Nearly 100 Edmonton-based soldiers deployed to Latvia on Friday, launching Canada's boots-on-the-ground leadership of a NATO mission to deter Russian aggression against the eastern European country.
Another 350 troops are expected to follow. Most are from Edmonton, and they will lead a multinational battle group that includes soldiers from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Latvia.
Together, the troops will number between 1,200 and 1,500. Their presence is meant to temper any Russian ambition to expand.
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"Deterrence does not mean picking a fight, that's the last thing we want to do," said Col. William Fletcher, who commands the Edmonton brigade that deployed Friday.
Fletcher supervised the soldiers' six months of training, which he said covered "normal army stuff — digging holes, shooting guns, manoeuvring vehicles around the battlefield — through to some specific training in terms of cultural awareness."
The soldiers also learned about potential threats posed by Russia, Fletcher said. Their work in Latvia will differ from the counter-insurgency operations many soldiers would have experienced in Afghanistan, he added.
"When we start talking about manoeuvring troops around the battlefield à la World War II, I think this is by and large what we're looking at here," he said.
Fletcher watched Friday as his brigade filed onto a military plane at Edmonton International Airport. He will stay in Edmonton until August.
"It's a bittersweet moment," he said.
Maj. Jason Van Dyke stood joking with friends, his army bag slung on one shoulder. This is his first deployment since returning from a year-long tour to Afghanistan in 2011.
He now has a young family, who he won't see for months.
"It's a little bit harder now," he said. "The extended time being away from your family just tends to wear on you as an individual."
Nevertheless, Van Dyke said he's eager to meet soldiers from other NATO member countries during this six-month deployment.
"When we're at work, we're focused on our jobs and we know we have a job to do and for the most part that will take us through the day-to-day."
Latvian ambassador Kārlis Eihenbaums shook Van Dyke's hand as the soldier walked past to board his flight overseas.
Canada will form the backbone of NATO support in Latvia, Eihenbaums told reporters.
"Your backbone has to be strong to have not only a good deal but to talk on an equal basis," he said.
"While there's no immediate threat, it is more about the overall atmosphere," Eihenbaums added.
"Why we need the Canadians there, why we need the troops there is simply to be there, (so) that nobody can even think to do something.
"This is a presence which keeps peace."