There are moments in our lives destined to become unforgettable.
Happenstances of heartbreak, elation, fear, loss, innocence and so on. Whatever it may be, we all have them. We’ve all experienced them. In a way, it’s what binds us. Transcends all barriers. No matter the background, ethnicity or socio-economic upbringing, we can all relate to someone on one plane or another. It’s just whether we choose to or not. And often times the bustle of this life dictates the latter. But not always.
I have something I want to tell you about. And on its surface, it may seem irrelevant to what I’ve already said; but I assure you, it’s very much intertwined. It’s about my shirt. Actually, that’s a lie; it’s not my shirt. I mean technically, I am in possession of said shirt, and by all accounts likely will be for the remainder of my days, but it didn’t start out as mine.
But I’d like to tell you about it all the same.
In order to do that, I have to take you back to a warm spring morning in the north end of Edmonton. The sky was a piercing shade of blue. By all accounts, a perfect morning. But only if I choose to withhold from you the knowledge of the horrific hangover that crippled my insides that very same morning. And to make things worse, there was no avoiding what was to come – a morning run. Not a run of my choosing. I’m not a sadist. You see, back then, all those years ago, I was still young, dumb and full of – booze. Standing rank and file within the confines of the army.
The boys and I had gotten together the night previous and decided that carrying the motto of, “just one more drink” was a good idea.
Our C.O. (commanding officer) was a man carved from stone. I swear this man did push-ups in his sleep, and would run uphill both to and from work, if the geography allowed for it. But since it didn’t, he chose to run us around the outskirts of the base at a pace best described as superhuman — and we had to keep up.
By the time the run was over and we had gotten back to base, I felt my “check liver light” come on, and collapsed with controlled descent to the cold cement floor of the hanger bay.
“Okay, partner up, do some stretches and regroup back here no later than 09:30!” The C.O.’s voice careened throughout the place. His volume didn’t help my headache.
“Henny – stretch it out?” Colin Wilmot tossed his query as he plopped down beside me. “Holy heck, Heneghan; you smell like a brewery, brother. Fun night?”
I flicked my head, informing him that yes, last night was great, but the morning?
“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad – I might throw up in my shoe.” He laughed. So I smiled. Getting a laugh from, Colin was not typically a hard feat, but an enjoyable one. He had gotten to the unit a short time after I had. We bonded rather quickly. Not so much because we were into the same things. For the most part, we weren’t. An example would be that he was as fit as a fiddle, and enjoyed pushing himself to get fitter, better, faster and stronger. Whereas I, well, I liked craft beers.
But that didn’t matter. Our unspoken selves just meshed with one another. He was a good man and believed me to be one as well. My typical mornings when arriving at work generally consisted of a friendly shoulder slap to welcome me for the day. A shoulder slap accompanied by his million-dollar smirk. He had the face of a boy, not so much a man. But you never doubted his capabilities.
Colin and I spend time together off base, too. He would come to my place and we would play videogames, watch hockey and cheer on the Oilers, snack on homemade charcuterie boards and watch films highlighted by our favourite actresses.
By the way, Scarlett Johansson, if you happen to read this, what’s up?
Our unit was gearing up for deployment to Afghanistan, so operational tempo with respect to field deployments and specialty training courses was abundant. But life was overall good. A healthy balance of work and play. And Colin was beside me for most of it. Or should I say, I was next him.
You see, I didn’t deploy. He did.
I left the army in July of 2008. July 2nd, actually. I became a paramedic and decided to stay countryside. But on July 6 of that year a call would come, and it would shake not only my phone, but the very foundation of who I was.
A friend who was still serving called to inform me that Colin, Pte. Colin Wilmot, was killed overseas by an explosive device. The world around me slowed down for a moment. My mind questioned the reality in front of it. Wondering if this was just another one of my horrid nightmares. But no matter how hard I bit the inside of my cheek, or pinched my skin, I remained in the hell of that moment. Colin really was dead. Is dead.
Because I was out of the army, I could not attend his funeral. I did, however, watch the news with his likeness plastered to the screen. I observed from a barstool as my friend’s body was transported within a motorcade of black. He lay in a casket draped by the red and white of our flag.
