When Rob Stratton was 18-years-old he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he decided to join the military.
He was, after all, just a kid, still wet behind the ears, and the world held many, many possibilities.
At that time the golf course in Water Valley, his hometown, was just opening up and he had the options of becoming a groundskeeper.
But, for whatever reason, whether it was family pride — his great grandfather Bill Watson was a Vimy Ridge veteran who died with shrapnel from that battle in his leg, and his grandfather served in World War 11, or simply a free and reckless spirit, he decided to join the armed forces.
It proved to be a good choice for the young man, giving him a sense of discipline and purpose that, up until that time, had somehow been lacking in life. But, it also brought an end to any childhood innocence he may have harbored. During a peacekeeping mission to Yugoslavia he found himself up close and personal with the horrors of war; senseless violence and unexplained hatred.
Now, married and the father of two teenage daughters, Stratton looks back on the experience as something he prefers to keep to himself.
“When my grandpa came home from the war he shut everything up inside. He didn’t say much about what he went through. I understand that,” he said.
Stratton recalls going on a peacekeeping mission to Yugoslavia from April to October of 1993 as part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, as a real eye opener as to what war was all about.
By the time he was sent to Yugoslavia, he had already been to Cyprus in 1986 on a peacekeeping tour and trained all over the world.
However, the fighting between the Croatians and the Serbians was the first hostile action the Canadian soldiers had experienced since Korea as an intact front line unit.
“For the first part of our tour we were peacekeepers, but really the biggest enemy for them was booze. And for us it turned into a job where we had to keep drunk Croatians from shooting at drunk Serbs and vice versa.”
He recalled an incident where a child as young as six ran along the jeep he was riding in, hosting a bottle of liquor and demanding the soldiers drink.
“He couldn’t have been more than six or seven and when we refused he hoisted a pistol he had been carrying into the air and shot it off and swore at us.”
He shook his head at the memory.
The troops eventually moved south and their mandate changed to peacemaking.
Although the Serbians and Croatians were at war with each other, Stratton recalled a house where a group of Muslims, Croatians and Serbs lived together peacefully.
“It still had a roof on it, maybe that was why, it was one of the few houses that did,” he said. “Anyway, they all lived there together and were protected by a Serbian office commander who looked after them all.”
Stratton said he was amazed at how simply the people lived and how grateful they were for extra food and clean water.
Explosive mines that were buried haphazardly throughout the country were a constant danger, he said.
“You could never leave the hardpack,” he said. “You never went out on grass.”
He recalled how years later when he was working in the oil patch, suddenly without warning a panic came over him as a memory of those mines and snipers who could come out of nowhere suddenly overtook him.
During his time as a peacekeeper, Stratton saw things he hopes never to see again. He saw buddies wounded in action, shot under hostile fire, lived in a foreign country where he was considered the enemy, and saw, first hand, the hopeless futility of war.
And although he was Sgt. Rob Stratton, Section Commander and Second in Command of his group of men when he flew home, he was done.
“I did my time and I saw more than I ever wanted to see. In fact, I didn’t ever want to wear a uniform again. I have nothing but respect for everyone that serves. The guys in Afghanistan, I can’t imagine what it’s like over there.”
But even though his time as a peacekeeper conjures up some memories Stratton would just as soon forget, he is grateful for the time he spent in the service.
“It gave me self-discipline, leadership skills, confidence, decision making skills and I am glad I made the choice to volunteer. Absolutely glad.”
More photos in the eEdition and in this week’s Rimbey Review.