by Mac Johnston
The many faces of our world never cease to amaze. Imagine that you’re in the Middle East in December with a troupe to entertain Canadian peacekeepers. In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, your bus approaches North Camp at El Gorah. The entrance is like nothing you’ve ever seen back home. Both sides of the road are lined with 45-gallon drums filled with poured concrete and linked by a sturdy cable. There are also concrete obstacles in the centre, forcing vehicles to zigzag their way through the maze. You also pass over a steel plate that conceals a retracted steel barrier.
What you have here are basic security measures. It matters not that the Sinai is quiet these days. The Middle East is not only the cradle of civilization, it is also the cocoon of conflict. Other parts of the region simmer and boil over with regularity. These measures were installed to protect the camp from the passions that have inflamed the region for centuries, most particularly the current scourge known as suicide car bombers. It’s a sobering thought. And a constant reminder that in this part of the world you let your guard down at your peril.
North Camp belongs to the Multinational Force and Observers, a force of 2,500 from 11 nations that has its headquarters in Rome. Funded largely by the United States, the MFO acts as a stabilizing influence and conduit for communications between Egypt and Israel.
A supply base, North Camp serves a number of detachments in remote locations that perform the organization’s main duty–to observe and report on movements in four zones that stretch from the Suez Canal all the way into Israel. This work involves operating checkpoints and observation posts as well as reconnaissance patrols and periodic verifications of the treaty between Egypt and Israel. LCF Lieutenant-Commander Gary Davis comments frankly: “Should one side try to roll over the other side, we’re not here to stop it. We’re here to be an international incident.”
Once you get beyond the reality of the situation, you learn that the 28 Canadians are clerks, signals, transport, supply, air traffic controllers and staff officers employed in equipment maintenance, vehicle fleet management, food services, force operations, morale support and liaison. Rotation of the Canadians is done individually, not by unit. Half are here for six months, half for a year. Eight of the Canadians are women, three are reservists and just under half are officers.
North Camp is a former Israeli air force base and offers a number of amenities, including a gym and library. “This is the good life of peacekeeping,” says Davis, a naval navigator sailing a desk in the desert as a recreation officer. “…A navy guy working with the army, and working with all the nationalities, professionally it’s a breath of fresh air….
“As a morale guy, a recreation officer, the more sensitive you are to the other cultures the more successful you are. One of the things we try to do is rotate sports from the various nations throughout the year. Although the variety show tonight is Canadian, the whole camp will be there. It’s cultural enlightenment.
“Of course, what is a Canadian? We’re a little bit of everything. I like it when the force commander says forces like this are a fruit salad–everybody brings their own particular flavour to the mix. Canada is evolving into a new culture because of the mix of races. Here we have many cultures living together and there is no one culture such as is developing in Canada.”
The culture in which the camp exists is much different than in Canada, with religion being a major influence. For example, the North Camp work week is Sunday through Thursday because Friday is a Muslim holy day and Saturday is a Jewish holy day. The local Egyptian workers on the base are strongly influenced by their religion. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, believers observe certain strict disciplines from sunrise to sunset, including fasting. Productivity can be affected, but that’s one aspect of life here.
The climate is different, too. It’s warm and dry by our standards. Bottled water is stacked everywhere on the Canadian premises. It’s free and you help yourself. The message is clear: Drink lots of fluids and don’t become dehydrated. The desert gets cool in the evening in December, which produces the interesting sight of a Canadian in a long-sleeved shirt alongside a large Fijian in a padded trench coat. It all depends on what you’re used to.
Major Michael Froess of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse tank regiment, is the staff assistant to the chief of operations. He says: “Compared to Bosnia or even living in the field back home, it’s pretty comfortable, but it does get hot in the summer…. It’s slightly different than with the UN in Bosnia. There I was with my unit. Here I work with nine different nationalities on a daily basis. You can’t be perhaps as straightforward as you would with another Canadian. You must be more diplomatic. Even with the Egyptians you don’t just sit down and start talking business. You have to do a whole series of introductions.”
Sergeant Lori English, the chief clerk for the Canadian contingent, says: “I like it. If I’m going to be in the Forces, this is a good place to be, but I’m single. It’s interesting. The weather is good. I said ‘Yes” in about 10 seconds. It was an attraction to travel, to get to see Egypt and the pyramids.” Does she have any regrets? “No. Just like anything else it has its days, but nothing is perfect.”
