By Jeff Gaye
Twenty-five years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. The invasion, and the international response, sparked a series of events that is playing out in the region to this day.
A coalition of countries was formed to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces, and Canada participated with its navy, army and air force.
|Part of the CAF contingent, based in Qatar during OP FRICTION: Photo: DND|
The 1991 Gulf War was Canada’s first aerial combat since 1953. The decision to send CF-188s from Cold Lake caused excitement and an equal share of trepidation in a community not accustomed to seeing its people go off to war. National media turned their attention to Cold Lake to capture the tension in town and to document how the base and the community at large came together to support the families of the deployed.
Canada did not lose any personnel on the operation, reinforcing the idea that warfare can be conducted over a great distance by fighter-bombers with a minimum of casualties.
But there were casualties.
Bob McKinnon was a warrant officer in 416 Squadron at the time, in charge of a 40-person servicing crew. He remembers the uncertainty he and his comrades felt before deploying. “I was already a Legion member, but I joined every organization I could before we left,” he says. “‘I might as well have as many organizations as I can to look after my family in case something happens to me over there’, I remember thinking.”
He had a nightmare before he left, that someone was trying to steal his wedding ring by cutting off his finger. He left the ring at home when he shipped out.
When the fighting began in earnest in January 1991, “I knew we were going that night,” he says. “I had 40 people in my crew. How do I brief them, how do I look after them? What happens if I freeze up?”
From their operating base in Doha, Qatar, the 416 Squadron “Desert Cats” performed well in the campaign. But many personnel exhibited unusual symptoms when they returned. There was talk among returning United States troops of a mysterious “Gulf War Syndrome”, which was attributed to everything from chemical weapons to battle stress.
Most of the symptoms displayed by Canadian personnel were eventually ascribed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The Canadian Armed Forces has gained considerable knowledge and experience in preventing and treating PTSD as a result of the Gulf War experience, though recent campaigns such as Afghanistan show there is much yet to be learned.
McKinnon has participated in many commissions, committees and organizations dedicated to Gulf War veterans and their difficulties. “I’d say we were the leaders on PTSD,” he says. The disorder has been documented in previous wars as ‘shell shock’ and ‘battle fatigue’, and McKinnon says peacekeeping troops almost certainly experienced it as well. But the Gulf War veterans were the first to have a PTSD diagnosis certified.
Canada has been involved in a number of military campaigns since the end of the Gulf War, most notably Afghanistan, where we lost 159 personnel over 10 years. Because of this, and the high incidence of physical and mental injuries troops have suffered through combat over the years, McKinnon says many Gulf War veterans feel they have been forgotten.
|The CAF contingent returning to Canada, on final approach to Ottawa. 8 RCAF CF-18s were deployed; led by CC-137 (Boeing 707) caring ground and support crew. Photo: DND|
The veterans are making plans for commemorative events in 2016, McKinnon says.
*416 Tactical Fighter Squadron and 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron amalgamated on July 6, 2006, to form 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron.
This article first appeared in the Tuesday, December 1, 2015, edition of the 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, newspaper The Courier.