Many Canadian veterans of the Persian Gulf War feel they are becoming forgotten in Canada, says the head of a new association representing them.
Harold Davis, president of the Persian Gulf Veterans of Canada, said that because there were no Canadians killed during the early 1990s conflict, some people do not hold the Persian Gulf War in the same regard as they do other wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions the Canadian military participated in.
“Recognition is a big part for us because Persian Gulf veterans are just a footnote in Canadian history now,” said Davis, who is originally from Bell Island.
“A lot of people don’t even know us anymore. We are the modern-day Korean (War) forgotten vets.
“Some time ago I walked into a military museum and asked where the Persian Gulf display was. The guy looked at me and said, ‘That wasn’t really a war, nobody died.’ I asked to see who was running the place.”
According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, more than 4,000 Canadian Armed Forces members — including many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians — served in the Persian Gulf region in 1990-91 as part of the international coalition of countries that drove the invading forces of Iraq out of Kuwait. In the aftermath of the conflict, Canadians continued to serve with peacekeeping and embargo-enforcement efforts in the region for several years.
Davis said the idea to form an association came about on the 25th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, when Gulf veterans learned there was no official event planned to commemorate the anniversary in Canada. Davis said a number of Gulf veterans decided to get together in Halifax.
“I started a Facebook page, then an advocacy group, and it snowballed a little bit from there,” Davis said. “I reached out to about 700 or 800 … there were about 5,100 who went to the Gulf in all.
“To be a part of the group, you had to have served in the Persian Gulf theatre.”
The association provides advocacy and support to Persian Gulf veterans and their families, including how to navigate Veterans Affairs Canada services. It also works to increase the knowledge of Canada’s contributions in the Persian Gulf to the Canadian public.
Some of the group’s efforts focus on researching and investigating the condition known as “Gulf War Syndrome” and to bring awareness of the exposure to various risks those who served in the Gulf faced.
“We didn’t lose anybody at the time, but some people didn’t do as well as others, and we have lost people since then,” Davis said. “Some have passed away from cancer and other illnesses, and some with unexplained conditions. We are trying to ensure that our people who need help, get it.”
Veterans Affairs Canada notes there are many risks to military personnel serving in theatres of war such as the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s. The risks go beyond the obvious ones of enemy attack, and include friendly fire incidents, vehicle accidents and the psychological impact of serving in stressful conditions. It notes debilitating medical conditions have struck some veterans of the Gulf War, including symptoms such as chronic fatigue, respiratory complaints and muscular pain.
Canada’s participation in the Persian Gulf War included the destroyers HMCS Terra Nova and HMCS Athabaskan, and the supply ship HMCS Protecteur. Five Sea King helicopters with No. 443 Squadron were also part of this naval force.
CF-18 jet squadrons with approximately 500 personnel performed combat air control, escort and reconnaissance missions. For the first time since the Korean War, Canadian air-to-surface attacks took place during the conflict.
There was a Canadian field hospital with 530 personnel established in Saudi Arabia in February 1991 to care for both Coalition and Iraqi wounded. Soldiers from units like the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal 22 Regiment performed security duties at Canadian installations in the Middle East in 1990-91.
Davis, an air-weapons systems technician, served aboard the HMCS Athabaskan.
The warship took part in a tense mission in February 1991 when it went to the aid of the USS Princeton that had been badly damaged by Iraqi mines off the coast of Kuwait. The Athabaskan was tasked with escorting a tugboat through the mine-infested waters to enable the Princeton to be towed to safety.
“We didn’t sleep much below deck during those days,” Davis said.
Gulf War veterans from the United States have invited members of the Persian Gulf Veterans of Canada to participate with them in the 2018 Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C.
Davis said he had hoped to secure funding to cover the cost of sending about 20 Canadian Gulf veterans to the parade, during which they would carry the Canadian and individual provincial flags.
The association, however, has been turned down for funding at the federal and provincial levels, as well as from the Royal Canadian Legion and private groups.
“Basically, the answer we’ve gotten is that it’s not in their budgets, and is not something they fund,” Davis said.
He said about five members, including himself, are going to cover their own costs to attend, but the association will continue to try for funding to include others.
In the meantime, he noted, the association will continue to fight for the recognition its members deserve in Canada.