CORNWALL, Ontario – For the first time in 40 years, Denis Labbe is free from the nightmares of a terrible tragedy that took place at a Canadian army base that took the lives of six teenaged boys and injured countless others.
Labbe, once a 26-year-old corporal stationed at the CFB Valcartier base hospital, has been haunted by the tragedy since 1974, when , a routine safety lecture at a cadet camp turned into a warzone for 140 cadets crammed into an improvised classroom after a live grenade exploded.
Labbe, who now makes his home in Glen Walter, carried the bodies of two 14-year-olds to the morgue that day, one with his face completely blown off.
In a nightmare that has plagued him for decades, Labbe would be awakened in the middle of the night by images of that young boy opening his eyes and staring at him.
Last month, prior to a ceremony July 30 marking the tragedy, Labbe visited the base with his psychologist and Phillip Miller, who was a cadet at the time and seated just a few spots away from the explosion.
“We went to the chapel and the padre said a prayer,” recounts Labbe of his visit in June, his first to the base in 40 years. “Then we went down to where I brought the cadet. I stood there and said a prayer.
“I told him that I am back, and that he is free now.”
Since then, Labbe said the nightmares have ceased – but the pain will remain forever.
The tragedy began when fourteen-year-old Eric Lloyde, a cadet at the ill-fated training session, set off a live grenade that had been mixed in with a box of dummy munitions. He was killed instantly upon detonation of the bomb.
In the end, a coroner’s inquest pointed to a “climate of negligence” and found the regular army captain who conducted the lecture criminally responsible.
Labbe carries with him the trauma of that day, and knows that many other combat veterans feel the same way.
“My daughter (Sonia) said she wanted to be a cadet,” said Labbe. “I told her you will never be a cadet.
“It took five years of counselling to get me to go there. If you would have asked me five years to go, I would have said no.”
The army’s cadet program has changed considerably since the tragedy, particularly with respect to the attention paid to safeguarding the young men and women.
At the time Labbe got no psychological counselling – today things are different as the culture of the army has shifted.
As well, this past May National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson authorized the DND/CAF Ombudsman to conduct another investigation into this matter focusing on the incident, the circumstances surrounding the 130 cadets affected as well as their family members, and how these individuals were treated by the DND/CAF.
Labbe has helped create a local support group, Friends of Veterans that meets regularly to laugh, cry and offer support.