The Remembrance Day ceremony at G.W. Graham Secondary School stands apart from most. For the past 14 years, it has included a special theatre production to commemorate the historical day.
Each year, local veterans are given a premiere performance a week earlier at the Chilliwack Masonic Hall.
Emotions are raw, and tears flow with the applause.
This year was no different.
Theatre director and drama teacher Damon Fultz was motivated to bring meaning back to Remembrance Day after sitting through an “awful” ceremony in 2000, which consisted of a poorly memorized rendition of In Flanders Fields, followed by a 10-minute video.
Coming from a family of veterans, “I just felt that something more meaningful had to happen. So that’s when I started this amazing journey.”
Fultz’s Remembrance Day productions have a real impact, because they are real.
Every story, every painful memory, every graphic detail came from the lips of actual veterans, or family members on their behalf. Fultz listened to more than 40 individuals in legions, living rooms, or bars, wherever they were comfortable.
Some stories he heard were quintessentially Canadian. Like when troops stepped off the line in Afghanistan and walked into a Tim Hortons. Or the ball hockey game that continued all through the night.
But mostly, he heard stories that broke his heart.
A small cast of Grade 12 students bring those stories to the stage in Fultz’s Afghanistan War script this year. The multi-media production features live action and music that draws you into the intense emotion, in combination with authentic video footage and photography from the front lines that allows the audience to see the bigger picture.
Even Fultz still shudders at some of the footage. “I’m trying to get people to react emotionally,” he explained, “because then they can start thinking.”
Actors Blake Pyne and Damien Commodore deliver powerful monologues. They talk about missing home. What it’s like to disarm an IED bomb. Where they hid from ‘Timmy Taliban’ gunfire. Having to ask yourself, “Am I a killer?”
They recall the sound of screams after a thundering explosion. And the smell of the blood on their uniform from a child they tried to save.
And they reveal what it’s like for those who made it home, only to lose everything. And for some, their lives.
For the veteran audience, the production is a way to thank them and their families for the scarifies they’ve made to ensure our freedom and safety.
For the high school audience, the production underlines the magnitude of those sacrifices.
In can be challenging to get through to young listeners who think of Remembrance Day as a mere holiday. Fultz hopes to at least open their eyes. Even if only a little bit.
Singer Olivia Eros made note of the wave of poppies or flags that appear on her social media newsfeed in early November, with captions that read, “Lest we forget.” But the cast agreed that the production is a way to help students understand what exactly it is that we’re supposed to be remembering.
It’s a day to honour all members of the Armed Forces who put their lives on the line, in the past and the present.
Over 100,000 Canadian soldiers died in the First and Second World Wars, and the war in Korea.
Another 158 soldiers were killed serving in the Afghan war.
And according to recent data, at least 54 Canadian soldiers and veterans have died by suicide since returning from war in Afghanistan.
After 15 years, the productions have taken a significant emotional and mental toll on Fultz.
“I remember all the veterans that I’ve talked with. Some of them are no longer with us,” Fultz said. But he hears their voices through the voices of his actors.
He’s faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to continue.
“Those darn veterans,” he sighed. After the highly emotional Masonic Hall production concluded, Fultz was greeted with an outpouring of emotion from veterans and family members, all expressing their gratitude, but gently urging him to continue.
Regardless of Fultz’s decision, his incredible Remembrance Day productions consistently warm every appreciative soul in the audience.
Veteran and president of the CFB Chilliwack Historical Society Jim Harris has been working with G.W. Graham on the Remembrance Projects for many years. As a man who fought bravely for our country, and overcame a great struggle with PTSD, the production brought up a lot of memories for Harris.
He gave a heartfelt thank you to Fultz and his students for keeping those important memories alive and at centre stage, year after year.