‘THE PERSIAN EXCI ÎSION’
SWEATY, HOMESICK AND RESTLESS, CANADIAN FORCES WAIT
Some people have argued that Canada should not have sent planes and ships, that such a military role is incompatible with our role as a peacekeeper. Such arguments are based on a serious misreading of Canada’s history. When called upon to play its part in collective efforts to roll back aggression and to defend freedom, Canada has never shirked its responsibilities. —Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, House of Commons, Sept. 24, 1990.
In the brassy glare of the Persian Gulf sun, Petty Officer 2nd Class Sam Gatenby sat on the missile deck of the Canadian naval supply ship Protecteur squinting at a selfhelp book called Personality Plus. The 29-yearold naval weapons technician from Port Hope, Ont., said that the book might help him resolve a personnel problem: he had ordered two bosuns on his gun crews to load the weapons, and the men had become bad tempered in the heat. The tempers would cool, but the Gulf and the implacable Arabian desert to the west would not, except at night, and then only slightly. Gatenby, 11 years in the navy, plainly cherishes the breeze and the relative privacy of his perch on the cover of a ventilator shaft. Besides trying to improve his skills as a handler of men, he says that he spends his time there writing letters home, fighting boredom and wondering what will happen tomorrow or next week in the edgy standoff against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “I think I’ll be here beyond January,” he said matter-of-factly, “and I think there will be a war.” Gatenby’s preoccupations mirror those of most members of the nearly 1,700member Canadian contingent in the 27-nation force marshalled against Hussein following his Aug. 2 occupation of Kuwait.
Fateful: Since they arrived in the Gulf nearly three months ago, the sailors aboard the Protecteur and the destroyers Athabaskan and Terra Nova have been hailing and occasionally boarding merchant ships to enforce the UN embargo against Iraq. The CF-18 fighter pilots and ground crews of 409 Squadron, quartered in the sheikdom of Qatar, have provided air cover for the ships and surveillance in the central and northern Gulf region. Meanwhile, both sailors and fliers have endured the toughest test short of war for troops in the field: waiting. They wait for Hussein to make a fateful move. They wait for the United States to launch an offensive. They wait for the relative coolness and grandeur of the next desert sunset. They wait for letters from wives or husbands more than 6,000 miles away on the other side of the world, where the dominant
emotion is clearly not boredom—but anxiety.
Sweaty, homesick and restless, they concoct practical jokes, play Monopoly, swat flies and talk about cold beer, women and Christmas. They dig sand from their ears and eyes, boots and weapons. Between air patrols, the pilots and ground crews shop for souvenir Arab robes, headgear and camel wall hangings in the narrow lanes of the souk in Doha, the artificially watered and air-conditioned capital of Qatar. Still, life within range of Iraqi Scud-B missiles,
and 350 miles from the vanguard of a hostile army bigger than the population of Saskatchewan, does tend to banish triviality and focus attention—on loved ones, on duty and pride of country, on living and perhaps dying, in an alien land.
The sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up and eyes hidden behind reflecting sunglasses, Gatenby perspired in the midday heat. “I don’t think anyone has the right to hold the entire world for ransom,” he said.“We’re here because we were asked to help.” Behind and above him, the barrels of the twin 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns pointed skyward. Such weapons were fairly effective against 350-mile-an-hour Japanese and German fighter-bombers nearly half a century ago. But in the age of laser-guided missiles, they are nearly museum pieces. “What you see here,” said Gatenby, “is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix.”
Power: He is the divorced father of a four-year-old daughter, Sarah, and he has a girlfriend, Ruth Waller, a 21year-old Halifax waitress and leading seaman in the naval reserve. Before the Protecteur sailed from there in August, he gave her power of attorney over his ¿fairs. In her letters, she tells him about the state of his bank account and how much she misses him. She also wrote a poem for him:
We are separated by miles miles neither can traverse. Yet I know my love reaches you as your heart does mine, our love blending, keeping both safe and strong.
One night during his watch, Gatenby composed a verse for Waller:
I wish my hands could
reach across the miles of space
that separate us,
just to touch your face,
to once again see
already engraved on my mind. ..
Gatenby said that he tells Waller and his mother about his tan and his boredom. “I tell them that not much will happen and it’ll be over soon,” he added. The bosuns began quarrelling again. Gatenby rolled his eyes heavenward and made a face.
