When We Needed Them, Americans Were There

By George Petrolekas, Canadian Armed Forces

The U.S. Ambassador has caused much furor in this country for simply, and respectfully, enunciating some truths. Amongst these was a firm declaration that America would always stand by Canada in need and as a simple friend could not understand why we would not do likewise. It is not a question, as the Ambassador so politely put it, for the future, "that America would support Canada." They already have.

In 1993, one cold, blustery and grey afternoon in Bosnia, Canadian soldiers wearing blue UN berets received an ultimatum from one of the warring actions to leave positions that kept humanitarian aid flowing within the hour or die. So, like good Canadian peacekeepers we went to negotiate, speaking softly, but unfortunately lacking a big stick. In a flash of imagination we called the Americans, who were enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia. Their airplanes were not equipped for low-level attack, though that did not deter them.

My Commanding Officer, David Moore, was standing on that bridge facing down the faction that threatened us all as American fighters sped to our position to firm up our resolve with something approximating a big stick. They swooped in low and fast, their sonic booms reverberating off the valley walls. The other side blinked and the death threat was removed. "Ah, the sound of freedom," my CO said.

A scant few weeks later, we were facing a humanitarian crisis in two psychiatric hospitals, one full of children whom we found crying, living in unwashed sheets in their urine and feces because the staff was too scared to cross the front lines to work. A total of some 400 souls unable to care for themselves; forgotten victims of that war.

One of our missions was to ensure that medical care, food and water was safely delivered. However, we had to pass through one of the warring factions to get to the hospitals, and for some reason this faction decided not to let us pass. Occasionally we were allowed to take a mountain route but this meant travelling for eight hours n hostile territory before reaching our destination. The direct route, by comparison, only took an hour.

We were frustrated, and further frustrated that no one seemed to care. Fortuitously, we had a CBS News crew that came to stay with us. Heck, we were North Americans, just like cousins, and over some Canadian beer we explained our problem. I don't know if other nation's journalists and their reporting integrity would have allowed it, but helping wasn't an issue with our American friends.

"Get us to where they stop you and we'll make sure the whole world knows about it," they said. God love them. From that point forward, except for slight hiccups, we were generally allowed through by the psychopath who controlled that section of Bosnia. They didn't just help their Canadian friends. It's clear that several hundred abandoned people and children owe their wellbeing, in part, to those Americans.

Finally, and maybe most importantly during our tour, was the support the Americans provided us at a crucial juncture in Bosnia. In the spring of 1994, Canada received permission to turn over the protected-area enclave of Srebrenica to another contingent. Canadians had been there since the start of the war and most of the 45,000 soon-to-be-massacred citizens identified with Canada as the reason for their existence. We were very concerned that we would not be allowed to leave by both the soldiers of the Srebrenica enclave and the warring factions which surrounded it.

In scenes that rivaled Hollywood, we sent couriers into the enclave with military plans taped to their skin under their uniforms with express orders to the accompanying troops that these couriers were not to be taken prisoner, without revealing the reason why. As we developed our plans it was obvious that we would not be able to get our 187 soldiers out of Srebrenica if either faction decided they were not going to let us go.

Once again, Uncle Sam to the rescue. The Americans provided a massive force, including aircraft carriers, planes and men, all committed to go into harm's way for us. We on the ground in Bosnia could call them in the moment we needed them. Thankfully, all went well and we did not have to give the "go" orde for the operation, but that is not relevant. What is pertinent is that our cousins to the south were ready to send a sizeable force, from all indications under fire in the dark of night, to come and save their friends. What Canadian mother would term as "b******s" those who were prepared to fight to help bring their sons and daughters home?

It is not difficult to understand the term "disappointment" in this light. It is not a hypothetical question that they might support us in some future time and place. They already have, only to be called names. Maybe the furor should be about why we accept that.

George Petrolekas was an officer with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia (1993-94).

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by George Petrolekas and the National Post.