By MP Blaine Calkins and Treena Mielke
Wetaskiwin MP Blaine Calkins traded his suit and tie for a khaki uniform and combat boots last month when he joined the Canadian Military Contingent taking part in the Nijmegen Marches.
The marches, held July 19 to 22, required military entrants to complete the four-day 160-kilometre march in combat uniform, carrying a minimum rucksack load of 10 kg.
For 42-year-old Calkins it was a life-changing experience.
“I did not know much about the Netherlands other than Canada made a difference there during the Second World War and many good people from our communities have a Dutch heritage going back to waves of migration following the war,” he said. “I also knew that my great-uncle, Joe Calkins, fought there with many of his local friends and neighbors. He was the only one of three brothers of my grandfather who returned from service overseas.”
Calkins arrived in Amsterdam on July 16.
“I was met by Chief Warrant Officer Keith Jones (who also happened to be the Regimental Sergeant Major, you know, the guy with the wooden pay stick and handlebar mustache) and Brigadier General John Madower (I had a general load my luggage onto a bus, ‘First time that has happened,’ he joked.”
Calkins settled in for the evening at military camp Heumensoord, near Nijmegen, only to be awakened abruptly at 4:30 a.m. to take the four-hour bus ride to Vimy Ridge.
It was an emotional experience and one he will remember.
“I remember the wind blowing across the microphone used by the padre (at the ridge), it sounded vaguely like the whispers of the guns that were thundering along this ridge so many years ago.”
“I’ve laid wreaths before, at the various Remembrance Day services, but to actually be in uniform and lay a wreath at Vimy Ridge was truly a memorable experience for me,” he added.
Calkins found it especially interesting to learn that Allied forces once tunnelled under enemy lines and emptied out great caverns under enemy positions, filled them with explosives and when detonated, the enemy fell into a low position in a giant crater and went from a position of advantage to disadvantage immediately.
“I tried to imagine the horror of close combat with high-powered rifles, but only memories of scarce ancient footage went through my mind,” he said.
He was also humbled when he visited cemeteries in the area and saw how many unnamed graves there were.
The day before the marches, Calkins and members of the contingent spent time preparing for the gruelling time ahead. Ziploc bags were filled with sand to make sure packs met the minimum 10 kg required.
Calkins began Day 1 of the marches with his feet taped up with special tape designed to protect them from blisters and wear.
He was enthused and excited and decided after the first stretch of marching, the adventure wouldn’t be too difficult.
“After about five K, I thought this isn’t going to be too bad, no worries, right?”
However, after the first 20 kilometres went by and the contingent began marking along a seven-kilometre stretch in the blazing sun, he became slightly less enthused.
“I was drinking water every two minutes from my camelback. We got back to camp after I had been marching for 101/2 hours. I was tired and my feet were sore.”
Day 2 was the shortest marching time, with the Canadian team beginning at 5 a.m. and returning to camp just before 2 p.m.
The Canadian contingent was to leave the camp first on Day 3.
“Reveille came at 3 a.m. I could hear that wakeup call song playing again. It was starting to become annoying.”
Despite pain in his lower right leg, Calkins, after receiving some medical attention, was able to keep marching, and arrived with the rest of his contingent at the Groesbeek Cemetery later that day.
“The town of Groesbeek was my first sense of the magnitude of the march. There must have been over 40,000 people lining the marching route through town, they were lined up 10 people deep in most places, cheering on the marchers, and many of them giving an extra hurrah when the Canadians walked by.”
Visiting the graves at the Groesbeek Cemetery was an emotional experience for Calkins, who found himself brushing away tears from his eyes as recalled visiting a Second World War cemetery in Italy where his great-uncle is buried.
A service was held at the cemetery and Calkins laid a wreath on behalf of the government.
The troops headed back toward Heumensoord and Nijmegen, marching in pouring rain for the last trek of the journey on Day 3.
On Day 4 marchers were cheered on by thousands of people lining the parade route.
“Our path led us over the Grave Bridge, the site of a bloody battle during the Second World War where the US 82nd Airborne landed and took the bridge during Operation Market Garden. A monument is erected there.”
After taking pictures, the men kept on marching until they reached Charlemagne.
“Our checkpoint passes and wristbands were scanned one final time and the next thing I knew there was a medal in my hand. So cool, I’ve never received a medal before.”
The Canadian contingent, led by the air force band, formed up, four abreast, 50 rows deep, and marched the last five kilometres in the March of the Gladiators, a victory march for the participants.
Calkins was especially honored during the final march to wear the cap badge of Sergeant Redmond, in honor of his great-uncle Jim who was one of the first Canadians to be killed in the Korean War.
For Calkins, the marches left an indelible footprint on his heart that he will never forget.
“To me it felt like I was marching with the heroes of today and yesterday at the same time. I have never done anything like this before in my life and I can honestly say to anyone who ever get an opportunity like this: ‘Just do it.’”