Nov. 11 this year will be like most Remembrance Days for Bob Szpak.
He will find a place to stand during the service in Langford’s Veterans Memorial Park surrounded by hundreds of people, completely alone with his thoughts. Szpak spent six months with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2008, serving as a physiotherapist at the base in Kandahar, helping to try and heal Canadian soldiers and Afghan nationals wounded in the conflict.
“My thoughts on Remembrance Day are based on my personal experiences, and what my mother and father went through during the Second World War,” he said. “Listening to God Save The Queen and O Canada always makes me proud to be a Canadian, especially based on the contrast with living in Afghanistan. You think about the people who sacrificed their lives for the good of others. You stop thinking about yourself, and think about the others that didn’t come back to give us what we have today.”
Szpak, who’s been married to Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak for 42 years, first joined the Canadian Forces in 1971. He left in 1980, before returning in 1983 until 1997. After another stint in private practice, he returned again until 2004. When the Canadian government made the decision to send troops to Afghanistan in 2008, Szpak volunteered right away. “I trained all of my life to serve my country and felt it was my duty to go,” he said. “It was demanding, but I felt like I made a positive difference.” He served with 1 Field Ambulance based in Edmonton, and retired with the rank of captain in 2012.
Although it’s difficult for hin to speak about what it was like in Afghanistan, Szpak believes it’s important to try and convey a sense of what it was like, especially to young people. That’s why he agreed to spend time speaking about his experiences with a local Boy Scouts troop shortly after he returned from Afghanistan. “I’m basically a shy guy, a little introverted,” he said.
He was quick to add, however, that no amount of explaining can provide the right perspective. “You can’t describe it unless you experience it,” he explained.
The experience has left Szpak feeling that in the end, any type of war or conflict is unproductive because of the amount of pain and suffering that remains with the living when the fighting is over. He spends more time these days reading about the history of war and conflict, in part to try and gain a better understanding of what brings the world to that point of no return. “We live in a global village now, so everything that happens in the world affects you,” he said.
“Tragedies like the massacres in Texas and Las Vegas affect people instantaneously…That’s much truer today than in the past. Forty million people died in the Second World War. My time in Afghanistan gave me a deeper understanding of what my parents went through. Before it was just a story, but now there’s an awareness for the suffering they endured that I didn’t have before.”
Find more Remembrance Day features on the Gazette’s website.