At the airbase near Doha, two pilots talked about life-and-death in the air. “Very few of us think about killing someone,” said Lieut. Patrick Howell, a 23-year-old CF-18 pilot from Red Deer, Alta. “But the guys sat around saying war would break out and everyone wants to be a part of that. I sure do. It doesn’t mean war will be fun, but it’s a challenge and we all want to meet a challenge.” Howell’s in-flight call name used to be Howie. Then, one day, he crashed the commanding officer’s rented Jeep while speeding around the desert. Now, his c¿l name is Dune. Arrogance, said Dune, is a key asset for a fighter pilot.
Howell and Capt. David Stone, 30, of Tottenham, Ont., sitting at a picnic table, had just returned from one of the routine air patrols
ON AND OFF THE BASE, THE GREATEST THREAT IS A TERRORIST ATTACK
that take 409 Squadron pilots close to the Iraqi border. It was sunrise and the sky was streaked with mauve and pink where it meets the desert.
There was a smell of hot coffee and jet fuel. CF-18s, armed with Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, thundered in the background.
“The first couple of trips, I was really excited just carrying the weapons,” said Howell. “You spend the day waiting to shoot somebody—it’s exciting.”
‘Kill’: The Canadians conduct mock dogfights with American and French pilots who share the Qatari base with them. Howell described the manoeuvres, chasing one hand with the other and squeezing an imaginary trigger with his index finger.
Stone said that close-in dogfights are fun but too risky if the opponent is a real enemy. “In wartime,” he said, “the idea is to kill the guy at the longest range.” He said that he is prepared for war. “I always get my wife ready for the consequence that I may not come back some day,” he said.
Carrie Desjarlais is Howell’s 20-year-old girlfriend. She works in a Calgary grocery store-restaurant and said that she plans to go to Germany in January to be with him when he returns. Desjarlais said that she was frightened when he went to the Persian Gulf, but added, “You have to stand behind him.” Said Desjar-
lais: “They’re trained so that they can’t think too much about killing a person. They think about defending themselves and defending their country.” She acknowledged that she was uncertain about Canada’s reasons for becoming involved in the Gulf force. Said Desjarlais: “I don’t really know what’s happening.” However, she said that she had concluded from Howell’s two letters that “he is really enjoying himself.”
Cpl. Peter Krebbs of the Royal Canadian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion was evidently not enjoying himself. The 26year-old infantryman from Hamilton, Ont., crouched with two other soldiers in one of the sandbagged machine\ gun bunkers built up on the cj airfield perimeter to protect ^ the CF-18s from terrorist at§ tack. In some of the bunkers, g the men are shielded against 5 the sun beneath desert cam| ouflage obtained from the x Americans. However, most of the camouflage is Canadian-issue Arctic white. Krebbs’s position is called Bunker Hill. “We’re just the pawns of the politicians, but it’ll be scary if the Iraqis start something,” said Krebbs. “I think our role has changed from peacekeeping.” Lieut. Robert Boyd, 23, of Cornwall, Ont., wears black-rimmed designer sunglasses and is
in command of the Canadian bunkers overlooking the airfield. “It’s very boring here,” said Boyd. “You sit and watch a piece of desert which isn’t changing and the guys are going stir crazy. We talk a lot about politics, about home, about our families, about the prospects for war. There’s a feeling here that Saddam Hussein is a madman who has got to go.”
That view of Hussein is widely shared among the Canadians. Squatting on an overturned drum in the Protecteur’s engine room, Leading Seaman Melvin Bresowar, a 22-year-old marine engineer from Glace Bay, N.S., said: “By taking over Kuwait, he now is in charge of the major oil lines out of the Persian Gulf, and no one wants that because he has the capability to ruin the world’s economy.” When they sailed from Halifax, Bresowar said, “there were millions of reporters on the jetty shoving cameras in people’s faces—everyone was crying and they had cameras stuck in their faces.”
‘Love’: Bresowar left behind Robyn Branchard, 24, who works in the personnel division of the navy’s Mari-
time Command in Halifax. They are engaged. When the Protecteur pulls into a Gulf port, he phones her. “I ask stupid questions like, ‘Do you love me and still miss me,’ and sometimes she says, ‘No! Who’s this?’ We joke. I don’t
even think about losing her. I get a lump in my throat when I get the mail.” Bresowar said that he and Branchard never talked about the possibility of his not coming back. “I made up a will and left all my worldly possessions to her,” he said. “I made sure she had enough money to take care of the bills.”
