CANADA

An uncertain Christmas

The Forces prepare to change the guard

JOHN HOWSE November 26 1990
CANADA

An uncertain Christmas

The Forces prepare to change the guard

JOHN HOWSE November 26 1990

An uncertain Christmas

The Forces prepare to change the guard

A string of trailers loaded with 500-lb. Mark-82 bombs snaked out to the fringe of the runway at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alta. Groundcrews gingerly attached the bombs to five CF-18 fighter jets. Then, the aircraft roared off over the snow-dappled northern Alberta bush, leaving behind the sickly sweet smell of jet exhaust. Last week’s armed bombing runs were part of the countdown for the departure at the end of the month of a 150-member contingent from 416 Squadron. Their destination: first Germany and then the Persian Gulf for a minimum three-month tour of duty. In the Gulf, pilots and support personnel from Cold Lake will rotate with members of 409 Squadron—based in Germany—who have been flying air cover for three Canadian warships taking part in the UNsanctioned embargo against Iraq since early October. And according to its commanding officer, the relief squadron is eager to put its training to the test. Declared Lt.-Col. Ronald Guidinger, 37: “The bottom line is that this is what we have trained for.”

But in the days ahead, the challenge facing 416 Squadron is likely to increase. The threat of war has hung over the troubled Gulf region since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, intensifying recently with the escalation of warlike rhetoric from both Hussein and those arrayed against him (page 26). For the tightly knit, 5,000-member military community at Cold Lake, 416 Squadron’s impending departure only weeks before Christmas has produced a turbulent mix of emotions. “We are all red-hot to go,” said pilot Capt. Marcus Walton, 26, a native of North Bay, Ont. “I don’t know why—a lot here think war is inevitable.”

For many members of 416, there has been little time to feel any apprehension because of the intense training exercises, final tune-ups and maintenance checks. As many as 12 of 416’s CF-18s will also make the trip from Cold Lake to Germany. Then, they will be rotated with German-based CF-18s already in service at “Canada Dry,” as the military has nicknamed its desert airbase in the Arabian peninsula kingdom of Qatar, 570 km south of Iraqioccupied Kuwait.

But with Christmas decorations already brightening many Cold Lake homes, the assignment is sharply tinged with melancholy. In order to help buffer the sadness of separation for some families of personnel departing for the Gulf, the military is trying to ensure that, during Christmas, the families are able to visit relatives elsewhere. Base administrators are also attempting to match those who will remain in Cold Lake with other military families. As well, other morale boosters are planned, such

as slide presentations showing 416 Squadron’s activities in the Gulf, squadron dinners and the recording of video greetings to absent friends or relatives.

But other concerns have also clouded 416’s departure—among them the armed forces’ strained budget. Earlier this month, defence department spokesmen acknowledged that the army’s involvement in last summer’s Mohawk

crisis in Quebec had resulted in an unplanned expense of $22 million. Subsequent cutbacks in order to recover the outlay from other spending have extended to Cold Lake. “We have cut travel and are reviewing whether to refurbish buildings and base roads,” said Maj. Luigi Rossetto, public affairs officer at Cold Lake. Some critics said that the cost of Canada’s Gulf involvement, which will be revealed this week, is certain to add to the Forces’ financial difficulties. But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said last week that he will redirect money from existing government programs to the military.

In the meantime, corporations and individual Canadians are taking measures to provide for the forces in the Gulf. A tree farm in Nova Scotia is supplying Christmas trees. One Halifax firm donated ingredients for 300 pizzas— while another donor supplied a 320-lb. pump-

kin for Halloween. (As well, Maclean’s has been distributing about 150 copies a week to the Canadian vessels helping to enforce the embargo against Iraq.) But the outpouring of support has also included offers that the army has been forced to tum down. One B.C. company wanted to supply 96,000 bottles of spring water—which would have cost $12,000 to ship. An Ottawa firm offered 1,200 so-called beaver tails, a local delicacy of deep-fried pastry that would not have survived the trip to Qatar. And one well-intentioned Calgary firm wanted to provide 1,500 lb. of frozen yogurt— equally difficult to ship 7,000 miles to a region where currently the daytime temperature is as high as 35° C.

That searing climate was also a topic of conversation among the members of 416 last

week. In the Cold Lake base pilots’ room, Guidinger removed a fishing hook and line from his survival pack. “I won’t need that,” he said. “Maybe add some sun block—and shark repellent.” Others, such as Cpl. Linda Knowles, a 28-year-old technician, worried about the looming culture shock. “I hear Arabs view women as a lower form of life,” she told Maclean’s. For most members of Canada’s second air contingent to travel to the Gulf, though, far greater uncertainties lie ahead. Noted Knowles: “I made a new will—and bought a new insurance policy.” It was a quiet reminder that, in the volatile Persian Gulf, Canada’s military personnel could quickly find their Christmas celebration eclipsed by war.

JOHN HOWSE in

Cold Lake

with

E. KAYE FULTON