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War, peace and the smell of death

Chris Hunsley
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 10/04) - There are few similarities between modern-day warfare and the trench fighting of the early 20th century.

Fewer and fewer soldiers die on the battlefield and disease no longer kills them en-masse, but today's forces face new threats. The dangers and hardships are just as real.

Warrant officer and Junior Ranger instructor Ken Sollazzo has travelled the world during his career with the Canadian Forces. He's proud of the humanitarian work being carried out by the Canadian Forces worldwide, saying "Canada is the best country in the world." - Chris Hunsley/NNSL photo

"The idea of someone throwing himself on you and blowing himself up, quite frankly was something we hadn't seen anywhere before," said Paul O'Leary, a retired lieutenant colonel and Department of National Defence spokesperson.

He was speaking about last January's suicide-bomb attack which killed Canadian Forces Cpl. Jamie Brendan Murphy.

"It's a whole different threat now and more immediate," said O'Leary.

Since the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping has given way to peace enforcement and Canadian Forces have been deployed to even more dangerous and hostile environments.

"The danger is not always just outside the wire," air force Major and Yellowknife resident Juan Gallego said of his recent experience in Afghanistan.

Rockets were regularly launched into the base, he said.

"One of the things that I found particularly scary of the rockets was that you hear them from the time they're fired until the time they explode," he said.

"So you know danger is imminent, but you don't know where it's going to go and that really spikes your alertness."

This is a feeling that Warrant Officer and Junior Rangers instructor Ken Sollazzo knows well.

The combat engineer's first action was in 1992 with the first Canadian contingent into the former Yugoslavia. His task: secure accommodations for the follow-on regiment.

"It was dangerous, yeah," he said of the hotel where he first stayed, one of a few stable standing structures in an area where bodies floated freely in the pool. "There was rocket fire and gun fire every night. We were always on alert."

Over the last 18 years, the Yellowknifer has also found himself on the often gruesome frontlines of Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti.

"Just after the genocide, as it was called in Rwanda, there were a lot of places we went into where you could just smell it (death) when you drove by," he said. "It was just fields of rotting corpses. A chicken had more value for life over there than a lot of the people did."

With one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, the de-mining expert credits his ability to work in seemingly horrific scenarios to his upbringing and the safety measures and training provided by the military.

Sticking together

His fellow troop members also help out.

"Everybody sticks together while we're overseas like that," he said.

With videos to watch, canteens to hang out in and a much-envied mess hall, deployed force members can become quite close.

There's a bond that forms while overseas, Maj. Gallego added.

"We all become so vulnerable there tends to be a feeling of humility that tends to creep in," he explained.

And it's that bond that helps to keep team members out of unnecessary danger, he said.

"You don't go tickling the dragon's tail by yourself. Things are done in teams and we back each other up," said Gallego.

Not all risks are reserved for members deployed within the operational areas either.

The recent accidental fire death of submariner Chris Saunders has highlighted the difficult conditions Canadian Forces members work in every day.

Northern Area Forces can easily find themselves in less than ideal weather search and rescue situations, Maj. Gallego explained. And the distance and lack of support resources makes the everyday actions of these men and women that much more courageous.

"The environment of the North is hostile," he said. "There are, at times, greater risks."

Carefully calculated, those hazards are never unnecessary though, said Gallego.

"We don't take danger and risk lightly. We prepare for it and are able to avoid it most of the time because of how well we prepare."

Canadians have much to be proud of when it comes to the work being done by the Canadian Forces around the world.

The men and women of the Forces cannot only be called upon to spare their lives and their innocence, but also that of their families.

This Remembrance Day, when we remember those who historically fought so valiantly, let's pause to thank those who fight so bravely today.