When you learn the Petrolia branch of the Royal Canadian Legion recently presented a veteran with a Special Service Medal, you might picture an old man, with gray hair and a raft of medals on his chest, recognized for a battle long fought.
But that’s not what you would have seen.
The Legion honoured Alex Billings, a veteran who served in the air movement squadron at Trenton from December 2008 to October 2014.
“We’re the ones in charge of loading and unloading of personnel and, for lack of better term, cargo on and off the aircraft,” he says.
Billings and his crew travelled extensively in his service, to Cyprus, Alert, NWT, and Haiti. And he was on the ground when 158 members of the Forces returned home after dying in Afghanistan.
“I was there for every single one until I left,” he tells The Independent.
The air movement squadron played a key role in the repatriation of those who died.
“We’re the ones that are kind of scuttling around behind the scenes making sure that whole repatriation ceremony goes off in a respectful manner without a hitch, so that family can have their moment.”
Today, at the Petrolia Legion he sees the faces of those who died in service to Canada in Afghanistan pictured on the wall. It’s not the soldiers he remembers. “For me, when I hear the name I see their families … that’s the side of it that impacted me.”
And Billings has been impacted deeply by the grief of the families of service men and women. He was with the military in Haiti helping the nation after a massive earthquake destroyed the island nation killing an estimated 160,000 people.
He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after “seeing more death than anyone should ever see there.”
One of those deaths was an RCMP officer. Billings and his crew helped bring his body home. While he didn’t know the officer, watching his 10 year old son cry at a memorial 10 years after the officers death hit him hard.
“You know that’s his dad. He didn’t get to know him, because he was just a young baby at the time. If I remember correctly, his name’s Xavier. That’s when it hit me, when there’s that personal connection that you can make.”
It’s bittersweet for Billings to receive the medal, knowing his friends lives were changed forever by their service. And he admits it does feel odd to be the veteran who tells stories of his service instead of listening to the old guys.
But he recognizes as the older vets pass on, people will need to hear his stories, too.
“We had one lady come up to us at the Christmas parade while we were standing there getting ready to start. And she asked us, “Oh, are you guys here with the cadets?”
“No, we’re here with the Legion. And she’s like, ‘Oh, well, it’s so nice to see young people like you supporting veterans.’
“And I actually pulled my mask down and I went ‘this is the face of a veteran now.’