1,000 Canadian WWII veterans finally receive France's highest honour
The French government's attempt to honour all living veterans marred by delays, confusion
Second World War veteran Ken Duffield received a special package from France at his care home last week
The 95-year-old finally received the Knight of the Legion of Honour medal. Like hundreds of other elderly veterans, he wasn't sure he would live to see the award.
The French government's attempt to bestow its highest honour on all living veterans who helped liberate France had been marred by delays and confusion for two years.
More than a thousand veterans in Canada have now received the medal, the French Embassy in Canada confirmed this week.
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The Royal Regina Rifles Association applied on behalf of 24 members, but four died before they could receive the medal.
Duffield mourns them, as well as those who died on the battlefield
"l feel I have to share it with them," Duffield told CBC News from his care home in Raymore, Sask.
He has the medal — which features a five-armed cross with a wreath of laurel leaves — pinned on his navy blazer. It has sparked a sense of pride, he said, but also triggered memories from when he was a scared 24-year-old leading a dozen men onto Juno Beach.
"If you lost some of your men, you weren't even supposed to pick them up. You just kept going because you'd lose more," Duffield said, choking back tears.
Falling through the cracks
In 2013, the French government announced it would give the award to all living veterans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day the following year. However, it was up to veterans to apply, or be nominated, before Dec. 31, 2013.
Veterans Affairs Canada informed local Legions and veterans' associations, but hundreds of people fell through the cracks.
In many cases, they were unaware of the reward, too intimidated by the bureaucracy, or as war historian Dolores Hatch explained, too humble.
"A lot of these men don't want to blow their own horn," Hatch said.
Hatch spent years researching the Regina Rifles Regiment and worked as a consultant on the film Storming Juno. She was concerned that many veterans would be overlooked and died. Hatch helped the Royal Regina Rifles association apply on behalf of its members, including Ken Duffield.
Some veterans will never receive recognition
The French government eventually extended the deadline to July 2015.
Meanwhile, officials were overwhelmed by thousands of applications from veterans in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.
The Royal Regina Rifles association's former president, Bob Cade, said the bureaucratic delays robbed at least four veterans of recognition, which cannot be awarded posthumously.
"[French officials] kept calling back and saying, 'Did anybody die? Did anybody die?' " Cade said.
As Duffield held the medal, his arms scarred by gunshot wounds from 71 years ago, he noted that he and his men were never motivated by accolades.
"We were more interested in surviving, that's all we were interested in," Duffield said. "Making sure that we supported each other, and tried to do what we were supposed to do and still survive."