Eighty Years Later on the Beaches of Normandy

June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, the Allied countries launched a military operation that would become the turning point of the Second World War. A few days ago, a number of events were held in France to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Four veterans who reside at Ste. Anne’s Hospital were part of the Canadian delegation on site from June 2 to 9, 2024.

Dr. Geneviève Richer, chief medical officer at Ste. Anne’s Hospital, explained her role and shared her experiences as a member of the delegation on this very meaningful pilgrimage. 

Dr. Richer, what does it mean to you to be part of the delegation going to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the landings in Normandy? 
“It is an extraordinary privilege to accompany these heroes to places that changed their lives forever. Given their advanced age, this is probably the last overseas delegation that Canadian veterans from the Second World War will be able to join in.

Over the past few years, I have been privileged to take part in five such pilgrimages to France, Italy, and Holland. Each time, I feel that I am accompanying them in an event that allows them to come full circle. These pilgrimages also help me to better understand the veterans, particularly their character and rigour.

It is very touching and inspiring to see in their eyes the feeling that they have fulfilled their duty. Our veterans are proud, but also very humble. Although they are now quite frail, they always insist on standing during the national anthems and never miss a military salute. They are outstanding patriots who, with great dignity, defended fundamental values including freedom, peace and democracy. And when they are together, it is clear that their camaraderie and brotherhood are instantly rekindled.”

What is your role at such events?
“Let me begin by saying that Veterans Affairs Canada confers with a medical team at Ste. Anne’s Hospital, given our well-established expertise with veterans who are now quite advanced in age. Our medical team is made up of nine people, including nurses, orderlies, an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, and a respiratory therapist.

We are there to supervise any medical interventions or health-related issues that could come up during the trip. The Canadian delegation is made up of some 90 people, which means we may be called upon to provide care not only for the veterans, but also for representatives from Veterans Affairs Canada or travelling companions, who are often members of the veterans’ families.”

Do you have one particular memory from these pilgrimages that has stayed with you?
“There was a moment I found especially touching. In June 2019, during the 75th anniversary of the landings in Normandy, Mr. Jean Trempe, a veteran who was residing at Ste. Anne’s Hospital, confided that the last time he had set foot on Juno Beach, he was shot by a German and that the sea was red with blood. He had a very heavy heart as he remembered losing a number of comrades in arms.

On that day, he felt an overwhelming need to set foot in the sea one more time. So, we helped Mr. Trempe get up from his wheelchair and walk down to the water. Once there, he triumphantly waved a Canadian flag. It was as if, at that very moment, he had purged some old demons. He was finally able to replace the painful images in his head with far more joyous ones. A few months later, he died peacefully. That’s a moment I will never forget.”

For several years now, Dr. Richer has been the honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of the 2nd Field Regiment.

Dignitaries took a moment to speak with our veterans. From left to right: Mr. Gabriel Attal, Prime Minister of France (standing); Mr. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada (kneeling); and William, Prince of Wales (leaning).

The medical team from SAH, who tended to the well-being of the Canadian delegation. On the left is Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Audet of the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment, who assisted the  team.

During one of the commemorative ceremonies, Dr. Geneviève Richer, medical chief of the Canadian delegation and honorary lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment, had an opportunity to speak with Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, in the company of Ms. Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Veterans Affairs.

In June 2019, veteran Jean Trempe set foot in the waters of Juno Beach.

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