LOIS LEGGE FEATURES WRITER
Published March 31, 2014 - 6:50pm
Last Updated April 1, 2014 - 12:17pm
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Ex-boxer, infantryman has lost battle to keep DVA offices — so far
Ron Clarke strikes his old boxing pose.
And moves in for a knockout.
"I perfected it, as a matter of fact," he says of his overhand right.
His 73-year-old body — waiting now for a major back operation — bobs and weaves. Shadow-dancing in the reflection of framed black and white photos. And his glory days.
SEE ALSO: Veterans battle their own government
"I would always throw a bunch of left hooks at you … and what happens when I go to throw that? You move this way, don't you?" says the former welterweight, edging forward. "And then, bam!"
The Canadian Forces veteran laughs for a moment, thinking about the move that earned him a stellar record in the ring.
Thirty-two fights. Two losses. Twenty-one wins by knockout in the first round.
But that was a long time ago.
And these days, he might have to go the distance — up against his own government and the ghosts in his head.
Many Canadians know about his battle with the federal government. They see him as the tough, feisty senior citizen who took on Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino while fighting, unsuccessfully, to save the department's district office in Sydney, where vets say they got the kind of personal touch they need while facing everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to the aftermath of strokes.
Ottawa closed that support office and seven others in late January, after countrywide protests. And after testy exchanges between Clarke, other vets and Fantino, when he arrived late for a scheduled meeting with them at his office.
But the Georges River resident vows to fight on, to help defeat the Harper government and get those offices back. And he's become something of a folk hero along the way — admired by former soldiers and "civvies," strangers who call him today just because they're lonely or want someone to champion their own unrelated cause.
But sit with this scrappy former infantryman, military postal clerk and peacekeeping vet for a little while and another man emerges.
A man who came from a hardscrabble life on the wrong side of the tracks and grew up to see things that still keep him up nights.
He points to a picture of his late uncle, Edgar, one of dozens of photos or military plaques covering the basement walls of the home he shares with his wife of 56 years, Elsie, recently diagnosed with lung cancer.
"He suffered from (PTSD)," Clarke says of his uncle, a Second World War veteran. "But in them days, they didn't know what the hell it was. God love him … great guy when he was sober. When he was drinking, he was a great guy with me too, you know, around us guys, but he was a tough, rough character.
"My … older brother Billy and I, whenever we had the opportunity, we'd pick him up, take him with us fishing. … Yeah, he loved that."
His voice trails off. And he starts to cry.
"I'll be all right," he says, asking for a tissue. "See, that PTSD, that's what it does to you, this is part of it, right. Anyway.
"The medication hasn't kicked in yet," he says with a laugh, shrugging it off.
"That's another thing I do … I use a lot of humour to get around my problem and that helps.
"And, of course, that little place in the back room there," he says, pointing to his bar. "That helps too, believe me. But I'm not like Uncle Edgar was. I mean, I don't drink to get drunk. I have my brandy every night and maybe a liqueur with it and that's it."
But his doctor recently upped his antidepressant medication, something he's been taking since he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002, 10 years after he retired from a military career that included a decade of those infantry boxing bouts and peacekeeping in Cyprus, Namibia and beyond.
The medication helps, but not always. Lately, with all the pressures of this recent battle, he's been breaking down too often, he says. He thinks he may need more to stem the trauma he traces back to 1973 and a six-month stint with the International Commission of Control and Supervision — tasked with monitoring ceasefires and the release of prisoners during the Vietnam War.
"Yeah, Vietnam," says the Clarke, who grew up between North Sydney and Gannon Road, "the roughest place on this side of the water," where men were stevedores and kids threw rocks at cops who crossed the railway line. He lived there with his mother and 11 siblings (one brother later died on the tracks) in a "poor" household with a heavy-drinking father, who didn't beat them but scared them so much sometimes "we had to go down the back steps and go up to my grandmother's place and stay there."