During her 22 years in the Forces she has served four years in Germany and two years in the destroyer Iroquois. Asked for her reaction to the camp ratio of 1,900 men to 100 women, she says: “I’m used to it. I’ve been on a ship. Your whole career is pretty much like that unless you’re in an office.”
What brought us to North Camp was the Middle East Christmas ‘98 Show Tour organized by the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency. The tour features professional entertainers. A Toronto company, Diversified Talent Associates Inc., won the tender for this tour, so most of the talent came from the Toronto area. Featured performers were singer Sheree Jeacocke, rising country and western singer Jamie Warren, magician-emcee Glenn Ottaway, juggler-comedian Freddie Wonder, band leader-soloist Elaine Overholt and vocalist Martin Samuel. A band and six singer-dancers rounded out the cast. It was a considerable production, complete with high quality sound and lights.
And how did the troops react? “Great. It was super, unbelievable,” says Corporal Monique Vautour of Greenwood, N.S. “Awesome, spectacular,” responds Master Corporal May George, a member of Whitbourne Branch in Blaketown, Nfld.
What makes the show tours possible is sponsorship. Reg Landry, marketing and sponsorship manager for the chief of programs office within the CFPSA, says the show tours have four sponsors that each put up $25,000 a year in cash or services: The Royal Canadian Legion, Canadian Airlines, SkyLink Aviation and Canada Communication Group.
“The Legion is one of a kind,” Landry says. “There’s a great deal of interest in promoting this concept of the extended family. It’s a great opportunity for the Legion. It’s a chance to get down to the grassroots of the Canadian Forces.”
“We have to give the Legion a lot of credit because they’re the only one to come forward for three years (1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2000-2001). We were totally surprised,” he says, noting that the CFPSA is now trying to put other sponsors on a multi-year basis, as well as attract additional sponsors.
“I think it’s certainly worthwhile,” says Dominion Vice-President Allan Parks. “It gives us a chance to get down and meet the troops firsthand. Personally, it gave me the experience of seeing their duties and what’s expected of them. These are the people who are going to be a large part of our future if we’re going to maintain the numbers we’d like to maintain.
“I think it was also nice to see how well we as Legion were received by the troops over here. The ones that I talked to were very pleased the Legion has taken this initiative. This sort of relationship, this family concept with the troops, I think that’s very important.
“I was just so impressed with what a different world it is over here. I guess it gave me a realization how great Canada is. The other thing I really noticed is how well respected the Canadian troops are. It seemed everywhere we went this was the case. I think our soldiers that are over here should be getting that type of recognition back home, rather than the negative stories we seem to be hearing. I think we as Legion can help get this point across.”
Before the Sinai, the tour had spent a week in the snow and mud of Bosnia-Herzegovina, performing two shows in Zgon and one each in Coralici and Velika Kladusa for many of the 1,285 Canadians participating in Operation Palladium, our largest peacekeeping commitment.
After the one-show stop in the Sinai, the Middle East tour moves on to the Golan Heights and the Canadian contingent to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. This is Israeli-occupied Syria. The mission of Operation Danaca is to monitor and supervise the disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and maintain a buffer zone, the Area of Separation.
We visit Camp Ziouani on the Israeli side where the primary Canadian mission is to provide logistics, communications and technical support. The 168 Canadians from all three services are on six-month tours, so about half the contingent rotates back to Canada every three months. There are also 19 Canadians at Camp Faouar on the Syrian side. Most are part of UNDOF headquarters, including the force commander, Major-General Cameron Ross of Ottawa.
Peacekeeping is a long-term proposition in this region and 1999 will mark the 25th anniversary of UNDOF and Canada’s participation in the mission, which was spawned by the outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Camp Ziouani began much earlier, in the 1920s as a French Foreign Legion base. It’s smaller than El Gorah and the facilities are not as good either, no doubt a reflection of the fact that the UNDOF mandate is renewed every six months, which does not encourage investment in facilities. Ziouani is crowded and the entertainers must stay 56 kilometres away in the city of Tiberias, Israel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Canada’s extensive commitment to peacekeeping dictates that many members of the Canadian Forces will spend prolonged periods away from their loved ones. Lieutenant (Navy) Minnie Ho is an example. Back in Comox, B.C., are her husband and their daughter who won’t be two until after mom returns home in May. Ho seems to take this in stride. “I guess it’s the security in knowing that my husband can look after her well and she’s healthy,” she says.
