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Spreading kindness around the world with the air force

Retired Major John Lalonde says his decades-long career in the Royal Canadian Airforce made him appreciate Canada so much more

Retired Major John Lalonde has served in the coldest and hottest regions on Earth for the Royal Canadian Air Force during his lengthy career.

In that time, he went from coast to coast across Canada, and traveled from the Golan Heights, to the North Pole, to Afghanistan. In these vastly different places, the local man got used to meeting people that did not know their enemy, the sight of arctic foxes and hares, and the sound of gunfire and bombs.

As a logistics officer with a specialty in finance, Lalonde did not see any action on the front-lines. Instead, his work ensured that the planes delivering troops, and humanitarian aid could fly, and that the troops were paid for their service — a part of the air force that people take for granted.

When you meet Lalonde, you quickly gather that he takes little for granted, including how little people on either side of a conflict can truly know one another.

While in the Golan Heights in 1981, as he re-entered the neutral zone form Damascus, Syria, a Syrian guard asked him, ‘What are they like?’, asking Lalonde about Israelis.

Lalonde says he wanted to say, ‘Why don’t you go over and talk to them?’, but that’s not possible when two sides of a generations-long conflict have never met their opponent.

It’s interactions like these that leave Lalonde with a lust for life borne from traveling to war torn countries where children are orphaned and live in the streets.

Lalonde was born in Penetanguishene and lived on Christian Island with his parents as a boy. His father was a Native agent and his mother was a health and welfare nurse.

"Then my dad was transferred to Sarnia (ages eight to 16), then he was transferred to London, Ontario and that's where I join the Canadian forces on 12 February 12, 1970."

While serving in Afghanistan in 2003, Lalonde was struck by the destruction in Kabul where roofs were blown off by bombing.

“There were still businesses open in the lower levels, and in the blown-up upper portion, there were blankets propped up like tents where teenagers and children orphaned by the war were living,” says Lalonde. “In the desert, it gets cold at night, so those kids were struggling.

“You would see children come down from the mountains for one loaf of bread in bare feet traveling across gravel,” says Lalonde explaining that the conditions in Afghanistan for children are hard to accept.

Some troops were ordered to stop sharing their lunches with the children on the streets — such was the desire to help beyond the scope of their mission. Candy and chocolate bars were okay, but supplies for the troops were off limits, explains Lalonde.

Lalonde remembers feeling his heart warm when he saw a child wearing a Quebec Nordiques' tuque, because it meant that the clothes collected by people in Canada made it to those in need.

“When we’ve traveled, we realize how lucky we are, and how important it is to help wherever we can,” explains the retired air force major who takes heart in seeing people come together in support of the people of Ukraine.

Another reason seeing that Nordiques hat on the head of a small child in Afghanistan warmed Lalonde’s heart is because he has a love for hockey that became part of his community service.

As a true serviceman with a good heart and an inability to sit still, Lalonde has certainly served every community he’s lived in while stationed all over the world.

“I can’t sit still so I get involved with other things in the community,” says Lalonde.

Lalonde helped coordinate Operation Hockey Heroes in 2003, and escorted NHL hockey celebrities Dave “Tiger” Williams, Cassie Campbell, and Kirk McLean into Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan for a seven-day visit with over 2,000 Canadian troops.

While the hockey heroes visited, Lalonde received special permission to outfit the athletes in uniform.

“They were thrilled, and the troops embraced them even more,” remembers Lalonde.

Throughout his career, Lalonde was often chosen as an escort for celebrities at airshows, and met not one, but three astronauts in the process, including Canadian astronauts Chris Hadfield, Julie Payette and US astronaut Jeffrey Ashby.

These are not Lalonde’s only claims to fame. The committed serviceman has received no less than six medals for merit and excellence in his career.

“I don’t look for awards,” says a humble Lalonde.

One medal, the Order of Military Merit, is awarded to one tenth of one percent of the military, according to Lalonde, explaining that his commanding officer put his name forward for the award. So high an honour is this award that the Governor General presents the medal at a ceremony in Ottawa.

Lalonde also received the Deserving Servicemen of the Year award that includes a “trip around the world” in a Hercules aircraft flown by recent graduates from flight school who practise landing the military’s search and rescue aircraft in different locales and airports.

“They really made me feel like I was part of the crew,” says Lalonde.

The flight lasted two weeks and took Lalonde and the crew to Haiti where they delivered books collected by kids in Belleville. The aircraft then flew to Ecuador, Mexico and Hawaii.

“Quite often, these flights involve humanitarian work,” explains the retired Major. “They’re always looking for opportunities like that.”

Lalonde says he’s encouraged when he sees people wanting to help like the school children from Belleville collecting books for Haitian children. He also notes that donations to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army make it to the people on the ground.

After touring the world on behalf of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lalonde says he learned the power in giving if and when you can while serving.

“One little act of kindness means so much to people,” says Lalonde of what he’s taken away from his time served.