A gift with Seoul: Korean War vet thrilled with gift of masks to recognize service
South Korea distributes 35,000 masks to veterans across Canada
Sitting on his front lawn, Ed Matthews used a 45-year-old Swiss Army Knife to open a package that arrived at his home in Heart's Content: a box of surgical masks from the government of South Korea.
"It's very good," said the war veteran as he took out the individual packs and inspected them.
The 25 masks that Matthews received are just one part of a much larger gesture: 35,000 of them have been distributed across Canada to veterans of the Korean War.
They're meant to be a small token of appreciation for service in a war that started 70 years ago. The war ended with an armistice in 1953, and both sides locked in a stalemate at the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula.
Matthews is one more than 26,000 Canadians who went over to fight in the war.
"As my father had been in the First World War, I figured I'd go," said Matthews.
Headed to war
He arrived in the port city of Busan in 1952, with the Royal Canadian Regiment's 1st Battalion, and was quickly sent about 40 kilometres away for guard duty at a camp that held about 170,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war.
Scariest time in my life.- Ed Matthews
Matthews was at the camp when there was a series of riots by the prisoners.
"Scariest time in my life," he said.
"You've got wire on one side and wire on the other. So we traded in our rifle for a 12-gauge shotgun but I never had to use it."
He was also injured while fighting — he took some shrapnel from a mortar round that ended up staying with him long after the war was over.
Sitting in his lawn chair, Matthews casually described a 2002 visit to the doctor.
The diagnosis was arthritis in his arm that was acting up but Matthews didn't believe it. He knew it was something else.
After a quick check-in with an X-ray technician, Matthews was given another explanation. There was steel stuck in his arm.
Before heading in for his next appointment with his doctor, Matthews decided to pinpoint the shrapnel so there was no confusion.
"So I came back and got my stud finder before I went [to] the doctor, and I went over and stuck it on, and it went boom. The surgeon took it out and I had no more arthritis," he said.
Meaning amid the pandemic
Over the years, the South Korean government has typically thanked veterans with elaborate ceremonies and dinners.
But right now, with a global pandemic sweeping the globe, masks seem more meaningful.
"The senior citizens are very vulnerable during this pandemic," said Lee Yun-je, South Korea's consul general in Montreal.
Lee said that by sending something necessary during this difficult time, his country wanted to show a gesture of thanks to Canadian veterans.
"The Korean War is sometimes called the forgotten war. But we never forget you. We remember you. We continue to remember you and we continue to honour your service and sacrifice to defend our country," he said.
On a mostly sunny summer day in Heart's Content, that gesture and its message were well received.
"I appreciate it, really. I could have gone out and bought masks, but I appreciate this a lot more," he said.
Matthews turns 89 Wednesday, which is Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Canada Day across the country.
He has a message of his own for people on how to survive turbulent times.
"Go with the flow," he said with a grin.