Column: Cross-Canada ride helps honour veterans

Almost six months later, Canadian Forces veteran Paul Nichols, Terry, and their support team have finally ridden close to 10,000 kilometres.

On April 13, Canadian Forces veteran Paul Nichols set out on the ride of a lifetime. His plan was to ride from Victoria, B.C. to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to raise awareness of the challenges many veterans face when transitioning from military to civilian life. His goal was to visit communities across Canada, share stories with veterans, and heighten awareness of the contributions military people have made and the special needs they face. His mount, Zoe, would symbolize the value of horses in helping veterans cope and heal from the traumatic brain injury, PTSD.

The vision had been triggered by a chance encounter with a lady in a story who had survived the four-year Siege of Sarajevo, enduring shelling and sniper fire every night. She was rescued by Canadian troops. When Paul told her that he had served in Yugoslavia with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, she had burst into tears and hugged him, still grateful for the service of the Canadian soldiers.

That haunting moment lingered and he realized the profound depths of a heartfelt story. He wondered if powerful stories like these could help heal and make a difference to both a victim and a veteran, so many of whom have suffered the torment of PTSD. As had Paul.

For almost a year, Paul and his wife Terry planned the Ride Across Canada and launched Communities for Veterans Foundation. They would take their four horses and lease horses along the way, stopping in communities to visit with veterans and residents. Veterans could sign up to ride with them for a few hours or days depending on how many horses they had with them at any one time.

“We were quite strict with what the ride would look like,” said Terry. “(The riding group would consist of) my husband Paul and a maximum of three veterans who have gone through a lesson and been approved to join the ride. We would have events so when we rode into a community we would have a gathering at a cenotaph, a beach, a park or a community place. There would be an invitation for veterans and community members to join us to talk and share thoughts.”

The journey was amazing. Everywhere, people turned out to help, offering food, meals, hay, lodging, stabling, and vehicles.

Now, almost six months later, Paul, Terry, and their support team have finally ridden into St John’s, Newfoundland having covered close to 10,000 kilometres.

Some 335 veterans have ridden with them and they have visited almost 160 communities. In some places they had to trailer their horses to make up time after a diversion to a community that asked them to visit.

The ride will officially end on Monday, November 9 when they will ride to the National War Memorial for a ceremony at 2 p.m. Then there will be a reception at Government House and a commemorative celebration dinner at The Mess at CFB St. John’s.

“A good friend of ours was talking about the Ride as though we were lighting candles as we were riding across Canada. We could feel this brightness, this whole inspiration. We had one veteran who was really struggling and he has actually joined our crew as a mechanic. He joined to help out because he sees the power in what we are doing. For him, it’s renewed his faith in humanity because he can see how people want to support veterans.”

Canadians truly love their veterans. Next Wednesday, Remembrance Day, they will honour them once more for their service, their sacrifice and their commitment to making Canada safe for us all.

It will be a moment to keep the candle of hope burning.