Like many young boys his age, Airdronian Travis Lanoway would often revel in playing 'soldier' with his friends. But for him, it was more just child's play. His father served in the Canadian Air Force, and his father's father served in World War II. In 1991, when Lanoway turned 17, he followed family tradition and his passion and enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces as a medic.
Although he was initially told that there were no openings for medics in the army, his perseverance and determination would ultimately pay off as just before he would start his basic training, he was informed a medic spot was open. Five years after his deployment as a medic in the back of an armoured ambulance in Bosnia in 2003, Lanoway would be deployed once again, this time to Afghanistan.
"The threat level was extremely high. Canadians were routinely being killed on missions. I lost two very good friends on the mission; both were medics."
One of those friends that Lanoway lost in Afghanistan was Calgarian Cpl. Michael Starker of the 15th Field Ambulance Regiment. Starker, who also worked out of Calgary as a paramedic was killed in an ambush in May 2008 west of Kandahar. When it came time for Cpl. Starker's body to be transported home on his final journey, it was Lanoway who accompanied him.
"It was a very hard thing to do because you just lost somebody that you really respect and look up to. He was probably one of the best soldiers I ever worked with and everything about him was all about being a soldier," Lanoway said. "I think the hard part for me is when it happened, up until that moment I felt indestructible and then when Mike was killed, it erased that indestructibility."
One of the starkest reminders of duty to country was when Lanoway arrived home in Canada to an outpouring of emotion for the fallen paramedic and his good friend, only to have to head back immediately to Afghanistan to continue his tour.
"It was a great honour and I feel very privileged to have been picked to be an escort but at the same time, it was the hardest thing I think I've ever done."
Though tours of duty last six months, Lanoway would serve in Afghanistan for eight, as he had volunteered to stay longer if he was needed. Lanoway would also serve in Bosnia five years before his deployment to Afghanistan. Although the landscapes and conflict were vastly different between his two overseas deployments, he underlined that Bosnia struck a deep chord within him.
"It was hard in the sense that it's an amazingly beautiful country, but everywhere you went there were bombed-out villages and mass graveyards," Lanoway said. "I'd watch kids playing on concrete all the time; they weren't playing soccer in the fields because a lot of the fields still had landmines, so, the kids learned to play on the hard surface where they didn't have to risk getting blown up."
During his six-month tour, he would also visit Sarajevo on a fact-finding mission, accompanied by a German medical team. The team showed Lanoway the state of the hospitals in the area. As he toured the area, Lanoway realized that a sports stadium that had hosted the Olympics in 1984, had become a makeshift morgue during the conflict. Then there was what Lanoway said was a sea of white.
"All it is is crosses of people killed in and around Sarajevo. You see this beautiful town that's still recovering; there are shell holes in the sides of buildings, bullet holes in the sides of buildings and this whole countryside full of crosses."
When his tour ended and he came back home, Lanoway said that he had a very different perspective on life in Canada.
"I had a new appreciation...Kids got to play in a park without the risk of getting blown up every day or watching people go to Starbucks and complain about their coffee being five minutes late and then I was just in a village that had no running water or half the village was destroyed or was lost in the war. Canadians actually have it pretty good when you look at other societies around the world," he said. "You realize how much we have and it is just amazing to me to realize how much we complain about what we do have."
While he still reflects on how lucky Canadians are to live in a country that hasn't experienced war and destruction within its own borders, Lanoway is also reflecting on how Remembrance Day has changed for him. When Lanoway was younger, with family in the military, he would often hear stories of veterans from World War II and other wars, though he said that it was almost as if one were reading a history book.
"It's hard and it's impactful, but at the same time, it didn't really affect me, so, as much as I observed Remembrance Day out of respect for everybody who had served and lost their lives prior to me, it never really made me remember anybody I knew because I personally didn't know anybody who'd ever been killed in combat," he said. "After Afghanistan, knowing two medics as well as some of the other people that had been killed in the conflict; it really opened my eyes to what Remembrance Day means."
For Lanoway, there is now a much deeper and more sombre understanding of the day, where he not only remembers those who died before him but those who died serving alongside him. And although he has lost colleagues and friends, he is certain that even knowing what he knows now, and having seen what he has seen, if given the choice once again, he would still have become an army medic.
Perhaps one of the most daunting questions that all Canadians may ask themselves on November 11 is that those who do serve in the military are fully aware that they may be called to pay the highest price in fulfilling their duty, and yet they still do it; but why?
"I think everybody has their own answer to that. That's maybe the most challenging question anyone has ever asked me. I think that Canadians are afforded a lot of rights and a lot of protections and it's not that way everywhere in the world," he said. "I think people who join the Canadian [Armed] Forces, not only want to serve Canada, and be part of this great tradition, but also want to make the rest of the world slightly better."
Lanoway continues to work in the paramedical field, albeit without his kevlar and fatigues. He currently works in Calgary as a clinical operation operations supervisor. He previously worked as a paramedic in Calgary.
More than 40,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces served in Afghanistan. 158 Canadian soldiers died during the Afghanistan mission.
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