Sam VanGunst is a local retired Canadian Forces veteran who recently received the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation at a ceremony in Winnipeg.
The Red Deer man remains uncertain who nominated him for the remarkable honour.
“Someone here in Red Deer – I will never know who it is because they won’t reveal it – nominated me for this award. I have a fairly good idea of who it was, but I will never know for sure.”
VanGunst said being nominated for the prestigious award was both awesome and mind-blowing. This commendation is awarded to individuals who have performed commendable service to the veteran community and/or individuals who represent commendable role models for their fellow veterans.
He is a loyal member of the Red Deer Royal Canadian Legion and solicits for new memberships while still being an active member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Association.
During Remembrance week he also visits schools and shares his story of growing up in occupied Holland during the Second World War.
He does this in order to celebrate the accomplishments of veterans and to commemorate their sacrifices. He sings In Flanders Fields every year for the Remembrance Day service at his church as well. He also participates in doing Honour Guard duty at funerals for veterans.
In past years, VanGunst has volunteered for a total of 15 years at the auxiliary hospital and local nursing homes to feed elderly residents, most of whom, coincidentally, were Second World War veterans.
Looking back, he really had no intention of becoming a peacekeeper. In 1955, when he was 18 years old, he joined the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry as a part of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“That’s the one thing about us people who have been in the PPCLI, we’re a damn proud lot. We have a saying: ‘Once a Patricia, always a Patricia’.” VanGunst goes about once a month to meetings in Edmonton. They have a moment of silence to honour the memory of fallen soldiers and it’s an opportunity to keep in touch with other veterans.
“More than anything else, it’s about camaraderie.”
Today there are more than 800 members of the PPCLI across Canada.
VanGunst was only in the forces for three years. He did his basic training and was then shipped to Germany for two years with NATO. He was trained as a solider and also as a paratrooper. He took jump training in Manitoba before he went to Germany and he jumped seven times to qualify to be a paratrooper but he has not done it since.
He was in the forces when he returned home to Canada but he opted out after being home for six months from Germany. He came back on repatriation leave for two and a half months and when it came time for him to re-enlist he got out.
“I had three years and I felt that that was enough,” he said. “I have never regretted the experience. I had basically made up my mind that I did not want to go through life taking orders – I wanted to give them.”
VanGunst immigrated with his family from Holland to Canada in 1949. He experienced the war with his parents in Holland. He was nine years old when the Second World War ended so he has vivid memories of it, and they aren’t fond ones.
“When someone asks me ‘What was it like’ nine times out of 10 I will say I would rather not talk about it. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
His father was in the Dutch resistance but VanGunst did not know it at the time.
“You couldn’t tell the kids things like that because if one of them blabbed, the Germans would pick (the father) up and that would be the end of him. They would ship him off to a concentration camp,” said VanGunst.
“Remembrance Day, of course, means everything to me because of the fact that the Dutch were liberated by the Canadians. The older I get, the more I appreciate that fact, that the soldiers liberated us in Holland.
“When we were liberated by the Canadians we were overjoyed that we were finally out from under the Nazi boot. When they liberated us they gave us two things that made us think that we were in heaven. They gave us white bread and chocolate because we couldn’t get any of that during the war years.”
In May of 2010, VanGunst traveled to Holland to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of that country by the Canadians. May 5 is actually Liberation Day, but Canadian flags are flown year-round throughout the nation.
VanGunst also wants to instill in people the belief that one should never discriminate against any race. Even in the war not everyone on the opposing side was bad; a lot of them didn’t have a choice in the matter. They were just following orders and avoiding consequences of non-compliance, he said.
“They were suppressed just as much as some of the occupied countries.”
Meanwhile, 11 Canadians from Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were honoured with the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation.
“Our government is proud to recognize a number of outstanding individuals who devote their lives to honouring the sacrifices and contributions of our nation’s heroes,” said Steven Blaney, minister of veterans affairs.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation includes a bar, which can be worn below official decorations on a recipient’s blazer, as well as a lapel pin for civilian wear and a certificate.
“These are men and women who, through their selfless dedication, have had a positive impact on the lives of veterans and in celebrating the incredible achievements of our veterans.”
Ultimately, according to VanGunst, Canada is one of the greatest peacekeeping nations on earth.
“I don’t ever want anyone to forget that we are living in the best country in the world.”