Reine Samson Dawe usually spends Remembrance Day at a small cenotaph tucked in a residential neighbourhood close the shores of Lake Ontario.
The annual ceremony is held by a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Kingston, Ont., named in honour of her son, Capt. Matthew Dawe, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2007.
But this year will be different. On Nov. 11, Samson Dawe will be in Ottawa carrying out a solemn act on behalf of all the nation’s mothers who have suffered the same terrible loss. She will lay the wreath at the National Remembrance Day Ceremony as this year’s National Silver Cross Mother.
“I have to represent all those mothers, particularly the ones of all the soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan,” Samson Dawe said. “I’m certainly not alone, and my duty is to represent them. And I want to do so with dignity and thinking about them all, you know, sharing their grief.”
Samson Dawe can be described as a military mother. Matthew was the youngest of her four sons, all of whom joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Three of them served in Afghanistan.
The boys grew up in a military family. Samson Dawe met her husband, retired lieutenant colonel Peter Dawe, during her physiotherapy internship at the military hospital in Halifax. They were married two years later and raised their family during postings across Canada and in the United States.
Military life seemed to be a good fit for the Dawe boys. Samson Dawe said they saw the constant moves as an adventure and enjoyed being exposed to new people, experiences and places. Still, there was never any pressure for them to choose a career in the Canadian Armed Forces. It just happened.
“They were so enthusiastic about it. I went along with it and supported them in their choices,” she said. “I knew they would do a very good job of it. They just had the material. They were good leaders, good men. They still are.”
Matthew had a wide variety of interests from sports and music to theatre. He loved to imitate people and get them laughing – a trait that makes Samson Dawe smile.
“He was smart, funny, mischievous, adventurous,” she said. “There was nothing to stop him.”
When the time came to apply to university, Samson Dawe didn’t expect the Royal Military College (RMC) to be his top choice. But Matthew couldn’t hide his delight when the acceptance letter came.
He graduated with a civil engineering degree with first-class honours in 2004 and was married the same weekend.
While Matthew was at university, two of his older brothers, Peter and Philip, deployed to Afghanistan. It was 2002, during early days of the mission.
“I was very worried, especially with two of them over there at the same time,” Samson Dawe recalled.
One of her scariest moments was the day of the friendly fire incident in 2002 that killed four Canadian soldiers.
“I slept with the phone by my side and then waiting to get the call,” she said. “Pete called, and the first thing he said was: ‘Mom, we’re OK.’ And I just broke down. … I was very happy when they came home.”
Five years later, Matthew would be heading to Afghanistan as the commander of 8 Platoon, C Company, 3 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battalion. And the feelings of worry came back.
“Matt wouldn’t allow me to express any fear or doubts,” Samson Dawe said. “They will do whatever they’re asked to do because that’s what they signed up for. And we have to respect that.”
During Matthew’s deployment, three platoon members were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). Two weeks later, while engaged on a mission to find the maker of the IED, Matthew’s vehicle hit a 500-pound bomb buried in the road. He died instantly, along with five other Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. He was 27 years old.
He left behind his wife, Tara, and a son, Lucas, who turned two on the day his father died.
Matthew’s sacrifice is memorialized publicly in many ways, including a legion and RMC awards named after him. But his memory also lives on in quieter moments: toasts at holidays, visits to his grave, stories shared with Lucas, the family’s devotion to the Montreal Canadiens and music. His tastes in music were eclectic, ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Phantom of the Opera.
“When I hear those particular pieces, of course, I think of Matthew, and that’s when you get that little jab in your heart,” Samson Dawe said.
Afghanistan also still holds an important place in Samson Dawe’s heart. She is deeply committed to improving the country where her son died. She is a member of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a charity that promotes and supports education for women and girls.
“It’s one way to carry on the mission of the people who went there,” she said. “Because there’s no more military involvement, there has to be other ways.”
Samson Dawe is still a military mom. Her oldest son Peter is now a major-general and commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces. Philip is a trauma surgeon in Vancouver and a major in charge of the Canadian Forces Trauma Centre. Both sons have been deployed to combat zones since their brother’s death. Her third son, James, retired as a captain.
The worries still come, but Samson Dawe tries not to let her sons see them.
“That doesn’t mean that, when I’m on my own, I can’t have my little mini breakdown but I try very hard to respect their wishes,” she said.
Samson Dawe knows just how much military service can cost, but she knows her family isn’t alone. She hopes her role as a Silver Cross Mother reminds others they are not either.
“The feeling that your grief is shared by other people, it is very important because you know that other people have suffered like you, and they’ve gone through it so hopefully you can, too.”