“My whole career for the military has been in the air force. My specialty is aviation medicine,” says Ho, the lone doctor for the Canadian contingent. She has earned the designation flight surgeon, which she says deals with “the study of normal physiology in an abnormal environment,” as well as other topics, including crash investigation.
Dr. Ho comes from 19 Wing at CFB Comox, where 407 Squadron flies Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. “I’ve been on two deployments with them,” she says. “I went mostly to get an appreciation of the different types of jobs people do on that aircraft. There’s up to 18 people.”
This is the first peacekeeping duty for Ho, who has been in the CF for eight years. “Most people are happy to be here,” she says. “They know that they’re more fortunate than their peers in other missions…. I’m impressed with their professionalism. The threat is not high at this moment, but we’re working hard to keep people busy so that they’re involved and don’t become homesick. Nobody is immune to getting sad.”
Personally, Ho says: “I am proud to do my part for Canada to maintain its high military standards in the rest of the world. I think this is what we do best–peacekeeping.”
Corporal Tim Dobbs is also from 19 Wing, Comox. The 32-year-old is divorced and has two kids, six and eight, now in San Diego, Calif., with their mother. The supply tech who has been in the CF for 12 years comments on life on the Golan: “The job over here is easy. Being away from family and stuff, that’s the difficult part. Thanks go to the people who give us gifts at Christmas time. It does mean a lot to guys.” And what did he think of the show? “Excellent. It was nice to hear some Canadians.”
Chief Warrant Officer Gord Descoteaux from CFB Edmonton says: “When you come here, you brighten up their day, their night. It shows what Canadians can do.” The sergeant major is on his third peacekeeping mission. “I volunteered to come here,” he explains. “I get to play mommy and daddy with these guys. It’s a great job…. This is my final hurrah. I’ll get out shortly after I get home. I’m probably one of the few guys who doesn’t want to get out, but they’re kicking my butt out (at 55).”
The troupe gave three shows on the Golan. After most shows, the performers would attend a “meet and greet” arranged by their hosts. At one on the Golan, Sergeant Andre Bilodeau from CFB Valcartier tells me: “It’s very, very good for the morale. It’s interesting and it reminds you of home. We don’t see a show like that around here.”
From the Golan, the show tour heads for home via Aviano, Italy, where about 130 Canadians and six CF-18 jets from 3 Wing in Bagotville, Que., have been deployed at a U.S. airbase in three- month rotations since last June. They’ve been flying missions over Bosnia and participating in multinational exercises designed to increase ties between NATO and eastern European nations.
We arrive the evening of the Christmas party. Some of the airmen had opened their CFPSA Operation Santa Claus Christmas packages, which included a Legion baseball hat from Dominion Command and a copy of Legion Magazine. Instruments had been rented and acquired locally for the musicians since their equipment was all packed in containers aboard a CF aircraft. Despite the late hour, some of the entertainers give an improv performance, with the audience often singing along and dancing. Everyone is in high spirits and the evening is a smash.
On the flight home the next morning, one face of Canada emerges in the words of performer Elaine Overholt of Toronto: “I think the big thing I learned is that Canada basically knows extremely little about what our guys are doing, both in peacetime and times of war…. Because of what I learned and saw in Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt and Israel, I personally feel an obligation as an entertainer to tell people about the great work that’s being done…. Whenever I perform, I’m going to dedicate one song to Canadian men and women serving in all parts of the world.
“What led me to feel all this was in Bosnia we went out into the villages with the soldiers on their regular routine. We had our helmets and flak jackets on…and watched them let the people know the soldiers are there. Basically they’re preventing war from breaking out again. We also saw a school the peacekeepers rebuilt.
“As much as we gave them by performing, I think they gave a whole helluva lot more…. We’re a peacekeeping nation. That involves an element of danger. I was in the midst of that danger and I felt it. And I’m very much in awe of them. I’m going home to talk to my daughter’s school about it…. We live in such a complacent country, such a comfortable country. I want her to understand that there are countries at war out there and that there are Canadians trained to go and make peace.”