But then he joined the army at 16. He trained in the infantry, where he boxed as Babe Clarke, for 10 years and switched to the military postal service. And, eventually, went to Vietnam.
"When I arrived in Vietnam, the first day on the ground, I met this first sergeant, that's like a chief warrant officer, a Canadian and he was from Newfoundland and he was American forces," Clarke recalls. "He had his own vehicle and asked me if I wanted to have a look around … we looked around the base and then he went off the base and went up a dirt road."
He takes a breath and explains the rest.
"There was Vietnamese bodies stacked like cordwood, like it would be picked up and taken away. Whew, that was heavy. Anyway, we actually got back to base and he took me over to one of the airplane hangars and it was the mortuary for the Americans. There were thousands, and I mean thousands, of body bags stacked up waiting to be moved back to the States.
"The smell of the place was just…
"And one of our own lads, a captain, he was shot down while we were there. We retrieved his remains and they brought him back and when we took him off the airplane, the smell was just — it stays with me to this day. The smell of death."
The images stay too. Those and others of released prisoners of war, emaciated and confused. He starts to talk about them but stops, overwhelmed by these and other pictures that play over regularly in his dreams.
"Some nights I wake up and I'm a little bit upset," he says.
"I was up 3:30 this morning … no sense going back to sleep because you don't know what goes through this thing up here."
[center] If it wasn't for us veterans, not me in particular but those guys who were in combat, if it wasn't for them, you know (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper wouldn't be sitting up there today … So look, remember what your veterans did for you, did for this country, and treat them with dignity and give them what they need, whatever they need.[/center]
Cape Breton vets like Terry Collins, who served in Afghanistan and also has PTSD, say they're grateful Clarke has taken on the task. The Florence resident, on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills for his illness, participated in a few protests and media interviews about the closures but then had to withdraw because it made his symptoms worse.
"We're lucky that somebody like that can actually go as long as he's been going," Collins says. "I could only do so much and then my head became too full."
"I think it's great," Elsie Clarke says of her husband's mission. But she worries about him too.
"He does need help," she says. "He's got too much to do."
But Clarke sees the ongoing fight as a matter of principle and respect. And decency, toward veterans he says were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
"Why do they want to treat their vets like that? " he asks.
"Christ, one of the boys said 'why the hell do the vets have to beg for everything they want?' … And I agree with that statement.
"Jesus, you know, if it wasn't for us veterans, not me in particular but those guys who were in combat, if it wasn't for them, you know (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper wouldn't be sitting up there today … So look, remember what your veterans did for you, did for this country, and treat them with dignity and give them what they need, whatever they need. And closing the offices on them was one of the worst things they could ever do."
Clarke also bristles at Fantino's claim the vets have been used by the former employees' union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Yes, he says, the union offered to help and paid for the vets' delegation to Ottawa. But that was after he'd already been involved in two protests in Sydney.
"I said sure, anything to help. The government certainly wasn't helping us … but they (the union) weren't running the show, we were."
Clarke is working with the union again to gather complaints from veterans across the country, now that the offices have been closed. He plans to send them to the federal ombudsman. He's already hearing from vets who've had trouble getting through or getting to the Service Canada offices. And he says they're certainly not getting the immediate action they did from the former Sydney employees. Plus, a recent report from the department itself acknowledged the closures could hamper service delivery to vets.
He's also started what he calls a war chest, a fund, to help defeat the Harper government in the next election. The phone rings today with an offer of $1,000.
The father of four, including a baby who died at just six weeks old, isn't quite sure why he's struck such a chord with the public. He's been told he's articulate. But he wonders about that, since he only has a Grade 8 education.
"They know I'm sincere and they know I'm fighting a good fight, I guess," he reasons.
And that's something he'll continue to do.
"You know, I may be 74 come April but by Jesus, (if) you're in front of me, I've still got this right hand and right arm and you best be careful.
"I may not be as fast as I used to be, but I'm as powerful.
"Even more powerful," he jokes, "because I'm a heavyweight."
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.