Matthew Luloff won’t be commemorating Remembrance Day in Ottawa.
As the councillor-elect for Orléans and a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, that might seem strange. But Luloff is fulfilling a promise he made more than a decade ago — a promise with a tight group of fellow soldiers that if any of them died while serving their country, they would support the fallen comrade’s family on Nov. 11.
One of those friends was Cpl. Andrew Grenon, who was killed in September 2008 alongside two other Canadian soldiers when a rocket launched by Taliban insurgents struck their armoured vehicle in southern Afghanistan.
And so, instead of attending a local ceremony in his hometown, Luloff, 34, will make the seven-hour drive to Windsor, Ont., on Saturday to be with Grenon’s family on Remembrance Day — the last time he’ll be able to do so for at least four years.
“When you’re in a room with all of those people, you kind of feel like that (Drew’s) there,” Luloff said in an interview with Global News on Friday. “It’s really lovely.”
Luloff, who was born and raised in Ottawa’s east end, said he joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2002 as a member of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. He was also a member of the Ceremonial Guard and took part in the parades on Parliament Hill.
He was accepted into the military full-time in 2006 and joined the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry at the base in Shilo, Man. It was there that he met Grenon, who was a couple years his junior.
“There’s kind of a period at the very beginning of a soldier’s career where you’re integrated into the platoon … and so he picked me out the first night that I met him as somebody that he wanted to bring under his wing,” Luloff said.
The two became fast friends. At that point, Grenon had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, and Luloff said his comrade imparted helpful advice about what to expect overseas.
Luloff said he was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2008, and Grenon joined a bit later in the tour. Tragically, Grenon would not make it back home.
Luloff doesn’t forget that day. It was Sept. 3, 2008, and they were in Kandahar, just weeks from returning home. Grenon, 23, was out conducting surveillance.
“I had heard there had been some deaths in 7th Platoon, and so I set myself up at the area that the vehicles would return to,” Luloff recalled. “And my friend Cody, who I lived with … dropped his stuff and ran towards me and gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear that Andrew was dead.”
“It really devastated us,” he said of the news.
Luloff knew he had made a pact with Grenon, but a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in early 2009, after he returned to Canada, made it too difficult to fulfill that promise for a long time.
“It was a very difficult transition for me,” he said. “It took me about seven years to really get to the root of the way that I was feeling.”
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Luloff made his first trip to Windsor in November 2016 — an experience that triggered mixed emotions, he said.
“It was wonderful to get together with that crew and to see them again,” he said. “Seeing Andrew’s family again … that was very difficult. But to give Theresa, Andrew’s mother, a hug, and to see them again, was incredibly heartening.”
‘Somebody who we cared about very much’
Luloff remembers Grenon as a “fun-loving, very respectful and an incredibly loving guy” who liked to break it down on the dance floor.
“He really enjoyed being a soldier and he loved the job,” the incoming councillor said. “He was a gentleman and somebody who we cared about very much.”
Because he will soon have official duties as a councillor, Luloff said it’s “very important” for him to be with Grenon’s family a third time this Sunday. When he can’t be there in person in the years to come, he said he’ll still call or video chat with the group in Windsor.
Even though he said he feels like he’s gotten his “old life back,” Luloff said Nov. 11 remains a very personal day for him.
“I’m not ashamed to say that we’ve got just as much laughing as we do crying that day,” he said.
“It’s important to be around people that understand, that can support you.”
‘There’s always light at the end of that tunnel’
Luloff, who worked for federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan before running for council, said staying in contact with his fellow soldiers made an enormous difference as he worked through his PTSD. To this day, he said, some of those friends continue to call him every week.
“I’m very lucky now that all I give them is good news, that things are going well and I’m feeling good,” he said.
To that end, he said he encourages other veterans and first responders to stay in touch with each other after they leave the service.
“Just pick up the phone once a week. Pick somebody that you haven’t talked to in five years or 10 years and just call them and check up on them, just see how they’re doing,” he said. “I think that connection and knowing that somebody cares goes a really long way.”
Now that he feels he’s “on the other side,” Luloff said giving back to veterans and advocating for mental health are top of mind and will continue to be once he becomes a city councillor.
Along with his wife, Laura, and friend Maciej Czop, Luloff launched a podcast earlier this spring called Veteran X. They interview one veteran each episode and hope that sharing their “stories of success and struggle” will inspire former soldiers battling mental injuries to “hang on.”
“I know that a lot of people feel like PTSD is a life sentence. It is not,” Luloff said. “There are people that care about you, and there’s always light at the end of that tunnel.
“We know that your fight’s not over, but you have to keep at it because these experiences can’t be lost.”