In Halifax, Branchard said that Bresowar phones about every two weeks. “Usually by then I need to talk to him,” she said. “I get into a slump and I just have to hear his voice and know he’s all right. Then I’m flying high for half an hour before I sink into a depression again.” When he phones her at work, she added, there are often “officers walking around and I have to tone down the mushy stuff.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Barry Schryer is chief cook at Canada Dry 1, a former immigrant workers’ camp that now houses the kitchens, MALIBU (Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit) and repair shops near the airfield. It took three men using paint scrapers two 20-hour days to clean bakedon grease off the stove bumers. The 46-year-old Schryer, who grew up in a poor family three blocks from
Winnipeg City Hall, has been in the armed forces for 28 years. “The reason I wanted to be a cook was to eat regularly,” he said. Schryer has a secondary duty: if the base is attacked with chemical warfare weapons, he will be in charge of decontaminating and cleaning troops and vehicles.
Schryer supervises the 16 cooks who prepare three hot meals a day. He said: “The worst thing is not knowing.
It’s a big standoff.” On or off the base, he said, “the biggest threat is the terrorist threat. If you go downtown and shop, you search the vehicle before starting it up. I try not to let people know I am a Canadian soldier.” Similarly, when the sailors in the Gulf go ashore, they keep a low profile. But onboard, many wear T-shirts bearing the words “Operation Friction,” the official code name for the Canadian operation, on the back. On the front is the inscription, “The Persian Excursion”—which is not official.
Peeled: Schryer said that he had hoped to employ exotic ingredients in his menus until he discovered that most of the food in Qatar is imported from Europe. When he is at home, said Schryer’s wife, Johanna, who lives near Baden, Germany, he stays strictly out of the kitchen. “Once I asked him to help me make dinner for the two of us and he peeled 10
pounds of potatoes,” she said. “He has no concept of small portions.”
Below decks on the Protecteur, master seaman Rick Osmond, 31, of Port aux Basques, Nfld., was surrounded by a metal forest of jigsaws, welding torches, table saws, electricdrill mountings, joiner planes, steel workbenches and piles of wood. A hull technician, he would have been called a shipwright in the old navy. “We’re here to defend freedom,” he said, waving his arms for emphasis. “If we don’t stop
this guy where he’s at, then suddenly it will become a major problem, not a minor one. Canadians don’t know how good we got it.” Even so, Osmond added: “Once in a while, you think of all the things that can happen and you worry. But you try to block it out of your mind because it doesn’t do any good to dwell on it. You try to remain happy and smile.” What Saddam Hussein should do, said Osmond, is get out of Kuwait, “pay damages to the ^ people and go hang himself.” X Melinda Penny, Osmond’s cj 25-year-old common-law § wife, lives in Dartmouth, 2 N.S., with their eight-monthly old son, Devin, who, mouth 2 filled with arrowroot biscuit, I wheeled perilously around x the living room in a walker. “Every Wednesday, I’m sure to get a letter from him,” Penny said. He sent them a poem, lavishly illustrated with crayoned drawings:
To Mommy and Devin. From Daddy.
I love U so much and I miss you everyday.
I can’t wait to come home So all of us can play.
Marine engineer Vic Murphy emerges from the Protecteur’s boiler room drenched in sweat, a bloody gash on his forehead, suffered
while repairing a steam leak. A 32-year-old, 15-year veteran from Fergusons Falls, Ont., near Ottawa, Murphy, like the rest of the crew, had to shave off his beard. Chemical warfare masks will not fit properly over a beard. Mur
phy said that he joined the navy at 17 because "all my friends were getting into drugs, into trouble, and Ifigured that if Ididn't join, Iwould wind up in jail." Before he sailed, he said, he gave his wife, Cindy, 31, control of his affairs
"in case anything hap pened-now she can put me into debt all by herself." Cindy Murphy lives in a semi-detached house in Lower Sackville, N.S., with their three children, a dog and two cats. The dog is a border collie called Chico who runs-clockwisearound the ground floor of their house whenever the phone rings. Cindy Murphy said that she "really misses" her husband. "The day before he left," she add ed, "he put up shutters, sealed the driveway and put the car up on blocks." Out side, there is a yellow rib bon, a symbol of remem brance for a serviceman facing danger far away, tied to the porch railing. There
U) uie putcii IdHuig. i iieit are a lot of yellow ribbons around Halifax.