By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Property owners who support the Highway of Heroes Tree Campaign of planting millions of trees along Highway 401 have their own reasons for supporting it and, for Cramahe Township resident Cindy McElrea, the reasons are intensely personal.
McElrea and her husband Buck had 7,750 trees planted by the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute organization.
The planting has taken place over the last few days on 11 acres of the 30-acre horse farm they own on Crandall Road on the north side of the highway, a permanent tribute to the service of her son Master Cpl. Sean Markwell in Afghanistan and so many others – and to the ultimate sacrifice made by those (some of them friends of Sean) who fell in the line of duty.
“We had the property and heard about the cause, and I am very passionate about the soldiers that have sacrificed – their time, their lives,” McElrea said Saturday.
“My son was an Afghan veteran, so it seemed like a really good idea. And aside from that, the trees give a buffer from the 401.”
On top of it all, she just loves trees, so they are a bonus – along with getting a lot of them through a good cause that she discovered just flipping through a magazine three and a half years ago. She read about the project, Googled for more information, made contact with the Highway of Heroes Living Tree Campaign and eventually received a variety of red pine, white pine, spruce and oak.
They purchased the property in 1997 as a horse farm, then built their home there in 2003 – a year after the Highway of Heroes initiative began to gather on Highway 401 overpasses to honour every fallen soldier, as that would invariably be the route on which their bodies were taken to Downsview after landing at CFB Trenton.
That was the same year her son Sean Markwell began his first tour of duty in Bosnia.
In those days, each motorcade was well publicized. But with a son serving overseas – and later, when he was in Afghanistan (where he was injured twice) – it would have been too emotional to stand on the overpass with others who wanted to show their support. The most she could manage was possibly riding her horse up to the fence on her property where it bordered the 401.
That is how she expressed her support at a particularly painful motorcade, the one for her son’s good friend Nathan Hornburg, killed by a mortar shell at the age of 24 in Afghanistan on Sept. 24, 2008, as he worked to rescue a disabled tank. Even now she chokes back tears to relate the incident.
She watched as the family passed by. She knew they were from Calgary and had travelled to a place they had never been before for the heart-breaking journey of seeing their son home.
“I don’t think the general public has any idea – it’s extremely stressful to lose your soldier child in combat or whatever, but it’s hard to part with a child any time. But in addition, you are travelling to a place where you don’t know the people and you do things you never, ever, ever had any practice at. So they’re really overwhelmed when they go through.”
She would eventually meet Nathan’s father, in 2015 when Sean married his wife Courtney. Michael Hornburg (who has since passed away) was among the guests, as the mother of the groom made a speech and talked about his military service. Hornburg introduced himself to her afterwards.
They talked about her horse farm, and Hornburg said his son had been a horse lover.
He talked about how much it meant to the family to see so many supportive people on the overpasses as they travelled in that tragic motorcade, how inspiring it was to see how Canadians come together to support these lost heroes.
He also mentioned the woman he had spotted on horseback at a fence bordering the 401.
“I said, ‘that was me,’” McElrea recalled.
“He said, ‘It was a white Appaloosa horse.’ I said, ‘Yes, that was me.’ And he said that this meant so much to him that the horse was there.”
Sean retired from the military in 2016 after a 16-year career. But the Highway of Hero trees, she said, “are an absolutely perfect fit for me, something that will be here for years and years to come.
“I have heard Silver Cross moms and also the soldiers that are still with us have said that they want to be sure their comrades and their children didn’t go in vain. This tribute will be here as long as the property.”