Alight blanket of snow covered the ground outside the Canex store at the Canadian Forces base in Petawawa, Ont., last week as soldiers in green fatigues, some loaded down with Christmas presents and rolls of wrapping paper, busily loaded their cars. But amid this year’s holiday cheer, there is also apprehension. Nearly 600 members of the base’s Royal Canadian Dragoons Battle Group are among the 2,000 Canadian soldiers who, despite overwhelming odds, are trying to bring at least a measure of peace and goodwill to war-torn former Yugoslavia. And of the 55 Canadian peacekeepers who were detained on Nov. 23 by Bosnian Serbs near Visoko, 43 come from Petawawa.
Still, the families of those servicemen have reacted to recent events with dignified military stoicism. For that, many of the wives credit a series of moraleboosting social activities—from crafts nights to coffee klatches —organized by the Dragoons’ ladies club. They also point to the efforts of the soldiers who remain in Petawawa and operate a 24-hour telephone hotline to provide the women with regular updates on the Bosnian crisis. At times, their role is as simple as lending a sympathetic ear. “We are doing just fine,” insists Deborah Neilson, whose husband, Cpl. Christopher Neilson of St. Catharines, Ont., was among the Canadians held by the Serbs. Military wives, she explained, have to be prepared for difficult times. “When I married a soldier,” she said, “I also married the army.”
Katrin Milner, 29, demonstrated a similar sense of quiet confidence. Her husband, Maj. Dean Milner, a 33-yearold Winnipeg native, was the highestranking Canadian officer held by the Serbs. “I’m dealing with it quite well,” she said last week, as her three-year-old daughter, Stephanie, finished coloring a picture she planned to send to her father. Nearby, the couple’s 15-monthold son, Derek, crawled on the floor of their comfortable bungalow a few blocks from the base. Added Milner: “It is an emotional time any way you look at it. But we all basically just try to stick together and keep each other’s spirits up.”
Only hours earlier, Milner had received the first direct communication from her husband since he and the other Canadians were detained on Nov. 23—a
handwritten fax from the Bosnian town of Hijas. “How are you guys doing?” it read. “Everything is going well over here.” The major sent along “big hugs and kisses” and added that the Serbs were being “good hosts.”
Several other wives also received reassuring messages from their spouses. And at week’s end, they were cautiously optimistic about the fate of their husbands. Among the most anxious was
21-year-old Anita Clarke, wife of Cpl. Sheldon Clarke of Grand Falls, Nfld. At 9:50 a.m. on Dec. 1, after more than a week of “indecisive labor” brought on by the shock of hearing of her husband’s captivity, Anita gave birth to the couple’s first child, Styles Trevor Ace Clarke (six pounds, 15 ounces). Present for the birth at Pembroke General Hospital was Deborah Neilson and another friend who videotaped the event for Sheldon’s later viewing. “The baby looks just like his dad,” proclaimed Neilson. His beaming mother agreed. “He has ugly feet, his father’s feet,” she said with a smile. Soon after, Neilson faxed an urgent message to Bosnia for the infant’s father. On it were the baby’s footprints. Anita, meanwhile, said she hopes her husband will soon be home to see Styles model an early Christmas gift that Sheldon set aside for him before leaving for Bosnia. It is a tiny T-shirt that reads: “My Daddy is a UN peacekeeper.”
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