For years I blamed myself for his death. You see, Colin was an alternate for the tour to Afghanistan. Meaning he was not slated to go unless an opening should arise. And with my leaving the army and forgoing my position as a dismounted medic, a position that Colin later filled, I felt as though I killed him.
Some days I still struggle with it. Though, everyone close to me croons comforting words of contrary. Some days are harder than others. Some days are really hard, actually.
I miss his face. His goofy mannerisms. His wit and willingness to be around for any and all who may need a friend. Colin was one of the best. The absolute best of us as humans. And I, well, I struggled for many years after his death and the deaths of our other fallen comrades. And with the mounting trauma faced on the frontlines of emergency patient care as a paramedic, I struggled further.
A failing relationship compounded these unexpressed traumas until eventually I ended up in handcuffs, sitting in the back of a police cruiser. I had just failed a roadside sobriety test. No more driving for me. This wasn’t rock bottom, though. Life had some more pitfalls to bestow. My mother would die by way of suicide in 2017. Three short years later, my big sister would fall to the same fate. Life was a little rough for quite some time.
In order to combat all that I was grappling with, I started writing. I wrote so much that a Canadian publisher contacted me and said that they would like to publish my story. And so, I wrote a book! And in that book, I speak of Colin. I tell the world of who he was. How lucky we were to have had him. And in doing that, I laid him to rest a little in my mind. I stopped drinking and started living. Honouring sacrifices such as his by becoming a better version of myself than I ever thought possible.
My book, my story, resonated with people from all over the world. I received emails, private messages over social media, informing me of how my words, although mine, are deeply relatable to so many. People whom I have never met now join me in a fraternity of healing souls.
This past Christmas, one such soul would reach out to me.
His message started off by thanking me for writing the book. He would inform me that he was an Afghanistan veteran. A medic, and here in Canada, an actively working paramedic. He spoke ephemerally about his own journey. He was humble and kind in his words. He than relayed to me that he would like my mailing address as he was in possession of something that belonged to me. I acquiesced.
After a couple of weeks, and falling victim to the rush of the Christmas season, I had forgotten all about our text conversation. That is until one snowy afternoon when my girlfriend, Sheena, and I went to check the mail.
I had a package. One that furrowed my brow. Remember, I’d forgotten all about it.
The label on the package let me know that a man named Phil had sent me something from over 3,000 kilometres away. As my fingers tore into the package, my perplexity swelled. Inside was a dirt-stained T-shirt carefully folded into a Ziploc bag. Accompanying this peculiar delivery was a note. Folded only once. I withdrew it and began reading whilst still buckled in the passenger side of Sheena’s Subaru. The more my eyes trundled over the typed lettering, the more they began to sting.
Tears were inevitable.
Unbeknown to me, what Phil had sent to me, claiming that it was mine, was an old Edmonton Oilers T-shirt that had once belonged to Colin. It was stained by dirt, because even with the confrontation of war, Colin refused to leave his favorite team at home.
Phil deployed to Afghanistan some time later. He was then stationed at a FOB (Forward observation base) – the very same where Colin had once been. Further serendipity, Phil was assigned to Colin’s old bunk. Hence the shirt.
Near the end of Phil’s tour, he was informed the base would be taken over by another unit and likely moved to another location. Fearing that Colin’s Edmonton Oilers t-shirt would become lost in the shuffle, he picked it up and carried it with him for the rest of his tour. His intent was to bring it home and give it to Colin’s family. He even reached out to a few of the Wilmots.
They thanked him, but ultimately the shirt remained in his care from 2008 onward. That is until Dec. 16, 2021 – the day I got the mail. Colin had come home for Christmas.
So you see, there are moments in this life that are destined to become unforgettable. And this, is one. And though Phil and I have never met, we can relate. We can bond. Phil is now family to me. Brother Phil.
Let’s go, Oilers! Let’s go…
Falkland resident Matthew Heneghan graduate from Salmon Arm Secondary and is the author of the book A Medic’s Mind.