A new installation at the former Currie Barracks military base in Calgary gives insight into the lives of four Canadian servicemen and women in their own words.
The installation, aptly called Letters Home, tells their stories through the letters they wrote home during different times of conflict.
Preserved on plaques at the centre of the Trasimene Heritage Walk in what is now the community of Currie, the letters give visitors — and even family members — a glimpse of who these individuals really were.
“This is a wonderful thing because of all the things that have happened to Alex Decoteau, in name, are like stepping stones to him and I see this as another stepping stone towards him,” said Izola Motterhead, great-niece to Alexander Decoteau, who fought and died in the First World War.
Motterhead has written a book about her late relative, who was also an Olympic athlete and Canada’s first Indigenous police officer.
But Motterhead says the letters her great-uncle wrote home to his mother and his sister show a side of him historical facts alone never could.
“I really feel like he was more like a brother to me than he was a great-uncle.
“I feel like I know him.”
Bruce Cole’s father, Captain Vernon Cole, was a career serviceman who fought in the Korean War. Cole and his siblings never knew their father as a letter writer, let alone a prolific one who wrote regularly to his own mother and wife.
“We didn’t know that he was writing home all the time,” said Cole. “It’s one of those things he kept to himself.”
“We kind of wish he would have told us more, talked to us more, fill us in on him,” said Cole, who believes his father may have been trying to shield his family from some of the horrors of war he’d witnessed.
Joanne Underwood never knew much about the time her mother, Norma Stowe, served as a nurse with the Canadian military during the Second World War.
Stowe also kept those things to herself but through her mother’s letters home during the time she was stationed in South Africa, Underwood discovered more about Stowe’s compassion for others.
“I would like to think that she increased the role of placing awareness around mental health.
“But I think in reality, it would only be to those nurses where she would say, ‘How would you feel if it was your own brother lying here?'”
Underwood said her mother also wrote a letter during the war to Underwood’s aunt back home in Manitoba. She had witnessed psychological trauma in some of the younger soldiers she had treated and wanted to better prepare her sister, who was also studying to become a nurse, for what she might encounter in the line of duty.
“She did write a letter to her sister Dora, who was studying in Brandon to be a nurse,” said Underwood.
She quoted an excerpt from her mother’s letter: “If you can take a post-grad course in mental health, it would stand you in good stead.”
Capt. Nichola Goddard’s story can also be found at the Trasimene Heritage Walk and is likely the best known.
Many people have heard of Goddard because she became the first female Canadian soldier to be killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2006. There is a lake named after her and a middle school in Calgary as well.
Goddard was also a daughter, sister, wife and friend and she often chose to share her thoughts, feelings and experiences with her loved ones by putting pen to paper.
“She was a tremendous letter writer and the joy of it is we still have them,” said Goddard’s mother Sally.
“Whereas if it was in text — by text or by email, chances are they would be lost, they’d be gone.”
Letters Home was created by Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation that redeveloped the former military base site now known as Currie.
The Trasimene Heritage Walk in Alexandria Park, where the installation is located, is open to the public.