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Justin Byatt relives history

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Nov 12/04) - Remembrance Day has taken on a whole new meaning for Justin Byatt this year.

Byatt was one of 13 young Canadians selected by the Department of Veterans Affairs to accompany 42 veterans on a trip back to the Second World War battlefields of Italy. From Oct. 26-Nov. 2, the 17-year-old Thomas Simpson school graduate visited several war cemeteries and was present for the unveiling of 60th anniversary commemorative plaques at Ortona, Rimini and Cesena Italy.

For the aging veterans, it was an emotional experience.

"It was very hard for some of them to see the graves of so many comrades and so many young people.

Now that they're in their 80s and 90s, they can look back and see just how young they really were," Byatt said, noting that the youth delegates were the same age as some of the those whose remains lay beneath the gravestones.

The Italian campaign did not receive the attention of the massive beach invasions at Normandy, France.

Nevertheless, 93,000 Canadian soldiers fought in Italy, nearly 6,000 of whom perished. Byatt, who's now studying biological sciences at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, acknowledged that the Italian campaign wasn't at the fore of his high school history lessons."I knew it was part of Nazi Germany at one point, and I knew it was taken back, but I never really thought about who did it," he said. "I learned a lot on this trip."

The youth delegates sat down with four of the Canadian veterans who basically reiterated that war is not as Hollywood portrays it, Byatt said.

The former soldiers also agreed that in hellish times of battle, individuals can muster courage they didn't know they had.

"You do whatever you can to survive," Byatt related. "They've survived a lot... I heard one story about a guy who had gone without sleep for five days and saw a house that had been blown to pieces, without a roof, just a couple of walls. He found a bare spot and had one of the better sleeps he'd had in a while. You do what you can."

So this year as he stares down at the poppy on his jacket, Byatt will retain vivid memories of the faces of war.

Appreciate it more

"It will be more about remembering the people who are still alive and how they feel now," he said.

"I have a better idea of what they went through. I can appreciate it more."