By: Juris Garney and Clair Theobald, Edmonton Journal
Edmonton soldiers will be spending more time in Eastern Europe in 2017, with western Canadian forces on high readiness into the new year, says the commander of 3rd Canadian Division and Joint Task Force West.
About 220 Edmonton-based soldiers are rotating through six-month deployments in Poland as part of Operation Reassurance, while another 200 soldiers undertake a training mission in Ukraine as part of Operation Unifier, says Brig.-Gen. Simon Hetherington.
And next spring, 455 solders will be deployed just outside the capital of the tiny Baltic nation of Latvia.
Eastern Europe continues to be the focal point of Canadian troops as part of the country’s NATO commitments. With continued aggressive posturing by Russian President Vladimir Putin, soldiers could be in the region indefinitely.
“We train for all contingencies across the spectrum of conflict and that can be from high-intensity combat operations to counter-insurgency like we fought in Afghanistan through to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Hetherington said in a year-end interview.
“Some are much more challenging to perform, but by training to that highest standard, we are prepared to do all those missions.”
Hetherington said the training mission in Ukraine, in which Canadian soldiers are training Ukrainian armed forces in everything from basic soldiering skills to enhanced first aid and enhanced explosives disposal, highlights Canada’s contribution to global security efforts.
But their role in Poland is quite different, however, and so too will be their presence in Latvia.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea, along with military incursions into eastern Ukraine, mirror his aggressive tactics in 2008 when troops entered Georgia under the guise of protecting South Ossetia.
Those living in Eastern Europe know too well about Russia’s willingness to throw its considerable military might around in the region.
“Is there a threat? Well, yeah, there is,” Hetherington said. “There is a reason why we are going there. Is it as imminent and is it as present as Afghanistan? Well, no.
“You go to Poland for a holiday. You go to Latvia right now for a holiday. But to Eastern Europe there is an existential threat. They have lived through it in the 20th century, so they have a different perspective than we do.
“But what we have trained for is the worst-case scenario and we’ll continue to train while we are there.”
Back in Canada, the military has seen its own challenges on two fronts: how it deals with sexual harassment and support for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In November, a voluntary Statistics Canada survey found that in the past year, 960 full-time members, or about 1.7 per cent of the regular force, reported sexual assault.
More than one-quarter of all women in the military reported sexual assault at least once over their military careers, the survey found.
Hetherington said from across the country, he is receiving a report each day of some type of harassment incident, but that is a good thing because it means harassment is no longer hidden or not being discussed.
“The important thing is that our soldiers are reporting them,” he said. “They are saying, ‘Look, I don’t accept that behaviour from someone on my team and I don’t accept this as being put upon one of my teammates, regardless of how innocuous it is.’
“There is still issues out there and we are doing more than I’ve seen in my 30 years in the service to address it … (but) we’ve got to get it to zero.”
Hetherington said it was important to leverage the courage shown by soldiers in battle to also stand up for their comrades.
“The courage that it takes to charge up a hill against machinegun fire that every one of these men and women are prepared to do, it’s that courage that they need to step in when there is any kind of maltreatment or discrimination or harassment. (It’s) taking the courage to step up and say I’m not going to stand for that.”
As for sufferers of PTSD, Hetherington said significant changes have been made in identification of sufferers and the creation of supports.
“It’s not just a soldier’s condition; we know that families have to deal with this as well,” he said. “We have come miles and we continue to develop.
“There is not a leader in the Canadian Army now that is not cognizant of the challenges that our soldiers face and how to look for the signs.”
Joint Task Force West is responsible for the conduct of domestic operations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, while 3rd Canadian Division is responsible for all Canadian Army administration and operations from the Pacific Ocean to Thunder Bay, Ont. Both are based in Edmonton.