Thirty years since the end of the Persian Gulf War, an Alberta veteran has lent his voice to a new project that aims to preserve the memory of war for the next generation.
Retired major Bob Crane, originally from the Siksika First Nation in southern Alberta, joined other Canadian soldiers in the Persian Gulf War as part of a coalition of countries. The group, led by the United States, was trying to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
More than 5,000 Canadian men and women participated in the conflict. It officially ended on Feb. 28, 1991, exactly 30 years ago to the day this year.
Crane has lent this voice and memories to a new video “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words” for The Memory Project, which gathers first-hand accounts from Canadian veterans of various conflicts.
He joined other Canadian soldiers in the Gulf shortly before the war started as part of a reconnaissance mission for 1 Canadian Field Hospital in Saudi Arabia. He was there for about a week — waiting to return home — when things took a turn.
“We had gotten into the air, maybe (for) 10 to 15 minutes, and the pilot came on the intercom on the Hercules aircraft and said, ‘Gentlemen, the air war has started,'” Crane said.
“The air is full of aircraft going over to start the air war, there is no room in the sky for us, we have to go back and we have to land. And oh yeah, by the way, we are now in top high, which meant before we landed we had to dress in our nuclear, chemical, biological warfare suits.
“(When we) land, find a place for shelter… we had to run from the aircraft to find the nearest bunker, and that was during the initial attack by the coalition.” Crane recalls. “The noise, the jets taking off, it was dark, and here I am in a bunker on the side of a runway watching all this happen.”
He said the pressure was constant through his time in the war.
“(Soldiers) were under strict nuclear, biological, chemical warfare rules to protect ourselves,” Crane said.
“Every time Saddam launched a missile, it was detected and air raid warnings used to go off everywhere we were, which meant we had to be in that nuclear, chemical, biological suit.”
“We also used to have to take what we called Pyridostigmine bromide as an anti-nerve agent, because we suspected Saddam was going to have something in those warheads and we thought it was going to be Sarin gas, which is a nerve agent.”
Part of Crane’s job was to reconnaissance new locations for the 1 Canadian Field Hospital and in the early 90s, technology was not what it is today.
“Not having GPS or handheld (satellite) phones, you really had to rely on maps, compass, gut feel, lay of the land… it’s an art.”
Crane remembers when the ground war started.
“(We were) ready to cross the line to move into Kuwait — that’s when the B-52’s attacked,” he said. “Something that will never leave my memory — was the compression and the noise on your ears, the pressure on your ears and the noise from the bombs being dropped by the B-52’s at the start.
“That’s not to mention all of the other air activity that was happening at the time.”
The ground war did not last long — less than four days.
“It was just a matter of days and they thoroughly defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces and they forced them out, but not before he had set fire to the oilfields,” Crane said. “I always like to talk about how the day was turned into night.
“The air was full of very dark brown, almost black soot, which was very difficult to breathe.”
The oilfields would burn for months.
“I had this tilly hat” he said. “All the Canadians who went over to the Gulf were issued a tilly hat — beautiful, white.
“I still have mine and it is dark brown now, pretty well dark brown, as a memento of the oil fires Saddam’s forces had lit.”
Upon his return at the end of the war, Crane was given a very special honour.
“Specifically because when I got back, Calgary had a powwow in my honour, and it’s something I’ll never forget.
“It was shortly thereafter I was awarded this warrior’s headdress, and the warrior’s headdress is equal in my eyes, to any of the medals I wear on my chest “
Canada’s involvement in the Gulf War is often overlooked.
Canada suffered no casualties but Crane says that doesn’t mean the men and women who participated came back the same as they left.
“Some people did suffer on their return physiologically — perhaps something to do with Pyridostigmine bromide reaction, malaria reaction, stress reaction. There were Canadians that didn’t come back 100 per cent like they were when they arrived in theatre.
Crane says it was important for him to participate in The Memory Project.
“I do know, having done that video… long after I’m gone, I won’t have to worry about people remembering the Gulf War, at least there is something there, something that was put together very well I thought — for people to look at in the future.”
–with files from Allison Bench, Global News