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Remembering those who died and those who survived
When millions of Canadians pause on Remembrance Day, Steve Mears will have more to reflect on than most.
“The first thing I think of is several of my friends who died in Afghanistan,” said Mears, who retired in 2006 after almost three decades in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“It’s very personal, and not just the people killed in war, but also killed in training accidents and those types of things.”
Mears always knew that he was going to have a military career, after joining the air cadets at the age of 13.
“Growing up I was always taught in school the First World War, Second World War, Korea. After I joined the military it became more personal.”
In 1978, one week after graduation from his Richmond high school, Mears left for boot camp in Cornwall N.S.
“The first few days were pretty overwhelming, it was still the old school back then, male dominated and we were treated pretty harshly.”
After 16 weeks of basic training, Mears flew to Chilliwack for three months of basic trades training. This led to many years spent as a combat engineer.
His career began during the time of the Cold War, when the army was not in overseas deployment except for peacekeeping in Cyprus and the Golan Heights.
His trade was not sent; instead Mears continued his training on North American soil.
“We trained as though we may have to fight the Russians. We would go on huge mine field exercises in Alberta and lay miles and miles of land fields,” he said.
“This was all with the view that we may have to fight the Russians.”
Mears first toured Peshawar Pakistan, on a four month humanitarian mission. In 1990, after the Russians had been run out of Afghanistan, there were thousands upon thousands of Afghan refugees in the Pakistan-Afghan border camps.
Under the umbrella of the United Nations, Mears was sent to teach refugees how to identify and remove land mines and unexploded units.
“The view was for them to be able to go back home and clear their farm land of mines, so they could get back to work and life,” said Mears.
“Now, I think a lot of them are Taliban. They are using their skills to blow up our own guys.”
In 1991, almost a year to date after this tour, Mears and 600 members of his regiment were deployed from Chilliwack to Kuwait, seven days after ceasefire of the first Persian Gulf War.
His job was to set up the demilitarized zone between the Iraq and Kuwait border. His regiment spent six months building observation posts along the country’s borders.
“It was very austere. Kuwait City had been completely ransacked.”
“Every day I had to drive through the highway to hell. An area where so many vehicles had been blown up as Iraqis tried to escape back over their border.”
Mears spent most of his time out in the desert clearing roads of land mines and unexploded ordnance.
His regiment escorted contract vehicles, such as cement trucks, safely to the points where the desert posts were being built.
Mears felt his years of land mine training prepared him for this job, however the human cost of war, was more difficult to deal with.
“Little kids just across the border in Iraq would swarm the vehicles for food, even try to open the doors as we drove up. We had to throw rations out as we went because we were afraid that one of them would end up under our vehicle. They were so starving it broke my heart.”
Mears next deployment to Croatia was also an eye opening and shattering experience.
“How people could live next door to each other for decades, be neighbours for years, then all of a sudden one day walk next door, tie up a husband, rape his daughter and wife, then shoot the husband.” Mears reflected that this happened all over the war torn country.
“It wasn’t just one side, it was both.”
During this tour, Mears was flown all over the former Yugoslavia to teach mine awareness.
“Mines were all over the place,” he said.
It was a very emotional time for him, as there were incidents when his plane came under fire.
“The plane would nose dive to dodge artillery fire from the Serbians who were shelling the runway.
“It would drop us off, we would run to the bunker and the plane would take right off again.
“It was emotional.”
After this experience, Mears caught a bit of a break back at the regiment on garrison duty.
During this time he married, and became father to a daughter and son.
His family time was short lived, as Mears was often sent away to train and instruct others about mine warfare demolitions.
When his daughter was six months old, Mears was sent to Cambodia for nine months.
He was seconded as a technical adviser for the Cambodian mine action centre, under the department of defence, as part of the United Nations.
“The United Nations set up to teach Cambodians to clear their own land, as it is the most heavily mined country in the world.”
Mears spent most of his time alone with Cambodians who lived in the woods.
“They were very loving, very generous people.”
However, the mission was difficult for Mears, as Cambodia was rampant with corruption.
“Money never made it out of the city, bigwig officials in the city had everything, but the poor people out in the country had nothing.”
‘It was shattering to see little kids with no arms or legs, just trying to collect firewood, or make their little lot better.”
After Cambodia, Mears returned to Gagetown, Canada and was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, the highest ranked position an enlisted person can become.
“It was good for family life because I finally got to spend time with my wife and kids.”
In 1999 Mears was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major in Petawawa O.N.
“This was the pinnacle, the position that most guys shoot for.”
Mears was responsible for discipline, deportment, training, and career progression for all enlisted men and women.
On Sept 11,2001, Mears was sitting in his office having coffee with his commanding officer, discussing routine business. He had just walked around the corner to the duty corporal room when the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
“All of a sudden all hell broke loose on the base.”
“All gates had to guarded, and everyone had to show IDs with this great heightened sense of security.”
Many of his army buddies were sent to Afghanistan to serve, some two or three times.
“I was in the higher ranks, a safer place than the worker bee. Those guys are outside the wire in the danger zone.”
In 2006, Mears retired after 28 years of service.
Throughout Mears’ decorated military career, he remembers three of his most satisfying times being at home, helping his fellow Canadians.
Twice he was in Winnipeg to help with mass flooding, and in Quebec during the historical ice storm of 1998.
“Canadian forces don’t only help people overseas, we help our own people.’
Mears does admit that he is not the same person he was before joining the armed forces.
‘I am much more reserved – I avoid confrontation, and I’m not good in crowds or cities.
I prefer my own company, or the company of my family.”
This Remembrance Day Mears would like to remind Canadians of our young soldiers.
‘Because of 9/11, we have combat veterans out there right now who are only 21 years old. Ninety per cent of the country thinks of a veteran as an old man with a cane. These are still kids.”
“I have so much respect for the young men and women who join the military now.”