Recent History – 2000
Jan. 10, 2000, By Mark Nielsen, Daily News Staff
When the bombing stopped and NATO forces moved into Kosovo this summer, a man who grew up in Bessborough was among the 25,000 troops sent in to monitor the withdrawal of Serbian troops.
A captain in Lord Strathcona’s Light Horse Regiment, also known as The Strathconas, Trevor Gosselin, 33, said that the operation has been the highlight of his 10-year career in the military.
“I’m proud as punch,” he said. “I think we did a bang up job.”
He was away from home for six-and-a-half months, but while such tours in the past have dragged on, Gosselin, who was visiting relatives in the South Peace over the holiday break, said this one went quickly.
“Normally the tours are pretty mundane,” he said. “But this one was professionally rewarding. You never like to see this sort of stuff happening but if it’s going to happen, you want to be a part of it.”
As a captain, Gosselin is third in command in a reconnaissance squadron. Consisting of about 185 troops, the squadron also includes 55 vehicles, 17 of which are a state-of-the-art reconnaissance vehicle known as the Coyote.
Priced at $2.5 million each, the Coyote uses radar to see farther than soldiers could ever see before. “Old reconnaissance used to be simply a pair of eyeballs and how far you could see with a set of binoculars,” he said.
“We could work to an effective range of five km. at best. Well now, we can see up to 24 km., which is huge.”
Using 185 soldiers for a reconnaissance squadron may seem like a lot, but Gosselin said that the squadron is a stand-alone sub-unit that can be attached to a parent formation. So when NATO was looking for a reconnaissance unit, they looked to The Strathconas.
The squadron was attached to the British brigade (Britain was one of five leading countries, each sending their own brigade of about 5,000 troops each) and eventually ended up in north-central Kosovo.
But sending troops overseas is no easy matter. And NATO was working under some tight deadlines as they wanted to get ground forces in quickly to ensure that the Serbian withdrawal was orderly and that no games were being played.
On May 28, Gosselin was sent from The Strathconas’ base in Edmonton to Skopje, Macedonia, a land-locked country touching the southern boundary of Kosovo. The military technical agreement that would allow NATO troops in peacefully had not yet been signed, so Gosselin was busy getting ready to receive the rest of the unit.
Meanwhile, equipment had to be loaded on trains in Edmonton and sent to Montreal where it was then loaded onto a ship. “Everything we own, less some sets of clothing and a sleeping bag and a few small personal items is on a ship,” he said. “All you ammunition, all your weapons, all the vehicles, everything you needed to live.”
Their ship landed in Thessaloniki, Greece in mid-June where they were forced to unload at night because of protesting students. “The Greek national elections were on and one of the campaign platforms was Greece’s participation in NATO,” he said. “So by day, there were student protests down at the docks. British soldiers had been stoned, had their vehicles painted, had eggs thrown at them. So we did everything under the cover of darkness.”
Within about 48 hours everything was unloaded, accounted for, and ready to roll. But they left the port under the protection of the Greek civilian police and with the riot squad on alert.
“You know it’s a free and democratic society and so everyone has a right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but it’s kind of frustrating on the other hand,” he said.
Working 24-hours non-stop, they made their way back up to Skopje, where a large field was used as a staging area for the British brigade. Because of the size of the operation and the number of countries involved and the lack of certainty over who would show up, Gosselin said the brigade operations officer had 13 separate contingency plans.
And because the agreement had not yet been signed, those plans included schemes for a “hard entry” and a “soft entry.”
Fortunately, the agreement was signed eventually. Had NATO decided to send in ground forces to fight, Gosselin said it would have been a tough battle because of the mountainous country where narrow passes were the main transportation routes.
And while the NATO forces went in unmolested, they refrained from moving at night just in case the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Serb forces decided to renew fighting. “The brigade commander said he didn’t want people moving around at night with the chance of getting intermingled in between, if the KLA were to resume hostilities with the Serb army, or the Serb army were to prosecute one more mission.”
But within a day they were stationed where they were supposed to be, the furthest north unit for NATO and the withdrawal was on. It was conducted in three phases, with the Serbs first vacating from the south, then the middle, then the north, passing through four gates in the process.
To their credit, Gosselin said the Serbs were very orderly, even refraining from firing back with the KLA was sniping at them. “The Serbs just buttoned up and kept driving.”
But if they had changed their minds, the Serbs could have exacted some heavy damage. “They were by no means a defeated army,” he said. “They still had antennas on all their vehicles so they could talk to each other, all the commanders were wearing headsets so they had inter-vehicle communications. You knew they were in good shape.”
Gosselin was also impressed by their ability to camouflage. “There was a real bridge they wanted to protect and there was a wooden bridge beside it that they’d actually painted it to look like a bomb had gone through he side of the bridge,” he said. “So when the pilot’s flying over, he’s confused.
“It’s very sensitive for a pilot. If he pickles his bomb in the wrong barrel, witness the CNN train incident.”
But Gosselin was equally impressed by the accuracy of the NATO bombing. “I went around and took a look at some of the hits we had, and you take a building that’s 200 yards long and they split it right down the middle.”
The media also had a large presence. “I had to move the command post a couple of times because no sooner would I get there, set up, and stick my antenna up, and all of a sudden reporters would just kind of rain down on you,” he said.
There were even occasions when reporters would be dropped off by a guide and start asking for food, sleeping bags and a spot in a tent. And while most had the sense to wear flak jackets, he said there were instances of carelessness. “I remember one,” he said. “We were parked in a parking lot of an old building and she was tapping on a cell phone on the other side of the street, which hadn’t been cleared.
“She was oblivious, you know, ‘I’m next to Canadians therefore whatever is around me must be clear.’ Well no, we cleared the ground we had to work on, and that was it.”
One of the more unfortunate incidents involved a German reporter who was shot and later died. “He managed to get into a car and drive and basically piled out,” Gosselin said. Although he was airlifted out within nine minutes, the reporter was too far gone to be saved.
“It happened on the first day in the theatre, so it was really kind of sad.” As they went across the border into Kosovo, refugees threw flowers and chanted NATO. And once in Kosovo, they got their share of reports about mass graves which were sent on to the International War Crimes Tribunal. But for the most part, it was simply a process of counting and recording the Serb vehicles as they went by.
“It was so we can report back to the brigade, and they can put the pieces together,” he said.
The son of Terry and Lillian Gosselin, he joined the Canadian forces largely because some football buddies had joined. “It’s a good career,” he said. “You’ll never get rich but we’re fairly well paid for what we do and job security is excellent.
“You get to see the world, there are lots of challenges, I can speak a second language, and I’ve seen all kinds of cultures.”
Gosselin has been on two other missions, one to the Western Sahara and the other to Bosnia. Married to a woman he met in Edmonton who comes from an army family, Gosselin said being away from home can be stressful especially when they can’t talk to each other, which was the case for four weeks in Kosovo, because of the lack of phone lines.
“She didn’t know if I was alive or dead and was basically watching the news every night to see if she could see me or hear of me,” he said. “I think the not knowing is the worst part.”
And there’s no other place he’d rather be than home.
“I’ve been all across this great country of ours and I’ve seen a few places in the world that I don’t really wish to visit again,” he said.
“Now I can tell people with my hand on my heart why we’re rated the number one country by the United Nations.”