By Treena Mielke
Soldiers returning from Afghanistan were treated to a hero’s welcome at the Ponoka branch of the Royal Canadian Legion last Saturday, but according to at least one of the men, heroism was already evident in the Legion.
“It’s quite an honor to be recognized by these veterans,” said Maury Gratrix from Ponoka, “because these guys who are recognizing us are actually our heroes.”
Gratrix, 30, served seven months as a paratrooper in Afghanistan, returning in 2007.
He said the experience made him a better man and he was grateful to have served with such brave soldiers who willing risked their lives every day.
Gratrix was part of a four-man sniper team that often went behind enemy lines and was shot at regularly.
It was, to say the least, nerve-wracking.
“I was afraid every time I went on an operation,” he said.” You didn’t think ahead much, just hoped you would make it through the next day.”
Now employed as a welder, Gratrix is a family man, married to Michelle, with three children, 10-year-old Seth, six-year-old Shalya and Mason, who is 18 months.
But, even though life has calmed down for him considerably since the months he spent in Afghanistan, the combat, the fear and the pain of losing comrades hasn’t left his head.
“It’s hard to shake some of that stuff,” he said.
Kurt Spelrem, 26, who now lives in Whitecourt, and is training to become a commercial helicopter pilot, enjoyed the time at the Legion with his family. He chatted easily about his seven-month stint in Afghanistan, noting the experience, though very stressful at times, left him a more confident man.
“It teaches you to deal with stress really well and it was humbling. The people in Afghanistan are extremely poor. They live in these little huts and when it rains their houses would just fall apart.”
Despite their extreme poverty, he said the majority of the Afghan people were kind to the soldiers, and in one of the areas where he was posted, the people from a nearby village would come to the front gate to tell the soldiers where improvised explosive devices were planted.
Although never hit directly by such a device, Spelrem was knocked off his feet by flying debris caused by the impact of one that had discharged.
“At that point, I kind of realized I’m here now, I’d better make the most of it,” he said.
Master Cpl. Stephen Ferry, 29, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan as a medic, is now with the armed forces in Edmonton.
Ferry, and his partner, Jackie, have a two-year-old daughter, Delila. He is grateful to the Legion for their recognition of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and also for the fact the Legion sent care packages to his family while he was deployed.
“How nice it is to be from a town that cares so much and recognizes the people who went to Afghanistan and their families,” he said.
After two missions to Afghanistan, one in 2007 and again in 2010, Cpl Craig Kootstra, one of the four men recognized in Ponoka Aug. 20, is going back again, this time to mentor and train Afghans.
He is pleased to be part of the Canadian Armed Forces who do their part to help the war-torn country.
“It’s part of the job. It’s what we (as soldiers) do. You can’t join the infantry and not expect to deploy.”
While the men agreed serving in Afghanistan was a duty and one they would willingly undertake again, those at home are simply glad their loved ones are back safe on Canadian soil.
Norma Spelrem, who attended the event at the Legion, recalled the time when her son, Kurt, was in Afghanistan as a time of waiting. She said the family was fortunate because her son was a signaler and carried a radio and was able to talk to her quite regularly.
“It was still hard, but I was very proud of him,” she said.
Sybil Evans, secretary of the Ponoka branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, and the emcee for the event, said the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made in Afghanistan must not be forgotten.
“They went through separation from loved ones, the comforts of home, extreme temperatures, unknown terrain, uncertainty as to who and where the enemy was, loss of fellow comrades and friends. We recognize the sacrifices that have been made by servicemen and women in Afghanistan in order for us to enjoy the freedom and quality of life we experience here in Canada. You are modern day heroes and you make us proud to be Canadians,” she told the returning soldiers.
Soldiers who served in Afghanistan from the Ponoka area who were not in attendance were Marty Gratrix, Mark Johnson, Chris Orlesky and Kevin Rowland.