While visiting the Canadian War Museum with his family in 2009, Dr. Paul Kavanagh witnessed a scene in the museum’s cafeteria involving a veteran that was forever etched in his memory and became the foundation for Operation Veteran.
He recalled that, upon first laying eyes on the veteran, he was struck by his proud demeanour and elegance.
“This man, this gentleman, was a poster boy for any veteran’s organization,” recalled Kavanagh.
When the veteran made his way to the register to pay for his small bowl of soup and coffee, he handed the cashier a $5 bill but was told it wasn’t enough money.
Kavanagh recalls his proud demeanour instantly changed when he realized he didn’t have enough money to pay for his meal.
“This beautiful man, this beautiful veteran, took a step back from the cashier and put his head down and went beet red,” said Kavanagh.
Dr. Kavanagh then waved to the cashier indicating that he would cover the cost of the meal and the veteran was allowed to walk through, not knowing that a stranger had paid for his meal.
The incident struck a nerve for Kavanagh, someone who belonged to a family with generations of military service, a family who had fought and died for Canada.
So, Kavanagh spoke to the director of the Canadian War Museum and suggested that his family would cover the costs for all veterans eating at the museum. Together, they came up with Operation Veteran, a program that awards veterans with $11, to signify Remembrance Day, coupons to eat for free at the Canadian War Museum cafeteria.
To-date, thanks to Operation Veteran, the Canadian War Museum has served 12, 500 meals to veterans.
Of course, Kavanagh takes no credit for the program and, in fact, turns around and credits the individual donors, companies, and schools who have jumped on board to donate to the program over the years.
“All of this is because of Canadians who feel as I do. We have to honour and respect our veterans and, by extension, the men and women who proudly wear the uniform today,” commented Kavanagh.
Because so much money has come pouring into Operation Veteran over the years, Kavanagh and the War Museum decided to use the extra capital to funnel into educational programs.
Donations now also support the museum’s Supply Line program, a program that sends teachers across Canada a First World War Discovery Box.
The boxes contain authentic relics from the First World War including helmets, gas masks, uniforms, scarfs worn by pilots, shells, barbed wire from the fields, maps, and love letters.
The Supply Line program gives children grades four to 12 a hands-on-experience to learn more about the First World War.
Kavanagh says it is the most successful educational program in the history of the museum. More than 1,000 schools have received discovery boxes in just three years.
“We are bringing our veterans back to life. We will not forget them,” said Kavanagh.
Bringing veterans back to life doesn’t stop there for Kavanagh. Every Remembrance Day he invites schools from across the country to Ottawa for a special educational Remembrance Day program.
This year’s event will be held on Saturday at the Chateau Laurier, and the students will learn about Vimy Ridge, the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Dieppe and the then anniversary of Canada’s engagement in Kandahar. Guest speaker include Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Defence, Seamus O’Regan, Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada, Dr. Tim Cook, historian, and author, and David Flannigan, President of the Royal Canadian Legion.
The students will also take part in the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa.
“It’s a full day educational project. I don’t want students to think they’re going here for a day off. They have to earn it,” said Kavanagh.
For Kavanagh Operation Veteran and all of its parts are a way of keeping veterans alive for generations to come.
“I always believed our veterans did everything for us. It’s time for us to say thank you and bring their stories back to life again. If we forget the past we’re condemned for the future,” said Kavanagh.