An East York soldier’s gut check moment

[attach]1385[/attach]You’re standing in a hot, dusty market in the middle of a war.

The enemy doesn’t wear a uniform and isn’t carrying a gun. He looks like everyone else in the crowd. You’re paranoid, but it’s the kind of paranoia that could save your life.

A man raises a cellular phone. Your training tells you that this phone could be a detonator for an improvised explosive device. You catch that indescribable feeling: something’s wrong.

You raise your weapon and demand that the man drop the cell phone, but he doesn’t listen. You have a life-or-death decision to make now: hold your fire and potentially see the entire marketplace obliterated, or take the life of a man who may just be making a phone call. You have three seconds to decide.

What do you do?

For most, this is just the opening scene from The Hurt Locker, this year’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For East Yorker Andrew Siwy, however, this was reality.

It was in 2007, on his first of two tours to Afghanistan, and it remains a vivid memory.

“I didn’t have to fire, thank God,” said Siwy. “I came within a fraction of a second (of firing). I could see something change in his demeanor.”

The man eventually lowered the phone and the threat vanished as quickly as it had come.

But not every day in Afghanistan has been a Hurt Locker day for Siwy.

[attach]1386[/attach]“It feels like Groundhog Day, the movie. Every day starts feeling exactly the same,” said Siwy. “Mail from home was about the only thing that was different. It seems like such a simple thing, but everyone looked forward to getting mail.”

Siwy is a plumber by trade and took basic training to become a reservist while attending school.

This is how he ended up in Afghanistan on his first tour. He arrived at Kandahar Airfield — the international base of operations in southern Afghanistan — to repair the plumbing and other elements after Taliban rockets ravaged the place.

“(The buildings) were in pretty bad condition. We built a detainee facility, the Canada House for the troops, fixed up the hospital, that kind of thing,” he said.

But it wasn’t just plumbing that led Siwy to Afghanistan.

His great-grandfather, who passed away at 104, had served in both World Wars. Siwy fondly remembers meeting the man, and talking about his work overseas. Four generations of military men later, Siwy and his brother are proud to call themselves Canadian soldiers.

“Our patriotism might stretch a little farther than the average Canadian,” he said of his lineage. “It’s not an easy thing to describe. It’s a sense of duty, it’s just something that I have to do.”

The life of a Canadian soldier is multifaceted, and Siwy is involved with all aspects of that life, including working with the Royal Canadian Legion’s Todmorden branch, on Pape Avenue.

At first, Siwy only came around on Remembrance Day and Canada Day. For him and most of his fellow soldiers, the Legion was always a place for older vets from WWII or Korea and wasn’t for them.

But then something happened: the legion hosted a Support Our Troops night, Siwy went, and something clicked.

“It was a very warm welcome. So I started showing up more. There was a lot of love in there,” said Siwy.

As Siwy paid more visits, often he formed bonds with many of the older vets.

“They might be an 89-year-old war vet but they have the character of a 25-year-old. It’s like talking to your army buddies. I can interact with guys like that and there’s no generation gap,” he said. “That’s what makes it a fun place to go.”

Eventually Siwy was voted onto the executive committee at Todmorden, the only one of his generation. He spoke of the camaraderie it can foster between those who have or those who have yet to serve but also of the work the Legion, and others like it, do in the community.

“We give a lot of donations to the Hospital For Sick Children, hockey teams and other organizations. Even if our bills aren’t paid off, we still don’t want to let down organizations that have relied on the legion for support over the years,” he said.

[attach]1387[/attach]Siwy said he’s worried for the future of the Legions and has been pressuring his friends and fellow soldiers to join, as membership is now open to the general public. He said that in addition to the view that legions are a place for the older folks, Siwy believes that a societal change and the way we socialize is also to blame.

“Everyone’s got a computer at home. Or we have house parties or go to clubs. We need to bring younger people in,” he said.

“In some way, shape or form I’ll always be there.”

Although he is dedicated to his legion and its future, Siwy’s had to step down from the executive committee.

“I just got an email today requesting for troops to head over to Afghanistan at the beginning of April and I’m signing up for it.”