JORDANTOWN, NS – After two peacekeeping tours, Kerry Johnson has plenty to reflect on as he observes Remembrance Day.
He’s never served on a front line, but he’s known conflict. As a peacekeeper who served on United Nations peacekeeping missions in Egypt and the Bosnia region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he’s seen how a war zone can profoundly affect a person.
And, as he’s come to realize, it doesn’t always happen right away.
“I’ve seen soldiers that are broken. You don’t process it when you’re over there, or even right after – it can take years,” he says.
Setting out on peacekeeping tour
Johnson, now 61, enlisted with the navy at 18, and received orders to go on his first tour in 1976 at 19 years old. While originally bound for the Summer Olympics in Montreal, he was sent to do peacekeeping in Egypt instead.
It soon became evident peacekeeping was what he wanted to do.
“To me, I was doing a good thing while getting some life experience. I really enjoyed the six months I was there,” he said.
He worked in the petrol, oil and lubricants section of the camp, and supporting the first line of Canadians serving under the United Nations Emergency Force.
His time there was passive, with no moment where he felt in danger. The soldiers sometimes referred to it as Camp Med, short for Mediterranean.
He visited Cairo several times each week on the oil delivery route, and took advantage of the opportunity to see the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.
“It was a good first introduction to it all, but my second tour was very different,” said Johnson.
A dangerous conflict zone
Johnson’s tours couldn’t have been more different.
Sent to Bosnia in 1995 just three months before the end of the war, tension was strong and danger still imminent.
Johnson, at this point, had been promoted to Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, or NCO, and worked to ensure his troops had their minds on the job, not on other things.
“It was hard. Some people would receive ‘Dear John’ letters – letters from worried loved ones – and it would shake their focus. It’s a hard balance to find, but it’s so important,” he said.
“You take care of your troops. You have to ensure that they’re o.k.”
While serving in the buffer zone, the conflict shifted, and Croatia decided to take control of the area the UN’s mission was on.
This meant, mid-tour, Johnson and his soldiers had to switch from UN to NATO forces.
“We went from peacekeepers to peace settlers, under NATO. We even painted the trucks, removing the white. It stopped our tour, and we had to leave,” said Johnson.
It was the end of a period that had been uneasy from the beginning, with soldiers regularly walking streets toting guns, and some wearing the dreaded battle-face look about their face.
“It’s when you look at someone and you see the hollow eyes, lack of emotion – you know they’ve just come from battle,” said Johnson.
Reflecting and remembering conflicts
Johnson has been retired from the military for 20 years, and gives presentations to elementary students on his time as a peacekeeper.
“I keep it light, but I do give them a good impression of my time there,” he said.
He’s participated at Remembrance Day ceremonies on parade and stood as a spectator. While he may not have appreciated its significance as a young private, he does now.
It’s a time for him to reflect on his years spent serving, and on the toll they can take.
“I never thought about PTSD, but I’m starting to notice an anxiousness that was never there before,” he said.
After visits to Petawawa and Gagetown to see others he served with, he was struck by what he saw.
“Gagetown showed me hundreds of men, with empty faces, walking and looking broken. PTSD takes a toll, and I’m realizing that more and more,” he said.
“The effect of what we do, and what we see, can still affect you years later.”