Like father and son: Yukon veterans forge close bond, despite 54-year age gap

Yukon veterans Joseph Novak, 97, and Terry Grabowksi, 43, haven't known each other very long, but they've formed a close bond.

'When I can sit and converse with someone like Mr. Novak, for me, it does something for my own soul'

Yukon veterans Joseph Novak, 97, and Terry Grabowski, 43, haven't known each other very long, but they've formed a close bond. (Submitted by Terry Grabowski)

Their ages aren't close but their friendship is.

In a year when people are so separated, two veterans in Yukon have forged a close bond.

Master Cpl. Terry Grabowski and Lance Cpl. Joseph Novak have only known each other for about six weeks but the two now consider each other family.

They were connected through the Royal Canadian Legion in Whitehorse and despite having a 54-year age gap, they clicked immediately.

"He treats me like I was his father and he was my son," said Novak, a 97-year-old veteran of the Second World War. 

"That's how close I feel to Terry. I don't think I could ever find someone better for me than he is ... I'm very lucky."

The 43-year-old Grabowski, who served as a Canadian Forces peacekeeper in Kosovo, says helping fellow veterans is always front of mind.

Terry Grabowski served as a Canadian Forces peacekeeper in Kosovo. (Submitted by Terry Grabowski)

"For me, every day is Remembrance Day. And when I can sit and converse with someone like Mr. Novak, for me, it does something for my own soul," said Grabowski.

"Just makes me feel really good to know he's thought of and taken care of."

The father and son-like relationship couldn't have come at a better time for the 97-year-old Novak, who lives by himself in a condominium in downtown Whitehorse.

Last year, his wife of 73 years died. Novak gives her credit for his own long life.

Then, three months after losing his wife, Novak also lost his youngest son.

Grabowski says he just wants to support his friend.

"I know that it's not easy to be alone," said Grabowski. "Our friendship is just paying him a visit and talking.

"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Novak and his service in the war and we just have a great time together."

Missing war medals

In 2004, Novak and his wife moved from Montreal to Whitehorse.

While packing, Novak's "war box" went missing. The box is where Novak kept all of his memorabilia from the military including five medals presented to him for his service in World War II.

Undated photo of Joseph Novak, who served in the Second World War. (Submitted by Joseph Novak)

Novak thought they were gone forever.

But last month, after hearing the story for the first time, Grabowski immediately got to work. He contacted Veterans Affairs Canada and explained Novak's plight.

Grabowski then reached out to some friends that work as service officers for veterans, to see if they could help.

Several phone calls and emails later, the medals were back in Novak's hands 

"I made a promise to Mr. Novak that I would do whatever I can in my ability to ensure that he has his original medals to wear on [November] 11th," said Grabowski.

Novak is delighted.

"I never expected to have them again, but thanks to Terry I do — and I'm very happy about it," said Novak. "The medals remind me of the people I was with."

Novak with the medals that were recently returned to him, thanks to help from his friend Grabowski. (George Maratos/CBC)

Grabowski has also found other ways to surprise his friend. On Thanksgiving, he showed up at Novak's door with a large plate of food.

"It was good enough for three meals," says Novak.

Homemade cards from Grabowski's young kids are also common.

The latest surprise came last month when Grabowski shocked Novak with a special letter and medal commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands.

The moment brought both men to tears.

"Sure there is an age difference of 54 years, but I don't even see that," said Grabowski.

"He is a comrade and I'm very happy to be his friend and be able to help him out in any way that I can."

The Whitehorse Legion, which originally brought the two friends together, was closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic but it will re-open on Remembrance Day — and Grabowski and Novak plan to meet there to mark the day together.


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