‘Torrid operational tempo’: Edmonton-based soldiers respond to disasters at home and abroad in 2021

In 2022, Edmonton-based troops will head to the Middle East as part of Operation IMPACT in mid-May 2022, Operation REASSURANCE in central and eastern Europe in mid-June 2022, and to Ukraine as part of Operation UNIFIER in late September 2022

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From fighting wildfires and floods in Yukon and interior British Columbia to helping process Afghan refugees in Kuwait, 2021 has been a “year of surprises” for Edmonton-based soldiers.

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In a year-end interview with Postmedia, Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1 CMBG), which includes units in both Edmonton and Shilo, Man., described the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic as “pretty tough” for soldiers, who were basically sidelined.

“Nobody signed up to join the military and just stay home,” said Rutland.

But things really picked up in 2021.

Edmonton-based third battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) troops were the first army unit sent into Afghanistan in 2002 and Canada’s last army unit to take part in Afghanistan after a small contingent were sent to Kuwait, through Bahrain, in August of this summer to help process refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the United States ended its military involvement in the country.

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It marked a tumultuous end for the two-decade conflict — Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2011 and its military involvement wrapped up  with the NATO training mission in 2014 — and one that caused soldiers to pause and reflect on their contribution, Rutland said.

“I would say how we feel about it (today) is really complicated,” said Rutland, who went to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2010.

“As a soldier, you can’t look at Afghanistan the country, and the political system, and the people, and all the political machinations and decide whether you were successful and whether your contribution mattered. What I’ve heard from the soldiers, and what we’ve discussed, is that everyone that went over there went there for the right reason and did the right thing.

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“Maybe it didn’t turn out the way that we would have wanted but I don’t think there’s anyone that is hanging their head and thinking that they didn’t give their all. We know it’s a complicated world.”

  1. Evacuees termed Canadian Entitled Persons sit in a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) C-177 Globemaster III transport plane for their flight to Canada from Kabul, Afghanistan, during the crisis on August 23, 2021. Canadian Armed Forces/Handout via REUTERS

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  2. 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry soldiers prepare to depart 3rd Canadian Division Support Base Edmonton en route to Vernon, B.C., on July 23, 2021. The Canadian Armed Forces is deploying land forces to support local and provincial authorities in response to the emergency wildfire situation.

    Keith Gerein: On climate change, domestic disasters and reprioritizing the role of Canada’s military

  3. Edmonton troops clear a clogged culvert in the flood relief effort in the lower mainland of British Columbia as heavy rains washed away roads, railway track and flooded farms across the province last week.

    ‘It is a sad situation’: Hundreds of Edmonton-based soldiers on deployment to help with B.C. flood devastation

  4. Smoke billows from a wildfire near Osoyoos, B.C., on July 19, 2021, in this picture obtained from social media.

    Severe wildfires the new normal due to climate change, B.C. fires contribute to floods: study

Abroad in Eastern Europe

The army works in a three-year cycle.

Edmonton troops recently came off a “build year” — their highest level of training — culminating in April during Maple Resolve , Canada’s largest military training exercise, in Wainwright. Troops are currently on a “contingency year,” meaning they are on standby to attend any unforeseen operations in the world, including the August operation in Kuwait.

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120 troops from 3rd Canadian Division deploy to Ukraine as part of Operation Unifier, at the Edmonton International Airport Friday, March 3, 2017.
120 troops from 3rd Canadian Division deploy to Ukraine as part of Operation Unifier, at the Edmonton International Airport Friday, March 3, 2017. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

In 2022, Edmonton troops will transition into their “committed year” of operations, which includes three overseas trips to the Middle East as part of Operation Impact in mid-May, Operation Reassurance in central and eastern Europe in mid-June, and to Ukraine as part of Operation Unifer in late September.

“We already have all our units designated who are going to go overseas in two six-month blocks — a summer/fall block and a winter/spring block,” Rutland said, adding pre-deployment training would begin shortly after Christmas.

The missions in eastern Europe are all about building capacity, or security force capacity building, Rutland said.

“It’s a mission we’re well-suited to do because when you become an army leader you take a course that teaches you how to teach,” he said. “As the Ukrainian security forces have evolved so has our effort over there. We’re starting to do some more specialty training because some of that more basic training they deliver themselves now because these guys have been in combat for years now.

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“But it’s a pretty exciting mission for the soldiers who are going. They really get to work with some interesting people and allies.”

Fighting climate change

It was a year of firsts for Edmonton soldiers on the home front, as well.

In July through August, troops from the 1st and 3rd battalion PPCLI were simultaneously fighting floods in Yukon and fires near Vernon, B.C. .

In August, a group of Shilo-based troops who were flying COVID-19 vaccines to remote First Nations communities in northern Manitoba in the winter were fighting fires in central regions of the province, while at the same time troops from Edmonton were heading to Kuwait.

Edmonton troops bagging sand in the flood relief effort in the lower mainland of British Columbia as heavy rains washed away roads, railway track and flooded farms across the province last week.
Edmonton troops bagging sand in the flood relief effort in the lower mainland of British Columbia as heavy rains washed away roads, railway track and flooded farms across the province last week. Photo by MCpl Nicolas Alonso

Just recently, hundreds of troops returned again from interior B.C., this time fighting floods.

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“So we had a pretty torrid operational tempo this year, in a year when you’re theoretically on standby to do international missions,” said Rutland. “When I told the unit you were going to be on immediate response in September through December, I told them ‘don’t worry about, we never have anything happen during those times because fires are done and floods don’t start until May.’ Well I sure was wrong. We were definitely not expecting that. It’s been a year of surprises.”

The rise in the number of disasters soldiers have had to respond to has sparked a broader conversation on the role the military can play domestically.

“There’s so many facets to human security now that need to be looked at, and so I think the Canadian Armed Forces is going to be a part of this conversation on what can we contribute to the overall security of the Canadian people,” said Rutland.

“It’s a fascinating conversation, I’m interested to see where it goes.”

trobb@postmedia.com

@TrevorRobb_

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