Troops leave for Europe

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Exercise to beef up NATO

St. Albert troops headed off to Europe this week as part of an ongoing effort to shore up NATO against aggressive moves by Russia.

About 100 soldiers from the Edmonton Garrison and CFB Shilo boarded a plane to Poland at the Edmonton International Airport Wednesday to take part in Operation Reassurance – an ongoing series of training exercises between Canada and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations.

Another 100 soldiers returned from that same mission on Friday.

Operation Reassurance started in 2014 after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula. Many Canadian army, navy and air force units have participated in NATO exercises in the area since then as a show of deterrence.

“The role in Poland is really to demonstrate solidarity with our NATO allies in light of some aggression along the border with Russia,” said Col. William Fletcher, St. Albert resident and commander of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group – the source of most of the troops that left Wednesday.

Wednesday’s troops will spend the next six months based out of Poland’s Drawsko Pomorskie training area, said 3rd Canadian division spokesperson Capt. Brian Kominar.

Fletcher said these troops will try to “hit the ground running” and pick up where the returning troops left off, participating in live and simulated fire war-games involving all sorts of vehicles.

“This is light infantry at its finest,” he said, with boots and rifles and hard living in holes in the ground.

In addition to showing Canada’s allies that it has some “skin in the game” when it comes to NATO, Fletcher said these exercises serve as training opportunities for Canada’s troops, many of whom are going on their first overseas tour.

That’s true for Master Cpl. Brennan Massey of 17 Field Ambulance, whose job in Poland will be to drive an ambulance and work with soldiers from other armies.

“My job is to make sure everyone comes home with all the appendages they have,” he joked.

Cpl. Brandon Feltis of St. Albert said he was excited to go on his first tour, but a bit disappointed that he wouldn’t get to play in this year’s national Canadian Forces hockey tournament. He hoped to use Poland’s transit system to get in a little sight-seeing in his off hours.

“I definitely want to go to Auschwitz and Krakow,” he said.

Fellow St. Albert Cpl. Alex Knight said he and the troops had been training for about a year for this deployment, and had to fill out a lot of paperwork in the last few months. He wasn’t sure what he’d be doing in Poland, but had heard rumours of para-drops.

The troops all learned some basic Polish phrases and are bringing three interpreters with them, Massey said. Each soldier got to bring up to three bags of luggage, most of which was taken up by uniforms and equipment.

“You don’t get to bring too much, but when you’re away from home, having any object from home helps out a little bit for morale,” he said.

Massey said he managed to cram a traditional Métis sash into his bag, but had to leave his skateboard behind, as it was too heavy.

Laptops and iPads are also common personal items for today’s young troops, said Fletcher, who said he always threw a few family photos into his bag when he went overseas.

Another 100 troops will leave for Poland on Feb. 27, with 100 others coming back on March 1, Kominar said.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.