It took a good six weeks for the HMCS Athabaskan to get from Halifax harbour to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, Stephane Tremblay remembers.
Twenty-five years old and newly married, the then-leading seaman was on board the naval ship headed towards the Persian Gulf War as a replacement.
His own ship, the HMCS Algonquin, was undergoing a retrofit, and he was waiting to change trades: an electrician, his request to train as an administration clerk had recently been granted, and he was scheduled to complete the course in a few months.
“The chief said, ‘No problems, you’ll be back in time for the course. This thing won’t last long, anyway. You’ll be back way before Christmas.’ I said, ‘In that case, no problems,’ and I went,” Tremblay said. “I was young and I had just been married, but when you sign on the dotted line, it’s for peace or any conflicts.”
Growing up in Baie Comeau, Que., Tremblay had always wanted to have a career in uniform, and had his sights set on policing before joining the navy in 1984 as a 19-year-old. At that point, he had no experience on board a ship. During his first trip, he got seasick.
“As soon as the ship was out of the port, it started moving. The other electrician was starting to explain to me about how the switchboard works and I was starting to feel hot. I ran to the bathroom and I was sick as a dog. I thought to myself, why did I join the navy?” Tremblay said, laughing. “But that was the only time. I went back in and he said, ‘Eat some crackers.’ I never got sick again after that.”
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August 1990, the United Nations guided “like-minded nations” to unite to help liberate Kuwait. Canada was one of 35 nations that responded.
Those on the Athabascan when it set sail for the gulf Aug. 24, 1990, were among about 4,000 Canadian Armed Forces members involved in Operation Friction on the sea, on land and in the air. Along with the Terra Nova, the Athabaskan escorted two United States hospital ships, one with Canadian medical staff on board, to the gulf.
Tremblay, who lives in Winterton with his Newfoundland-born wife and teenage son, remembers the ship running low on fresh food and stopping in Djibouti, an African country next to Somalia and Ethiopia, to replenish supplies.
However, when the medical staff looked at the fruits and vegetables being supplied, it was decided to decline them and wait until Gibraltar to pick up supplies.
“First, we were not supposed to be that close to Iraq — we were not really supposed to get involved that much with the conflict,” Tremblay said. “This was the first time since the Korean War that the navy was getting involved, so that was a big thing. On the way there, the orders changed that we were going to be going closer to what was happening, and that’s why we ended up having to go through the Suez Canal.”
On the way, officers participated in exercises, simulating fires or floods on board the ship, or the hit of a missile.
Having all been issued two chemical suits and gas masks, they practiced making the ship airtight in case of chemical gas.
They were all given pills as a precautionary defence against the nerve agent Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was reported to have, and some Gulf vets attribute Gulf War Syndrome — a disorder said to cause things like fatigue, chronic headaches, joint pain, and skin and respiratory disorders — to the medications, in part.
Tremblay admits he didn’t experience much outside the ship, since he was hard at work inside: the hot temperatures wreaked havoc with the ships’s air conditioning and generators, and it was discovered the ship’s casualty power system wasn’t working at one point and needed to be repaired in a hurry.
“All my work was inside the ship, not like the other guys,” he said. “The action that I personally saw was when we would sometimes get TV reception when we were closer to the coast. We could see whatever was reported on the news by CNN. I didn’t really think about it, but I remember some people were stressing themselves out over what they saw.”
Tremblay left the Athabaskan in mid-February 1991, flying back to Canada to complete his course. The war ended March 3 of that year, and the ship came home in March.
Tremblay retired from the navy in 2008 as a petty officer 1st class, having also done UN tours to Israel and Morocco, and serving a three-year posting at the Canadian embassy in Paris.
He stays in contact with some of his colleagues from the Athabaskan through a Persian Gulf Veterans of Canada Facebook group; among them is Sylvia Vickers, a retired master seaman.
Vickers says the Gulf war was the first time women went on the front lines, and it marked a turning point in women’s military careers.
“There is almost a hallowed feeling when chatting with other Gulf vets,” she said in an email. “Perhaps there are certain emotions and mental hurdles that we share as a common memory thread; it can be completely unspoken. Nothing compares to sharing with family members and service members who were integral to us working through our fears going over there. Fear can be paralyzing and (so can) the stress of not knowing what would transpire while trying to be at our best in case we were under attack. For many of these sailors, eight months of this kind of mental and physical readiness must leave scars.”
Getting acknowledgement of the Gulf War has been seen as a battle by some veterans, who were not surprised last summer when Veterans Affairs Canada said it had no definite plans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the war this year.
Days later, the department changed course and said it would commemorate the end of the war.
Vickers said Veterans Affairs is also organizing lesson plans for schools, as well as a letter-writing campaign from students to Gulf War veterans.
Commemorative events began in Halifax Friday and will take place at the National War Museum in Ottawa today, as well as at Legions across the country over the next few days.
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