PO2 James Anthony Leith on his military decorations

As part of my story on the new Canadian Honours exhibition at 90 Wellington, I spoke to another of the attendees, Petty Officer 2nd Class James Anthony Leith, MMM, SC, MSM, CD, one of the most decorated members of the Canadian Forces – who, I will add, is one of the most humble and charming people I have ever interviewed. As I couldn’t get much of the interview in the story, I’m posting the whole thing here.

Q: Briefly, tell me what your decorations and medals are.

A: You never get these things by yourself – somebody always nominates you. They tell the stories that they shouldn’t have told to somebody else, and it gets passed up. I was gracious enough to know some big mouths. The one on the far left is the Canadian Forces Decoration, and you get that after twelve years of undetected crime – basically you’re a good boy. Next to that is my General Service Star for Afghanistan. I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate with the Army…in 06/07. Next one is the SWASM – South-West Asia [Service Medal] – it’s a theatre medal. Everyone who goes over there gets one, and it’s like being in the Boy Scouts – you get one if you go. The next one is a sacrifice medal – in 2006, I was in an armed personnel carrier that got obliterated by an IED, so there’s a bunch of us that got kind of injured from it, and we don’t have the wound stripe like the Americans do, so they commemorate it with a sacrifice medal. Everyone who theoretically bled on the battlefield gets one of those. Next to that is the Meritorious Service Medal – again, wrong place right time or right place wrong time. I was working in Halifax as a commercial diver as part of the fleet diving in the Atlantic, and Swiss Air 111 pitched and went into the sea. They immediately called us because of the depth, and we participated in the recovery because of the depth operation, and for that they gave us that little one. The next one is the Star of Courage – I was in Afghanistan in 06, and after we got blown up, we found some other nasties that the other team had put in the ground. All of my tools that had been in the first vehicles were destroyed, and that’s the story that everybody loves hearing. I basically MacGyvered the second IED with what I had left, which was my bayonet. Because I’d just been blown up […] and not have any of the proper equipment that I’m supposed to have, and the fact that I took apart that second one, somebody said that was either very brave or very dumb. Everybody loves a good story, and somebody told somebody else, and I was invited up here again to get this one. And next to that is the MMM – the Order of Military Merit. Because I have 20-odd years of service, and pretty well been a good boy for all that time, at a certain point in your career, after a long career spanning a lot of service, they nominate you, it goes before a committee and they sit down and figure out who gets what, and are they truly deserving, but again I don’t know who nominated me, but somebody put my name up there and wrote a very nice, lengthy, long-winded paragraph, and I’m sure they hummed and hawed, and it must have been the end of the day, and they said give it to the guy anyway.

Q: What does it say to you to have this kind of exhibition to showcase these honours to Canadians?

A: I think it’s fantastic. I’ve had a very healthy career in that I’ve travelled everywhere, and one of the things I’m always proud to do whenever I meet anyone, the first thing out of my mouth is ‘I’m a Canadian. I’m from Canada.’ People just open to up. I’ve been all over Europe, all over the Middle East – everyone gravitates. The chance to honour Canadians – Gretzky, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, Rick Hanson – I think it’s fantastic. I remember being in high school and we used to have trips up to Ottawa, for the young guys to see it, I think that’s fantastic. They need to get out there, they need to be fearless and they need to remember that they’re Canadian. Canada is a huge country with a huge talent pool of people from all over, and all they need is the opportunity put before them and they’ll take it. I had an opportunity this year to watch Rick Hanson’s run in Halifax – I was part of that little Difference Maker thing, and it just blows you away. If you see the little infirmed ones, just giving everything they can, you’re humbled by it. To get a chance to come up here and see the people that we’re honouring, you just think, “Wow – we do have a fantastic country.” We need to be a little more proud of that. As good Canadians, we’re always humble and shy about the spotlight, but every once in a while we have to remember that we have a very wide, talented and diverse pool of people, but Canada seems to bring out the best. It’s that ethic that seems to be in all Canadians that we want to help. We want to help, no matter where it is, who they are, you want to help, and when you want to help someone you’re passionate about it, and when you’re passionate about it, you can’t help but do your best.

Q: What about this particular location, looking at the Hill? What does that say to Canadians and visitors who come and see that?

A: It is a position of reverence, I will have to admit that. Today is a beautiful day, the Parliament buildings are well-lit by the sun. Hopefully it will help reflect upon them that they can do anything. When I look across the walls down there, and I see all the names and the faces, and I read about their accomplishments, you can’t help but feel a little it inspired, and that there’s nothing I can’t do. First of all, I’m a Canadian, and if all these folks can accomplish so much, why can’t I accomplish that? And maybe it’s a little bit of job recruitment, but if you look across the way and see the parliament buildings, maybe you’ll think maybe I can hold the highest office in the land and help everyone out? Strategic placement – maybe it’ll inspire the youth of today to become the leaders of tomorrow.