Every year, for the past 7, I’ve been going to the Horse Guards Parade in London at 7 AM and I wait for the most wonderful people, our fabulous veterans, to arrive. This is such a momentous day for us all and every year is so humbling for me.
As I walk around Horse Guards, I notice so many men and women veterans that I want to say hello to. They probably all have such moving stories about their lives. Our older generation, like these veterans, are just bursting with stories to tell us, but few of us take the time to ask and like all older people, they are so pleased to be recognised.
Just please take a few moments to just look into the eyes of these men and women and think about who they are and what they’ve done in their lives.
The first man I spotted was in a wheelchair and his name is John Morgan. He was a commando during the Second World War in charge of many troops, but today he was alone.
Most of the veterans I met were living by themselves and it’s so sad to see these people forgotten like that all through the year. In order to get to the parade, many veterans had to be brought in by volunteers or charity workers, like John who was accompanied by Steve Boswell from the Blind Veterans charity.
John had a face so full of kindness and, as I said hello, he put his woolly green gloves to his mouth and moved his hand across his lips. At first, I could not understand but then it hit me – he was trying to communicate to me that he could not talk.
I was chatting away to John and then he put his hand across his eyes. I did not understand at first, but then I realized he was blind as well.
Once I knew John could not see and was unable to talk, I felt numb. Here was this angelic face staring at me, however, he could hear perfectly, so I just chatted away about how wonderful he looked, what fabulous skin he had and how much I appreciated being there holding his hand.
As I was talking I saw tears well up in John’s eyes, but he was smiling too. I think he was just enjoying someone talking to him, appreciating who he was. God knows what had happened to John to lose his sight and voice.
Just look into these eyes and see the journey John must have had. As I looked into his sparkling blue eyes I felt I could see inside his soul and see the journey of his life. John now lives in a world where he can’t see or talk and is in a wheelchair.
I thanked him for what he did in World War II and crikey, seeing this great man smiling at me, unable to communicate shook me to the bones.
Here is a true superstar who our newspapers could celebrate. What on Earth happened to our media? Why does our media only celebrate these people at their funeral, if ever? It crushes me how we just seem to forget how incredible our older generation truly are.
As I’ve said goodbye to John, I then saw another happy face. I could feel this man was bursting to tell a story. His names is Tony Eldrige DSC. It’s hard to believe what Tony and others have done during the Second World War. This story makes James Bond look like Sooty and Sweep.
Tony drove human torpedoes in freezing waters towards enemy submarines or ships. He literally layed on the torpedo to which he and another fellow soldier were strapped on. As they reached a ship, they strapped a bomb with a timer and then paddled away as quickly as possible. Can you imagine this, James Bond?
He told me how hard it was because they only had a thin rubber suit and gloves on that did not keep much warmth. He said they went on endless underwater missions and the freezing waters have left him with excruciating pain in his joints.
It’s funny and so true that once you become 70 you become a child all over again. It’s as if this “being an adult thing” is just a burden that we get when we are in our teenage years or when we turn 18 and it lasts until we are 70. It’s as if from when we turn 18, God pushes a button that makes childhood over and we become adults for the next 52 years. We have to get a career, be all sensible and impress people … all that stuff we all do most of our lives. It is some kind of sentence we all have to go through.
Then, bingo! You hit the magical age of 70 and God sets you free again to be silly like the child you once were. We have done all that looking good and impressing thing and we won’t care anymore, it’s time again to have fun with each other.
And this is why Horse Guards Parade today is so magical, because it’s full of oldies who are children again. I can feel the energy of fun and joy here and everyone loves to talk to you about their lives. It’s as if I am walking amongst hundreds of happy stories bursting to get out if some one dares to ask.
These oldies are just buzzing like bees, making jokes about being old and the younger generation. Then, I hear this beautiful voice calling me.
It was Sadie Thompson, this 91 year old Scottish lady with a lot on her mind that she wanted to share.
‘People call me “The Cleaning Lady”, after Johnny Farnham song.’
‘Oh, do they really?’
‘Oh yes. But this younger generation doesn’t know about these kind of things.’
‘I know. They think you were never young, but inside you still are 23 years old.’
‘Yes, we all are. You know what? I was in Marks & Spencer the other day with my granddaughter and the girl at the till asked her if I know how to use a credit card. I was one of the first people in Great Britain to have a credit card. She just lost a customer, I’ll tell you that.’
We all started laughing and then I noticed Ken Purver making sweet eyes at Sadie.
I asked him if he would like to do some heavy breathing with Sadie and he made me laugh out loud.
‘Hey, Duncan, I have trouble breathing let alone any heavy breathing.’
I believe we are so lucky to have the generation who fought for us in the Second World War. Walking libraries of wisdom and stories. They lived history and they are so happy to share what they saw and how they lived.
Sadly, in February last year, our last surviving veteran from the First Wold War passed away to heaven. Now, they can’t share their experiences, what they’ve lived through, and how the world changed around them. These people lived through 2 World Wars, The Great Depression, they probably saw Churchill and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, so many stories that we have lost. We have to document these wonderful stories. Imagine, there are 80-90 years of stories and experiences in these Second World War veterans.
Once in Whitehall, I was with the blind veterans contingent. To be among so many blind veterans was such a honor, here are Carl Adamson and Simon Robert, now a Blind Veterans fundraiser.
Carl was driving a Land Rover in Ireland when an IRA bomb blew him up. All he can remember is being dragged out from underneath the remains of a torn apart vehicle. Can any of us just imagine this?
Carl looked so happy on Sunday. He is now happily married to a blind girl called Sharlene.
Behind him was a lovely couple from Chesterfield.
They were Brian and Margaret Eldridge and they look pretty normal, however, Brian is completely blind. They were so nice and it was such a joy to see Brian and Margaret so happy together. It is such a pleasure to see such joy and how upbeat they were.
I then saw a pair of trendy yellow trainers, in a sea of black leather shoes, attached to a pair of prosthetic legs.
This pair of shoes belonged to veteran Derek Derenalagi who had lost his feet, yes his feet, in Afghanistan. His car was hit by an improvised bomb and Derek was pronounced dead. When he was being prepared for a body bag, the doctors found that he still had a pulse so, in a coma he was flown back to the UK.
His legs were amputated above the knee but now Derek is now a paralympian discus thrower and inspirational speaker. What a hero he is.
He said the pain from standing up was agony, but he had to be there to respect his comrades who lost their lives and these amazing veterans around him.
I was surrounded by incredible men and women, a different breed of human beings.
These are the veterans who fought for Great Britain, for us. Let’s celebrate them every day and show them how much we appreciate what they’ve done for us.
Just look into the eyes of Lionel Haig, 89, who went all the way to Berlin in the Second World War and for the last 40 years he’s been selling poppies for Remembrance day. Today he luckily has his niece, Pam McNally, who takes care of him.
At the end of the ceremony, I saw Dave Mullis and Air and Marine Captain Gurmail Sinan Notha who are these incredible looking veterans.
From the bottom of my heart, I would like to salute our brave men and women veterans.
Thank you for all you have done.
To see more of Duncan's work, go to VisitChislehurst.org.uk