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Morale Booster
Not all warriors serve on the front lines. From her modest Newfoundland apartment, Gladys Osmond does her small part for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.

In June, 2006, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, flew to Newfoundland, where he personally presented the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service, which recognizes outstanding service of a rare and exceptionally high standard. The award wasn’t given to a burly paratrooper or weather-beaten sailor but to an senior citizen who has never been overseas, piloted a plane or driven a tank.

Over the past two decades, Gladys Osmond, a retired Salvation Army officer, has sent over 100,000 letters to members of the Canadian Armed Forces serving as far afield as Bosnia, Syria and Afghanistan.

Operating out of her modest apartment in Springdale, Newfoundland, Gladys works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and writes over 1,000 e-mails, letters and cards every month. “I have ten different addresses where our soldiers are deployed overseas,” she says, “and I also send letters to Canadian Forces Bases across Canada.”

It was here that she compiled Dear Gladys: Letters From Over Here, selections from her voluminous correspondence that chronicle day-to-day life for members of the Canadian Armed Forces, which was published in late 2008. “I want people to know about the wonderful men and women serving overseas. I’ve never met better people in my life.”

An entire wall of her apartment is covered with photos, unit and ship plaques, as well as letters of thanks and commendations sent to her by grateful soldiers. She regularly receives visits from returning officers and their families. “My life is interesting,” she notes with a chuckle. “I never know who’s going to drop by.”

Letter in laminate

Gladys never planned to be a pen pal. When she was a teenager, she wanted to be a missionary.

Born in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, to Salvation Army officer parents, Gladys longed to serve in China, but was forbidden to travel overseas while the Second World War was waging. Instead, she became a teacher and social worker, working in various appointments throughout Newfoundland. Along the way, she married and raised a family of five.

It was while she was stationed at The Salvation Army’s retired officers’ residence in Toronto in 1985 that her ministry to Canadian troops began. A Salvation Army officer couple mentioned they had a son serving in Bosnia. “John started to pass around my letters to his friends,” Gladys recalls.

One correspondence led to another and before she knew it, Gladys was writing dozens of letters to Canadian Armed Forces personnel all over the world. Her tireless work was recognized in 2000 when Gladys received her first award, the Commander’s Commendation.

The Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award was also bestowed in 2004. Lieutenant Governor Edward Roberts came to Springdale in person to present it. “They must have thought that I was too old to travel to Ottawa!” Gladys jokes. She was also nominated by the troops in the field for the Commander’s Coin, the first time the award was conferred on a civilian. And in December 2009, the 86-year-old was awarded the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador for her lifelong dedication in comforting and encouraging Canadian soldiers.

While she appreciates these gestures, she notes: “The letters from the soldiers in the field are more precious than anything I have ever received.” One soldier wrote to say that he was cleaning out a Light Armoured Vehicle when he happened upon a laminated card. It was one of Gladys’ letters. “I was touched that someone had taken the trouble to laminate it!” Gladys says with a smile. It’s a clear sign that her encouragement is cherished by the troops.

Message to Kandahar

The Canadian Forces Base in Gander gave Gladys her first computer and printer in 2000. She sends 15 to 20 e-mails a day and receives about the same number from overseas. Though she does send e-mail, she prefers writing letters, even though it might take weeks for the troops in the field to get them. She often stuffs a dozen or more in larger envelopes she sends to Kandahar to save postage, which she pays for out of her own pocket.

Why does she do it? “I consider it a ministry,” Gladys says. “I enjoy every minute. It’s not work. I can’t wait to get up in the morning!”

As one officer commented: “Gladys has done more for the morale of Canada’s troops overseas than any other single person alive today. Her extraordinary selflessness, patriotism and generosity have touched the lives of so many people for so long that words falter on the path of fair praise. Not all warriors carry a sword, nor are all sermons preached from a pulpit.”

Letters from the front

The mail traffic from Gladys’ apartment is not all one-way. Besides the letters she gets from parents and spouses, many soldiers write back and send photos of life on the front line. Here are some of their responses:

“Hard to believe the tour is almost half over and I will be going on leave. The biggest change for me will be to eat with a real fork and knife again as all we use out here is plastic, but I want to rest most of all. Your senses become very acute to noise and light when you are in a state of heightened alert for three solid months!”

“Hello again, my friend. I received a bunch of letters from you and distributed them to as many as I could. We all look forward to getting your packages. Thanks so much for your prayers. Keep it up. God knows we can never have enough prayers over here.”

“Went to church this morning. It was good to hear of Christ’s sacrifice and commitment to duty. The biggest challenge here is to keep a healthy perspective.”

“This week has been a wee bit cooler—rarely over 47C. We count degrees like Scrooge counts farthings—every last one to be noted. It’s been a long tour in more ways than one and we’re all very much looking forward to coming home.”

Ken Ramstead is the editor of Faith & Friends.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, November 2006. Updated, January 2010.

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