Calgary Military Museums honour forgotten Canadian Vietnam veterans

Canadian Vietnam War veterans are being honoured at the Military Museums in Calgary. Monty Coles, a retired corporal, remembers his time overseas — and the reception when he returned home.

Monty Coles of Airdrie says he's touched by recognition after years of name-calling

In this 1968 file photo, a South Vietnamese soldier takes a position on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. An estimated 40,000 Canadians took part in the Vietnam War, despite the country not being engaged in the conflict. (Nick Ut/The Associated Press file photo)

Retired corporal Monty Coles was just 17 years old when he tried to join the U.S. Marine Corps in the controversial war against communism in Vietnam.

His story is the opposite of draft dodgers, who fled the United States for Canada to avoid conscription.

Although Canada did not officially participate in the war, an estimated 40,000 Canadian citizens took part, many by enlisting with the U.S. military.

Now 74 and living in Airdrie, Alta., Coles and other Vietnam veterans are being honoured Wednesday at a ceremony at the Military Museums in Calgary.

The museum has hosted an exhibit since September that features the stories of the Canadian soldiers, as well as those of U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers who later moved to Canada. The ceremony also details Canada's peacekeeping mission in the country.

At the time of the war, Coles was a British teen living in Montreal. So he applied for Canadian citizenship, got a letter of permission from his mother and drove to New York to enlist underage.

Coles, who did three tours, celebrated his 21st birthday on a hill in Vietnam. Upon his return, he said, he encountered pushback from Canadians who opposed the war. The war's goal was controversial, as was the impact on Vietnam. Millions of Vietnamese people were either displaced or killed, including in the brutal massacre of civilians at My Lai by U.S. soldiers.

Coles spoke about his experience as a soldier, and later as a veteran, with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray.

Q: There was a major incident on the day you were supposed to come home, I am told. Can you tell me about that?

A: Yeah. April 10, 1966, it was my rotation date and they woke me up early in the morning. I'd just come in off patrol and they put me on a vehicle to go to Danang Airport get a flight back to the States.

And on the way to the airport, the vehicle hit a landmine, killed the driver, took both legs off the guy riding shotgun, and I ended up in hospital for a couple of days.

Q: You ended up in the hospital and then you came home. What was the reception like when you came home?

A: Not good, not good. We were classed as mercenaries, baby killers. All kinds of names we were branded with. Nobody respected the Vietnam veteran. We were all branded as crazy Vietnam Veterans. We were shunned, basically.

Q: Where was home for you when you returned? Did you come back to Montreal?

A: Yes, I returned to Montreal, and even here in Canada, when I got off the plane at the airport, I had a long-haired hippie guy came up to me, spit on me. I had my uniform on. He spit on me, called me a baby killer. The reception here was just as bad as it was in the United States.

Q: What's changed between now and then, in your mind?

A: Big, big change. People have accepted the fact that we are veterans, for one thing, and they respect us a lot more than they did back in those days because, like I say, now they accept us as veterans. So there has been a very, very big change towards us.

Q: Now you'll be honoured at an event at the Military Museums. What does this mean to you?

A: It means a lot. There's a lot more awareness nowadays of the Vietnam War, a lot more respect for the guys that fought there. One-hundred-and-fifty-eight Canadians died in Vietnam, and they have to be respected and honoured and remembered.

They are veterans. Whether people like it or not, they are veterans, and they fought for the same reason the Americans did when they came north to Canada during the Second World War. We all fought for the same cause, which was freedom. And these fellows, they have to be respected and remembered.

Q: Once the war was over, said and done and you'd get on with your life, did you ever go back?

A: Yeah, I went back about eight or 10 years ago with my oldest son, and we revisited some of the old battle sites.

It was an eye-opening experience for my son but even more as it was a lot of memories brought back for myself.

Like, we visited one of the hilltops where I had a big battle there and even after 45 or 50 years, our foxholes and our machine gun positions were still there. They had never been filled in. It was pretty sobering.

Q: Emotional for your son. It sounds like it was pretty emotional for you, too?

A: It was. I left a lot of friends there, and it was pretty emotional, yes.

The Vietnam War exhibit at Calgary's Military Museums runs until Jan. 13. 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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