Six years ago, Paul Nichols was in a small shop on Granville Island in Vancouver, buying his wife Terry a necklace when a life-changing moment — one that would bring a lot of tears — arrived.
A Canadian Forces veteran who served in the Balkans with the Calgary Highlanders, 2nd battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Nichols happened to have his regimental crest on his jacket.
The shopkeeper noticed the crest and began to tell him that she had lived in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the siege that killed over 5,000 civilians.
The woman told Nichols that she and others had to live underground for two years in a parkade, and when they went out to get food and water, they had to make their way through sniper and artillery fire.
In the end, it was Canadian troops that got her out to safety, and she eventually found her way to Vancouver.
The shopkeeper suddenly began to thank Nichols, hugging him and crying. As he turned to look behind him, wondering what others might think of the commotion, Nichols could see that everyone else in the lineup was crying as well.
It was then he understood that the job Canadian soldiers did in the Balkans to try to bring stability to the former Yugoslavia was worthwhile.
“A lot of guys, they wonder,” he said. “If our guys could know from someone telling them a story, then I don’t think we have to deal with the PTSD, because there is no question of whether their service is worthwhile or whether they made a difference.”
Nichols was involved in the Battle of Medak Pocket. Almost 900 Canadian soldiers serving in the UN mission were in the major battle with Croatian forces. It’s been described as the forgotten battle.
And so, after that moment on Granville Island, an idea began to grow for the man who, after he left the army in 1996, would settle in Quesnel, B.C., eventually on a farm with horses. His wife is a therapeutic riding instructor.
“Horses are part of my personal journey.
“In order to get through to a horse, you can’t lie to them. … They have a profound need for strong leadership and you gotta be there for them.
“They don’t respect bullies and they don’t respect anger. In order to address any kind of problems with your horse, you have to first look inside, look deep at yourself.”
Nichols, his wife and daughter will be coming through Red Deer in mid-May on a cross-Canada ride that isn’t about him nearly as much as it is about raising awareness that there are soldier veterans who have stories to tell.
Communities for Veterans, a non-profit charity, is organizing The Ride Across Canada (TRAC) . There is a Facebook page and in the new year a website will be launched.
“People love their troops but they don’t know who they are,” said Nichols.
Deployment is different than it once was, he said. In the past, people used to leave from home towns and come home together, with brothers and cousins and neighbours.
“Now we scatter all over the country. We come home in ones and twos.
“We’ve got a problem and the problem is we don’t know who our veterans are.
“It’s a difficult transition. You’re invisible. You’ve left the brotherhood. You’ve left your support network.”
He left the army and moved back to small town B.C. in 1996, his wife’s hometown.
“Not only don’t people understand, they don’t believe you. Pretty soon you stop telling them.
“This ride is not political at all. It’s just creating awareness in our communities.”
Nichols will leave Victoria with eight horses on April 11, and hopes to arrive in St. John’s, Nfld., in mid-October.
While Nichols did not suffer from PTSD, “I did have trouble transitioning and I think a lot of people do. It’s not uncommon.
“One of the first things that happens with PTSD is guys withdraw. It’s hard to keep track of them and we need our communities to do that.
“I think we did a poor job of acknowledging the service our troops have done.”
Along the ride, the Legion, riding clubs and other groups will be organizing community events.
Other veterans are acting as regional co-ordinators. In Alberta, it’s Rob Stratton from Rimbey.
Nichol’s wife will ride ahead and train the veterans for a half day to ride, then they will join him on the ride and go through their own communities, raising awareness.
“I think we’re going to hear a common theme. When you have 700 guys tell a common story over and over again, it’s going to create conversation and that’s what we want.”