Fifty-four year old Sergeant John Kennedy joined the Air Force when he was 18-years-old.
“All of the guys in my neighbourhood joined the army and came back with Camaros and Harleys and got ladies, and I thought, ‘Hey I can do that,’” said Kennedy.
After joining, Kennedy decided to learn a trade, and he became a refrigeration mechanical technician.
“I made beer cold for the soldiers, so I was pretty important,” he chuckled.
Kennedy was sent on many peacekeeping tours during his time with the Air Force. One of his favourites was a six-month tour in Cyprus, an island just off the coast of Israel.
“I loved it,” said Kennedy. “It was the best six months of my life — beautiful weather, hot sun. Kick back on the beach, drink beer and relax. It was good.”
But in 1994, Kennedy was sent to Rwanda, just three weeks after the genocide ended.
“It was absolutely horrendous,” said Kennedy.
Before the genocide broke out, Rwanda had two major ethnic groups: the Hutus, who were the majority, and the Tutsis, who were the minority. The Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsis for Rwanda’s growing economic issues.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. This immediately sparked violence and the genocide broke out. It lasted 100 days, and approximately 800,000 people were killed.
Following the genocide, Canada went to Rwanda on a peacekeeping mission, in an attempt to re-establish their institutions, and help the locals return home.
“Once everyone fled the country because of the massacre that was going on, we helped these people get back into their own country,” said Kennedy.
“How we were going to do that was we had watering stations set up called ROWPUs. We were the first ones ever with the Canadian forces to go live with this equipment out of the country.”
ROWPUs are reverse osmosis water purification units. Kennedy’s job was to find a water source to attach to the Canadian Field Ambulance, a portable medical unit.
On his first day in Rwanda, Kennedy and his soldiers found a water source alongside a mountain. This was the day he met “the boy with the face that was cut open.”
“We met him just by chance,” said Kennedy. “He was slashed across the face from a machete from the top left of his forehead right down his face on an angle across the right side of his mouth. His eye was out of place. His nose was all out of place. He had a tooth sticking through his lip.”
Kennedy and his soldiers had to climb the mountain every day to reconnect the water lines. Every day the boy would tag along, which at first made Kennedy mad.
“He walked with us every day up and down the mountain,” said Kennedy. “He would run ahead and laugh at us. We weren’t acclimatised to the elevations, so we had to stop every 20 feet or so to catch our breath. He found that so funny that these white soldiers were so out of shape. But after a couple of weeks of climbing every day, we showed him.”
Kennedy never knew the boys age, but guessed he would have been between eight or 10-years-old.
“I think of that kid often,” said Kennedy. “It still has an effect on me. He was left for dead. I didn’t know what his name was, but he sure liked chocolate.”
Kennedy said the soldier’s ration packs would often include chocolate, and he would give the boy his bars or packages of hot chocolate.
“He would lick his fingers and then dip them into the powder,” said Kennedy. “He loved it.”
Kennedy said the boy’s human spirit is what he remembers most.
“Even after what he experienced, he had this ability to laugh and smile,” he said. “It still astounds me to this day.”
For Kennedy, Remembrance Day is a day to remember how lucky he is to be Canadian, and to remember all he has seen during his 20 year career.
“The boy — who would now be a man — is always part of my Remembrance Day,” said Kennedy.
“As military people, I think we all pause at some point in the day to reminisce about our experiences,” said Kennedy. “I wonder if he’s still alive. I wonder if he’s ever had reconstructive surgery to repair his injuries.”
Kennedy said at least once a day he puts things into perspective based on what he’s seen.
“We have no idea what goes on out there,” he said. “I’ve had nightmares for many, many years. But I have no regrets. Twenty years of my life well spent.”