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Highest honour for war vet

Reaching your 90th birthday is pretty special. Being awarded the French Legion of Honour on your 90th birthday is even better.

Lee Brown, a Cranbrook Second World War veteran, will be awarded one of France’s highest honours in a ceremony at the Cranbrook branch of the Royal Canadian Legion on Saturday.

“This is fantastic, being able to present this to him while he is still alive and here to enjoy it,” says Cranbrook Legion president Clive Brown (who’s not related to Lee Brown). 

Clive first met Lee a few years ago, when he was looking for veterans who could speak with cadets about the war and their military experience. He says Lee warmed to the task, and has been opening up about his war experiences ever since. 

“He is a real down-to-earth fellow, he doesn’t brag about his service, it took me a long time to get him to answer stuff,” recalls Clive. “To him, it was part of the past, something you did, and then you move on.”

And Lee had a remarkable career in the war. With his parent’s permission, Lee joined the military in 1943 at age 17. He flew in the Canadian Air Force as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber, flying 33 missions over France and Germany.

After the war in Europe he returned to Canada, working with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Alberta and B.C. until he retired in 1986. He lives in a retirement home with his wife, who also turns 90 this year.

His family learned that the French government was honouring foreign veterans of the battle for the liberation of France and submitted the lengthy documentation needed to apply. Fortunately, Lee had kept his flight logbooks, and was able to detail his actions during the war.

Clive says he knows of only one other local vet, in the Okanagan, who has received the award.

The medal and a certificate were mailed to Brown in the spring, but the family and Legion are making a ceremony of it, and have invited local politicians and dignitaries to help present it on the weekend. They have been told a representative of the French consulate will be attending, Brown says.

“We had to find a French flag and a copy of the French national anthem, it has to be played during the ceremony,” Brown says of the arrangements being made.

Brown says Lee is “overwhelmed” by the honour, but it’s something everyone in Cranbrook can be proud of.

“It’s not just Lee getting the award, all of Cranbrook citizens are getting the medal in a way,” he says. "It’s an honour for all of us.”

Brown says the Legion in Cranbrook has about 600 members, but as veterans age many stories of their sacrifice are being lost to time. Brown says Lee’s award has prompted other veterans to come forward to tell their experience. 

“They’re not bragging, they’re just saying ‘this is what happened to me’. It’s a good thing.

“We need to recognize what our veterans did,” adds Brown. “Many of us have no idea what these people went through, they live in our communities and we never hear about their bravery. It is amazing when you hear their stories.”

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