Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as “The North Wall.” Photo courtesy of Mita Williams.

Vietnam veterans from north of the border

By Marc Yablonka

I had made two trips to western Canada in the late 1970s. During each trip, though I wasn’t setting out to do so, I met Americans who had crossed into Canada to avoid the draft and, therefore, possible service in Vietnam. In one case, I was at a party at a house on beautiful Vancouver Island, where I met a fellow who confided in me that he was an American. When I inquired, innocently, but perhaps sounding like the journalist I had yet to become, as to whether he had come up to Canada in order to avoid the draft, his response was an admonishing, “What do you wanna know for?” And he stomped away.

OK, I got the picture. But it wasn’t until a year later, in Calgary, when I met yet another American from the San Francisco Bay area, who had become the music director of a radio station in the Alberta town, that I truly understood what it meant to be a draft evader.

Contrary to what many Americans think, it was no picnic. And Canadians, at least those in the government, were not so welcoming of Americans. My new friend in Calgary recounted how, when he first tried to cross over, a Canadian border guard leaned into his car and whispered, “You don’t want to cross here now, but if you come back after 2 a.m., and cross over at – (apologies but the name of the town -escapes me some 35 years later) – you should be OK.”

He made it across early that morning, but it was no free ride.

He told me of an encounter where the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) came knocking on his door late one night, with officers from the FBI in tow. He hid under his bed while his wife convinced all parties at the door that he was not at home. It took several years for me to learn, that while who knows how many American lads were heading north, there were also Canadians who thought Vietnam was the right cause, and headed south to enlist in the United States Armed Forces.

Few remember, if they ever knew at all, that an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 Canadians were part of the American Armed Forces between 1961 and 1975, during the time of the Vietnam War.

Among those, 116 were killed in action (six of them during the notorious 1968 siege at Khe Sanh, and seven died in the infamous Tet Offensive that same year. Today, Canadians who served in Vietnam feel especially proud to have done so.

“But I kept quiet about it until I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.,” confessed Michael Ruggiero of Toronto, Ontario, then co-director of the Canadian Vietnam Veterans (CVV), a 4,000-member organization “from Vancouver to Newfoundland.” Ruggiero drew numerous parallels between the Canadians and the Americans who went to Southeast Asia and faced antagonism and disdain when they came home.

Ruggiero, who served with the 1st Marine Air Wing, based at Da Nang between 1961 and 1963, was most bitter over the manner in which his government treated those Canadians who volunteered to fight for the U.S. “For thirty years we were regarded by Canada as mercenaries and baby killers,” he said. “We did what we did because we were told to, but we were neither.”

“My mother thought I was a fool for going when we didn’t have to. After I got back, I’d go to parties, and people would be watching the news, bad-mouthing the Americans and the war, and I’d just leave.

“The Canadians who went to Vietnam volunteered. They were not asked by the government to go,” responded Carmen Trudel, then spokesperson from the Speaker’s Office of the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, however, stated that his country finally recognizes these veterans’ actions as honorable.

“My mother thought I was a fool for going when we didn’t have to. After I got back, I’d go to parties, and people would be watching the news, bad-mouthing the Americans and the war, and I’d just leave.

I didn’t even tell my fiancée I’d been there until three years after we got married,” Ruggiero remembered. “Most of the guys felt that Canada should have participated by the time they saw their first sign of Communism – people eating out of garbage cans, others walking down the streets with guns,” he said.

“I didn’t care what the rest of Canada thought. I had to do my part. Like the Americans, I believed freedom was being jeopardized in Southeast Asia.

Americans crossed over into Canada in World War II to get into that war early. I admired them for what they did,” said Mike Gillhooley, from nearby Mississauga, Ontario.

Gillhooley served two tours in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969 – the first tour as an interpreter with the U.S. Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division at An Khe in the Central Highlands. Speaking fluent French, he acted as a liaison between the Montagnard units employed by the Special Forces to combat communist encroachment into South Vietnam.

His second tour was with the 207th Transportation Group attached to MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam).

Fred Gaffen, former historian from the National War Museum in Ottawa, felt so strongly about the plight of Vietnam veterans in Canada that he wrote a book about their tribulations titled Unknown Warriors: Canadians in the Vietnam War. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1990). “It was terrible here for the returning vets. They weren’t allowed to march in Veterans Day parades. At the office, they didn’t dare mention that they’d been in Vietnam. The mothers of those who died didn’t have the right to put the Silver Cross in their windows. Vietnam vets were considered psychos.

In 1968, after the draft dodgers began to come, Canada had a vested interest in being anti-war,” Gaffen recalled.

According to Ruggiero, Canadian veterans of the U.S. military, whose recruiters actually sped up their induction by providing them with phony U.S. addresses, came home to much of the same stress as American veterans.

As in the U.S., there was no welcome home. Indeed, 68 percent of them fell victim to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), compared to only 39 percent of American veterans.

As for the effects of Agent Orange, nearly 32,000 of the Canadians who served were exposed to it, said Ruggiero.

With exposure to Agent Orange equating to a majority of the Canadians who fought in Vietnam, Ruggiero is steadfast in his admonition for the use of the herbicide there.

“Ninety percent of the Agent Orange used in Vietnam and manufactured by DuPont was made in Elmira, Ontario. The two main provinces with the highest rate of cancer are Alberta and New Brunswick, where they tested that ‘snow job,’” he added bitterly.

For years, the CVV continued to be very active in the POW/MIA issue, and took the stance that many POW/MIAs were still alive and in captivity in Indochina. “Secretary of State John Kerry was the biggest hypocrite of them all, saying that the Vietnamese had done everything they could to help us,” Gillhooley charged.

Ruggiero remains convinced that Kerry was wrong. “If my son fought in the Canadian or American army, if he were alive or dead and in a million pieces, you bring him back. Don’t leave him over there.

“I know there are guys who stayed over there of their own free will, and that’s fine. But those are not the guys who were slipping notes to ambassadors. …America sent people over there, and didn’t want them back,” he anguished.

Meanwhile, CVV members have done a lot to put the negative aspects of their Vietnam service behind them. A Canadian Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was dedicated in Windsor, Ontario’s Ambassador Park on July 2nd, 1995, with municipal approval – but without official sanction. Much like the memorial in Washington, D.C., its Canadian counterpart did not receive backing immediately.

But a group from the American Midwest, going under the initialism MACV (not Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, but Michigan Association of Concerned Vets), spent years pressuring Canadian government officials and soliciting funds in order for veterans on both sides of the border to build the memorial. “Their only motivation was to thank us properly,” Gillhooley said.

“The National Parks Association here wouldn’t subsidize it because Canada didn’t `participate’ in the Vietnam War,” Ruggiero added sarcastically. Nonetheless, thousands of Vietnam veterans turned out for the unveiling.

Added Gillhooley, “In many ways, our homecoming was a lot harder than for the American GIs because our country never recognized our going to Vietnam in the first place. Canada just lost track of something.”


Canadian Veterans MemorialMarc Yablonka was a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO2) with the 40th ID Support Brigade, California State Military Reserve. He is a military journalist whose work has appeared in “Stars and Stripes,” “Army Times,” and other publications. His book, Distant War, is available on Amazon.