National Silver Cross Mother remembers fallen son during MARLANT visit
By Joanie Veitch,
It’s an honour she wishes she hadn’t earned.
That’s how National Silver Cross Mother Debbie Sullivan described the mixed emotions she felt following a recent two-day tour at Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT).
Sullivan’s son, Lt(N) Christopher Saunders, was a Navy submariner and combat systems engineer who died on October 6, 2004 following a fire on HMCS Chicoutimi.
One of four submarines bought from Britain in the late 1990s, Chicoutimi was on its first trip as an RCN vessel and had left the Scottish port of Faslane en route to Canada just a few days earlier, on October 2.
“It’s an honour to be here and to have this opportunity to do this tour as the National Silver Cross Mother, but it’s incredibly hard at the same time. I lost my son. I miss him every single day,” Sullivan said. “But just being here and doing this… I feel closer to him.”
The Royal Canadian Legion chose Sullivan as National Silver Cross Mother last November. While she was able to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day last year, due to COVID-19 restrictions Sullivan was not able to take part in other events and ceremonies she typically would have attended as part of her role.
Travelling from her home in Summerville, just outside Saint John, NB, to Halifax a few days early, Sullivan enjoyed extra time with family — grandsons Ben and Luke — and her former daughter-in-law, Gwen Manderville, Lt(N) Saunders’ widow, before the MARLANT tour began.
Both boys — Ben now a student at Acadia University and Luke starting his last year of high school — and their mother, accompanied Sullivan during the tour, which included a luncheon in the Admiral’s Dining Room at Juno Tower with Commodore Christopher Robinson, Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic (CCFL), and Capt(N) Jean Stéphane Ouellet, Commander Canadian Submarine Force (CCSF), among other guests.
Sullivan’s tour included a visit to the Naval Museum of Halifax, where she saw the new submarine exhibit, featuring artifacts and displays of submarines from the early CC-class to the present-day Victoria-class boats, along with a tour of the Dockyard’s newest ship, HMCS Margaret Brooke.
During her visit to Naval Fleet School Atlantic’s Submarine Division, Sullivan met with submariners — some who sailed with LT(N) Saunders — and saw the training simulator at work.
“It was all so informative. There was a lot to take in along the way, but I learned so much,” she said.
The most memorable part of the trip, Sullivan said, was a tour of HMCS Windsor, led by Capt(N) Ouellet and LCdr Drew Matheson, Windsor’s Commanding Officer.
It was Sullivan’s first time actually being in a submarine — a Victoria-class submarine just like the one her son had sailed in.
“It gave me insight into what it would have been like when the fire started. I had been invited in 2004 to go to see the Chicoutimi at Faslane (Scotland) but I couldn’t do it then. It was still hard to do it now but it helped to see it for myself,” she said, adding that she also appreciated hearing information about the increased safety protocols as a result of the tragedy.
Getting to meet Sullivan and her family, and for her to have the opportunity to tour around and talk with submariners, was rewarding for everyone involved, said Lt(N) Marshall Luton, Acting Officer in Charge of HMCS Chicoutimi.
“During her tenure as Silver Cross Mother, she has not been able to do as much due to COVID-19 restrictions. For us to be able to have her here, to have time to interact with her, it’s been a really good experience,” he said.
With in-person meetings restricted, Sullivan has reached out to veterans and current military members since taking on the role, using email and other online channels wherever possible.
She says it’s important to her to be able to connect with others — current or former military members, as well as grieving parents or other family members — to let them know they’re not alone.
“I want people to know that I’m here to talk. I want to meet them and talk with them. It helps me feel I’m giving back and being of service,” she said. “I received this Silver Cross because I lost my son, but for me it’s a symbol of all the veterans who died in service to their country.”
Sullivan officially holds the role of National Silver Cross Mother until November 1, 2021.