9 November 2015

Remembrance, continued: A Good Man

No Canadian has been awarded a Victoria Cross since the end of the Second World War, even though Canadian troops have been almost constantly deployed to some of the worst places in the world since the end of that conflict. The man I wish to speak of today displayed some of the best virtues of our soldiers as he helped a people wage a battle against one of the worst enemies of all- despair. He received little official recognition from Canada, (although as you will see he did receive what simply had to be the field promotion to end all field promotions) and sadly his story was unknown until he was killed in Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident, and what he did was revealed in his eulogy.

In the eulogy, Major Shane Schreiber says "He didn’t think he had done anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done, and that many hadn’t already done (but then heroes seldom do think much of their efforts or achievements). What I find incredible is that Sergeant Léger was not all that much different from every other trooper in my Company." In this he is absolutely correct. To speak again of the Victoria Cross, I have read many interviews and statements from the men to whom the award was given, and all of them downplayed what they did, treated it as nothing special, merely doing what they were supposed to do. Often they stated that they could take the medal and hand it to a dozen others who would deserve it just as much. Humility, as well as courage, is an important part in the makeup of a hero. This is the recognition that there are things more important than ourselves, causes that may require us to sacrifice our personal wants and desires for something greater.

With that I come to Sgt Marc Leger, a good man who conquered despair without firing a single shot. Instead of rewriting his story, I will here reprint his eulogy in full from this site. I can make no improvements on this.

"I had the pleasure of having worked with Sergeant Léger for two years when I commanded A Company (Parachute). He was a soldier and leader of rare skill, drive, compassion and intellect. My most vivid memory of then Master Corporal Leger was during our tour together in Bosnia in 2000. By that time, most of the International Aid agencies had abandoned Bosnia for more exciting missions elsewhere, but the need was greater than ever because of the return of large numbers of displaced persons to their war-destroyed homes (and lives). Master Corporal Léger had been given a particularly difficult area of responsibility (AOR) in a placed called the Livno Valley. Here, Serbs who had been ethnically cleansed by their Croat neighbours were returning to shattered homes and destroyed lives. Despite the fact that it was beyond our mandate, Master Corporal Léger felt that he had to do something to help these people; to him, it made no sense that he was enforcing a peace that kept these people living like refugees in the own homes. He began by doing little things, like constantly harassing his Company Commander (me) for resources to help these people. He took leftover or thrown away building supplies, and distributed these on patrol. He snuck food from the Camp Kitchen, and spirited off the Camp Water truck when no one was looking. The more he found to help with, the more he needed, as those villagers he was helping told their friends to return home, that the Canadians would help them. Soon, a shattered village began to rebuild.

"The Livno Valley became Master Corporal Léger’s adopted home. He lived in the Camp with the rest of us, but his heart and mind was always with "his" people stuck in the bombed out houses among mines strewn fields. He could not accept that the Humanitarian Aid Agencies had simply left these people to fend for themselves. He began to badger the local UNHCR representative, and any aid agency that drove through the area was stopped by Master Corporal Léger and given a lecture on the conditions and the requirements for assistance. Finally, I explained to Master Corporal Léger that to get any resources from UNHCR or any other aid agency, he was going to have to get their attention, and the only way to get their attention was to get the locals to appoint a Mayor to plead their case directly. Seizing on the idea, Master Corporal Léger organized a "town hall" meeting with his people. He explained the realities and requirements, and explained the need to choose a leader, a spokesperson. Unanimously, they chose him. Amused, he explained that he could not act as their spokesperson; he was a Canadian soldier - not a Bosnian politician. He explained the foreign concept of an election, and they all agreed that this was an excellent way to choose a new Mayor. Again, Master Corporal Léger was the unanimous choice. Less amused and more concerned, Master Corporal Léger explained in detail that the Mayor had to be one of them. He was ineligible. Finally, after much good natured teasing and a quick lesson on the concept of democratic elections theory done through a bemused translator, the locals chose their Mayor. But they immediately became a constitutional monarchy when, again, by unanimous decision, they named Master Corporal Léger their King. "King Marco" was to become Master Corporal Léger’s lasting title, both in the Livno Valley, and within the Parachute Company.

"In his advocacy for the plight of the Livno Valley, King Marco became the irresistible force that eventually wore away the immovable rocks of misunderstanding and apathy. Eventually, he became a spokesperson for returnees throughout the Canadian AOR and his passion and commitment made an eloquent representative. I used to love to bring VIPs, like our British Divisional Commander, the American "Three Star" Commander of SFOR, or the Canadian Ambassador to Radonovici in the Livno Valley, for Master Corporal Léger to brief. His forthright manner and common sense solutions made converts of them all, and I watched with pride as he stick handled every question until even the most skeptical became his supporters. Eventually, with the support of the Battle Group Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Barr, and the Canadian Ambassador, a deal was struck that gave Léger (and other equally deserving Master Corporals) the resources required to help Bosnians help themselves. Master Corporal Léger’s proudest day of the tour was when the first red tile roof went up in the Livno Valley, reversing a ten year cycle of destruction and despair. King Marco had brought hope back to the Livno Valley.

"I don’t know what the Livno Valley looks like today. King Marco’s empire may have returned to ruins, although I doubt that, as King Marco was as diligent in his succession as he was in his rule, something few rulers ever strive for or manage to achieve. I do know that for many, his compassion was truly and deeply heroic, and added to his already tall stature as a leader and soldier. For his work in the Livno Valley, Sergeant Léger was deservingly awarded a Deputy Chief of Defence Staff Commendation last year. He didn’t think he had done anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done, and that many hadn’t already done (but then heroes seldom do think much of their efforts or achievements). What I find incredible is that Sergeant Léger was not all that much different from every other trooper in my Company. What I find even more surprising is how an institution as publicly maligned and neglected as the Canadian Army can continue to consistently attract and retain guys like Marc Léger. As historian Jack Granatstein has said of another Canadian Army at another time, it is probably a better organization than the people of Canada know or deserve. Marc Léger and his fellow soldiers are, as the Prime Minister has already said, "the best face of Canada."

"He was a hero, and we should all take our lead from his spirit and his actions.

"The King is Dead. Long Live the King!"

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