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Walking better and standing taller, TAXI

"These men are heroes, and I love that the Dutch teach their children from a young age that what happened must never be forgotten."

TAXI caught up with volunteer Brian Heffernan regarding the recent Taxi Charity for Military Veterans’ visit to The Netherlands...

Hi Brian, good to meet you, how long have you been a cabbie?

Brian: I’ve been driving a cab for 26 years and volunteering for the Taxi Charity for the past seven.

Tell us about your weekend with the Taxi Charity in the Netherlands...

Brian: This was the first visit that the Taxi Charity had been able to arrange on the continent since the pandemic, so it was fantastic to be part of it. The weekend was a chance to get veterans away and plan for future visits. I’ve been on these trips since 2015 and I know how much the veterans have missed them. We always say that the years seem to melt away when they are together and after a few days, they are all walking better and standing taller.

How big a job is planning the trip?

Brian: It’s huge. The charity is so lucky to have the support of The Market Garden Foundation. Frans is our man on the ground in the Netherlands and helps the charity coordinate their visits. There is nothing he doesn’t know about the Battle of Arnhem and the charity is so very grateful to have had his assistance for so many years. It helps to have a Dutch speaker too, even though the Dutch speak better English than many of us do.

Who did you travel with?

Brian: There were five veterans and I had John Pinkerton and Tom Schaffer in my cab. They say an army marches on its stomach and that was so true. Whilst on board the ferry to the Hook of Holland, time creeps forward one hour… however John and Tom did not put their watches forward, so when they came down for breakfast the galley had closed, and they had missed it. All the way to Arnhem all I could hear were mutterings about bacon and egg and a cup of tea from the two hungry Paras in the back of the cab!

Apart from food, what were the highlights of the visit?

Brian: The veterans loved being in each other’s company (eating and drinking of course) and socialising with the cab drivers and carers – but the highlight was probably the visit to the Airborne Museum. The Museum had been refitted pre pandemic and this was the first time it had welcomed veterans since it had reopened.

The Dutch people greatly admire the veterans and appreciate the sacrifice they made, so this was a very important day and there was a lot of press interest. The veterans and the Taxi Charity were featured on the regional TV news and poignantly, the national evening news transmitted 15 minutes about the war in Ukraine, followed by a soundbite from John about how war is never the answer.

Is the museum worth a visit?

Brian: Most definitely. The museum is housed in Villa Hartenstein, a villa with a long history. In September 1944, the building, which in 1728 began as an inn, was the headquarters for the British Airborne Troops. The exhibits are beautifully presented and there is a fantastic experience in the basement which simulates getting on a glider, flying into Arnhem, landing, walking out of the door through the trenches in the woods and fields to Oosterbeek and the fighting in the streets. The veterans were very moved – I think it brought back lots of memories.

Do the veterans share many personal stories with you?

Brian: It is a privilege to be with these guys and to hear their stories. Geoff Roberts who was in the 7th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers was taken by the Germans in the Arnhem area and was held as a POW until the end of the war. He talked to us about the harsh conditions, the lack of food and showed us his metal POW dog tag which he always carries with him. The tag was sharpened on one side so that he could cut what little food he had.

Where else could you recommend visiting in the area?

Brian: We had lunch in the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen. This is the site of the capitulation of the German troops on 5 May 1945. The table that the papers were signed on is still there and the boys had their picture taken. You should also visit the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. The cemetery is beautifully positioned surrounded by trees and as with all CWGC sites, it is impeccably ordered and cared for. The boys laid wreaths and then paid their respects at the graves of their friends and comrades who didn’t come home.

You touched on the admiration that the Dutch feel for the veterans – is this widespread?

Brian: The Dutch are everything I would want from a second family. They are caring, thoughtful, and there are no language barriers as they speak excellent English. One evening we ate in the Schnoord Restaurant, which was a medical dressing station during WWII. A young man approached one of the veterans, asked if he could shake his hand, and thanked him for fighting for the freedom of the Dutch. Everywhere we go the veterans are shown great respect and everyone wants to have a picture taken with them. These men are heroes, and I love that the Dutch teach their children from a young age that what happened must never be forgotten.

What’s next?

Brian: We are back to the Netherlands at the end of March to see if travelling on the Eurostar might be preferable over the ferry for some of our veterans and to agree where the taxis could meet them as they disembark in Rotterdam. Then we are back again in May for the Dutch Liberation events.

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