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Beyond Arms

When my friend Claude Belleau approached me to become an ambassador of the Théâtre des Petites Lanternes I said yes, without really knowing what I was getting into. Then, I heard of their project with the veterans and I became quite curious. What did I know about the military world? Aside from the fact that, like most good citizens, I was against war.

Yet, when I was 15, I lied about my age to be part of the reserve of Les Fusiliers de Sherbrooke. I got taken as a rookie but never went up in rank. I’ll admit that I was doing this more for the money than anything else. The adventure lasted less than a year. In my family, my uncle Charles worked as a mechanic for the armed forces in West Germany after WWII. He never went into combat. What I remember from this is my cousins coming back home speaking English and Charlie, a funny little man, bringing back a small Mercedes Diesel, a type of vehicle unknown here, quite fascinating to us. There was also my uncle Roger who had been a parachutist for the army. I don’t know much more about his time in the forces except that he’d admitted to me that was afraid of heights.

Then there was the Vietnam war that marked my generation. All these young Americans dying for a lost cause. Apocalypse Now, Good Morning Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July, these movies all gave us an extremely bad image of this war.

For different project-related reasons, it took a while before I could meet a veteran for the first time. Then, by the end of summer, Mario appeared through Zoom. A friendly and approachable guy, a little younger than me. His main deployments were on the island of Cyprus and in Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the UN peacekeeping force. He was in the army for 13 years, from 1983 to 1996. His stories captured my interest.

I didn’t know that Cyprus was separated in two. One side was occupied by the Turks and the other one by Greek Cypriots. Different cultures, which meant two different points of view on each side of the border. As opposed to the Greeks, the Turks were forced to enroll. Even though he had to remain neutral, Mario felt he had more affinity towards the Greeks.

The war in Bosnia though, I’d followed it on the news. I knew that it’d started because of internal conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia and that it was recognized at the time as the worst European armed conflict since WWII. My conversations with Mario kept sending me to my virtual atlas to get to know the places and the issues at stake. As we moved forward in our conversations my interest grew and I started peppering Mario with questions influenced by my passion for history.

This conflict, which had started after the fall of the communist regimes in eastern Europe, had brought back up old clashes based on nationalism, ethnicity and religion. Serbs and Croats, who had previously been living in peace for many years, went at each other’s throats with fierce bestiality.

On a side note, in a former life, I was managing a Café in North Hatley and I would always book a band called the Gypsies of Sarajevo. They would set the place on fire every time with their very festive music. Were they Serbs, Croats or Bosnians? I still don’t know.

Mario Miller with Bosnian children, Bosnia 1993

Of all his experiences, the one in Bosnia has marked Mario the most. Seeing children die in front of him has profoundly disturbed him. It took 3 meetings before getting to that. Mario tends to change subjects quite freely when he talks, up to a point where I sometimes had trouble finding the common thread. Up to that point, our conversations had seemed like a man proudly reporting his accomplishments.

Then, during one of the conversations during our fourth encounter, he says: ‘’Oh! That happened after I tried to commit suicide’’ and then he just continued talking about something else. So, I stopped him and brought him back to what he’d just said. That’s when the real conversations began. Three meetings of small talk before getting there.

After the army, he committed himself to many causes, with fellow veterans as well as his own community. All while working long hours for his daytime job (he earns an honest living). Maybe this was to not face the pain he was feeling inside.

There was a marriage that he tried to keep afloat for thirty years and that ended in divorce. Parents who never gave him any recognition, even if the goal of his enrolment had been to get at least some attention, especially from his father. Here I will quote Marie-France Bazzo who had to take care of her mother who has been suffering from Alzheimer: ‘’My mother is not my best friend; she’s never been that and never will be’’. A sentence that Mario himself could have said. How does one come to terms that a mother, the ultimate image of love, may have failed to fulfill her role. The varnish that had been applied to our first conversations was slowly peeling off.

Through Mario’s tears I was seeing parts of my own story. As he was drying his tears, he said: ‘’What did I get myself into?’’ Going back to my first impressions, all I could say was: ‘’Join the club’’.

Mario’s been going to veteran meetings, following equine therapy and spending numerous hours in therapy trying to patch up his story with his ex-wife.

The image of the strong and flawless man he had initially projected slowly transformed into one of a generous and sensitive man. A man, like many others, who was afraid to face his inner self. A victim of years of being told: ‘’A man doesn’t cry’’. Especially if you’re a soldier! Mario’s story is the one of an ex-military, but it’s mainly the one of a life shaped by the army.

Like for most veterans who’ve been taking part in the Monarques project, Mario’s experience in the army was cut way too short. He felt like he abruptly lost both a family and his relationship with the padre. A padre who acted as a father figure.

On my side, with the war in Ukraine suddenly in full force (I never thought I would see something like this in my lifetime), I’ve finally understood the necessity of maintaining an army. Peace and love might be an objective but, unfortunately, this will not be happening any time soon. At least I know that Mario, with all his courage, is busy making peace with himself.

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