Fort Smith man given Order of St. John for medical service

Fort Smith man given Order of St. John for medical service
M-Cpl. (retired) Paul Currie displays some of his medals at last year’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Fort Smith.Photo: Paul Bannister.

One of the highest honours bestowed upon individuals for medical service throughout the world has been given to a Fort Smith man.

M-Cpl. (retired) Paul Currie, who served as a medic with the military from the First Gulf War in 1990 to Bosnia in 2000, has been named recipient of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, a royal order of chivalry established in 1831.

He will at sometime in the near future be presented the medal, either by the premier or the commissioner of the Northwest Territories.

Currie, who began teaching first aid courses with St. John’s Ambulance in 1991, said he was drawn into the world of emergency medical service (EMS) by his father, who was one of the founding members of the Fort Smith volunteer ambulance service.

“It was interesting…It’s not a behind-the-desk job; it’s something new everyday. EMS and fire are probably one of the few jobs where people are actually happy to see you. You’re seeing people at their lowest and you’re trying to help them,” he said.

“And I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he added.

The Order of St. John is not the first recognition bestowed upon the highly decorated officer, whose uniform is adorned with medals from Kuwait, Croatia, Rwanda and Bosnia, along with the more recent award of a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, which was presented to Currie in March.

All of his military medals were received while serving 14 years with the Canadian Forces Medical Service.

Though he already has an impressive rack of medals, he said the Order of St. John is different, as it is specifically for individuals in the medical service.

“I’m proud that I was nominated because I was nominated by my peer group,” he said. “They don’t hand out very many…It came from my peer group; it came for recognition of hard work.”

Currie said being a medic in conflicts like the Bosnian War and following the genocide in Rwanda was, at times, extremely difficult.

He said he started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his mission in Croatia in 1993 where he served in Operation Medak Pocket, considered one of the most severe battles fought by Canadian Forces since the Korean War.

“It was the first time since Korea that Canadian forces had returned fire and acted as infanteers and offensive soldiers as opposed to peacekeepers,” Currie said. “And every time they found a dead anything, they’d call for the medics – dead people, dead sheep, dead cows.”

He said all the transformers were shut down so there was no electricity, and dead bodies were used by both Croats and Serbs to poison each others’ wells. Treatment was compromised by the fact that medevac services were only contracted for 8:00-4:00, Monday to Friday.

The Croatian War was characterized by war crimes, such as ethnic cleansing. Currie saw the Croatian army move from house to house killing Serbian civilians.

“The hardest part over there was we knew what was going on, and we were helpless to do anything,” he said.

Nine months after he returned from Croatia, Currie was on a plane to Rwanda. There, he was faced with flooding water, which wiped out their canvas tent field hospital, and mass graves of bodies.

“I have pictures of us surfing on tables in the hospital because there’s three feet of water. So how do you treat patients?” he said. “Latrines overflowed – cholera, dysentery – so you’re standing literally in fecal matter.”

Though he was already suffering, it wasn’t until 2000 when he came back from Bosnia that he was finally diagnosed with PTSD resulting from some of the disturbing things he saw while abroad.

“At that point, I realized I couldn’t be a medic any more. I just lost my empathy and compassion.”

He enlisted as a firefighter for a number of years following, finally retiring from the military in 2008, but he couldn’t stay out of the emergency medical world for long.

After he got out of the service, he joined Alberta Health Services in Edmonton as an emergency medical technician. He then found his way into the Fort Smith ambulance service in 2011 when he moved back North.

“I found a way to come back,” he said. “Some of the clients you get a little impatient with…but you do get a lot of good calls, and I think our service here does provide a good service to the community.”

Currie said one of the most important things he’s gained from his life of medical service is a sense of perspective.

“You see that no matter how bad you think you might have it, there’s usually someone out there that’s a lot worse off than you are…You see stuff that a lot of people just want to hide their heads in the sand and pretend doesn’t exist. It does exist.”

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  • Rocky swanson
    May 22, 2013, 9:30 PM

    I served with Paul and have known Him for about twenty years. Paul was an outstanding medic and Fire Fighter. Paul is one of my closest friends and im so proud of him and any community lucky enough to benefit from his experience is very fortunate indeed.Paul you were an outstanding soldier, you are the greatest father and Husband to your wife and kids. I am so very lucky to know you and to call you my friend.

    Warrant Officer Rocky Swanson RCAF

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