.

Today he goes to the gym once a week with a group of fellow veterans and receives delivered meals from the legion.

Pelletier also takes part in the traditional distribution of poppies each year.

On Thursday he was at a grocery store with fellow veteran Jean Noël, who served as a medic himself for 33 years.

Noël said he was amazed by Pelletier's story when he first heard it.

"This man is an example of integrity. And there's no doubt in my mind that he did his duty, whether or not he had a weapon."