Honour the dead but remember the living
Today we remember those who gave their lives in two world wars, but John Nichol says we should also think of those injured in service.
This morning thousands of people, proudly wearing their poppies, will gather in London for the Remembrance Parade. Just before 11am I will pin my poppy next to my medals and proudly march past the Cenotaph to honour those men and women who have given their lives so that I can live as a free man.
The poppy, of course, has become the symbol by which we remember the dead of the two world wars. It comes from the poem which begins: "In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow" written by an Army doctor, John McCrea, as he surveyed the battlefields of Northern France in 1915 after some of the bloodiest fighting of WW1. Flanders lay devastated, all signs of life had been extinguished, yet amidst the dead and the sea of mud a single poppy flowered, bringing life, colour and hope to the battlefield.
So the poppy is also a symbol of life. Remembrance Sunday and the Poppy Appeal are about remembering the living who need our help and care as much as about honouring the dead. And not just those from the two World Wars, since 1945 our military has been involved in over 70 conflicts. From the jungles of Borneo to the deserts of Iraq and now in Kosovo, our armed forces are constantly on active service somewhere around the globe. Only one year has passed this century in which one of our servicemen has not been killed in action.
And for every person killed thousands more have been injured, last year The Royal British Legion spent over £28 million on welfare alone. The 1998 Poppy Appeal raised over £17 million pounds, so where does the money go?
It goes to people like Mike Martin. Mike was a navy diver who is palpably proud of his work. In 1986 he was part of a 5-man team sent to the Gulf to deal with a super-tanker that had been hit by a missile. They found the live warhead lodged in the ship’s engine room and worked for 18 hours to remove it. In true military style the best solution to the problem was the easiest one; they simply tied on a suitably long rope, retired to a safe distance and dragged the warhead out of the hole it had made as it struck the ship.
Several months later in April 1987 the ferry "Herald Of Free Enterprise" capsized off the coast of Belgium, 193 people died. Mike and his colleagues spent many days in the upturned ship as they recovered over 180 bodies from the mud and oil. For their actions "above and beyond the call of duty" all of the divers were awarded commendations. Mike describes the task: "we were sifting through the tangle of tables and chairs to feel for bodies buried in the silt. Each body had to be carefully dug out, tagged, photographed then carried ashore. It sounds strange, but we were treating the dead as though they were still alive, always careful not to bump or drop them. I would look at the children and women and think of my own family back home." Mike talks about the immense sense of pride they all experienced, "to be part of the team entrusted with the task, not training but doing the job for real". Having put my RAF training to use in the Gulf and Bosnia I can fully understand what he means.
But Mike’s euphoria wasn’t to last. Not long after Zeebrugge he was on a NATO exercise in France, his neck was broken in a horrific accident and his military career was shattered along with his spinal column. As the reality of life in a wheelchair hit home Mike bounced from terror to despair, weeping tears of rage at his helplessness and humiliation. He found himself screaming at God asking "why me?" It was years before he began to accept his situation and instead of asking "why me?" he began to realise "why not me?"
The turning point in Mike’s life occurred when a member of The British Ex-Service Wheelchair Sports Association (BEWSA), a branch of the Royal British Legion, contacted him to see if he would like to take part in a wheelchair sports event. Mike jumped at the chance and "had a go at everything". He even took part in a marathon in his normal wheelchair. It took him over 6 hours to complete an event he now manages in less than 90 minutes in a racing chair. In his own words the Legion and BEWSA showed him that his shrunken world did not have to stop at his front door, he began to realise that although he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, that life could still be a full one. Mike, 41, now helps to raise money for the RBL, competes in athletic competitions around the world and helps others with spinal injuries realise their full potential. His philosophy on life now? "You can achieve anything you want with pride, determination and, every now and then, a little bit of help."
And that is what the RBL and Poppy Day is all about; a little bit of help. The Legion can spend just £5 on flowers and a visit to a hospitalised WW2 veteran who has no other family. Or it may give £20,000 to buy a specially adapted car for a young soldier devastated by Motor Neurone disease. Last year 300,000 members of the ex-service community called on the Legion’s help and, with 15 million veterans and their families eligible, demand is not expected to peak until 2010.
Today’s Remembrance Parade is the last of this century. But, sadly, there will always be veterans from wars to come, in places yet unheard of, who will pin a poppy next to their medals, just as I will do today, not only to honour the dead but also to remember the living