After year in the desert, Canadian soldiers set to return home as Mali mission ends

Capt. Kathryn Brett and Master Cpl. Vincent Moreau dealt with desert heat and injuries from improvised explosive devices as they worked in the United Nations mission in Mali.

Capt. Kathryn Brett and Master Cpl. Vincent Moreau worked aboard 'flying hospital' in United Nations mission

CBC News spoke to Kathryn Brett, a critical care nursing officer, and Vincent Moreau, a medical technician, via Skype at the Canadian Armed Forces camp in Gao, Mali (CBC)

Vincent Moreau didn't have much time to get used to the sweltering West African heat before he was pressed into action.

The Victoriaville, Que., native arrived at the Canadian Forces' Camp Castor in Gao, Mali, on Jan. 11, 2019.

Two weeks later, the medical technician was aboard a CH-147F Chinook helicopter heading about 400 kilometres southwest to the Douentza area where a United Nations convoy had struck an explosive device.

"The convoys were under attack," said Moreau, 33. "We got there and the patient was already stabilized, but it's always about fractures and everything related to the pelvis."

Two Sri Lankan peacekeepers died in the blast, but the Canadian medical helicopters carried five others out.

A Canadian Chinook helicopter takes off as it provides logistical support during a demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, Mali, on Dec. 22, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press )

It was one of three air evacuations Moreau has been part of during his seven-month deployment in the troubled former French colony, which is considered the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

Moreau and his colleagues at the Canadian base in Gao will soon be leaving the arid climes of the African desert for more temperate landscapes, back in Canada. Ottawa has said it will not extend its military mission in Mali past the end of August when a Romanian contingent will take over medical evacuation duties.

So far, 195 UN personnel have died as part of the organization's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, which was established after a coup toppled the government of then-president Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012 and violence broke out.

The UN has 16,453 personnel on the ground in Mali, including 12,644 peacekeeping troops, many from neighbouring countries like Burkina Faso and Senegal.

It's the Canadians' job to serve as a kind of on-call air ambulance service for those front-line soldiers as they patrol areas riven by ethnic violence and populated by Islamist militants, some linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

'Brown, dusty, desolate' landscape

Moreau is one of two medical technicians on a team that also includes a doctor, a nurse and infantry soldiers, all armed.

For more than a year, he's been working with Capt. Kathryn Brett, 32, a critical care nursing officer originally from Springdale, N.L.

"She's everything that you expect from a nurse," said Moreau of his colleague.

Capt. Kathryn Brett during a training exercise on-board one of the Canadian Forces’ CH-147F Chinook helicopters based in Gao, Mali (Canadian Armed Forces )

Brett, who joined the Canadian Forces in 2006, has previously been deployed to Beirut, Lebanon and on an American hospital ship serving the Caribbean nation of Dominica.

The first thing Brett noticed when she landed in Mali was the temperature, which Moreau said can reach a daytime high of 40 C.

"It was definitely an adaptation process for sure," said Brett, "Dealing with the extreme heat and extreme environment."

She described the surrounding landscape as "brown, dusty, desolate," and said the Canadians don't interact much with the local Malian population outside the base, because their mission is to care for injured soldiers and not civilians.

"Our Chinook [helicopter] is like a flying hospital," Brett said. "We have the capability to provide blood, we have the ability to provide interventions. So when we go out on a mission we will go to basically, the front lines."

Most of the cases Brett's team has treated involve injuries from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The makeshift bombs cause damage similar to a car crash: chest trauma, bleeding out, unstable pelvis and multiple leg fractures, she said.

Sixty per cent of her team is female, but Brett doesn't see that as exceptional, noting the prevalence of women in the healthcare field in civilian life.

Task force flew just 10 evacuation missions

Some have questioned Canada's decision to end the mission now, and some have questioned the usefulness of the Canadian deployment altogether.

During the year-long mission, the Canadian choppers flew just 10 missions, treating just over 40 patients in total.

"There hasn't been enough conflict really to justify the expense," Canadian-South African journalist Richard Poplak recently told CBC's Front Burner podcast.

Poplak spent time in Mali, including with the Canadians, and said he's skeptical about the impact of the deployment, when weighing it against the cost.

"There's no question about the capability of the Chinooks, the [CH-146] Griffons and the men and women who work those machines," Poplak said.

"But there's a lot of bureaucracy that goes with this, way more desks than guns."

For the past year, 250 Canadian peacekeepers and eight military helicopters have been based in Gao, Mali. The mission ends on Aug. 31, 2019. (Helene Simard/CBC)

Canadian choppers provide 'insurance policy,' say soldiers

Brett thinks it's fair to question the cost effectiveness of any military mission, including this one, but said it's important to look at the bigger picture, or what she calls Canada's "meta contribution."

"We've had a positive impact and we have improved the lives of the people of Mali," said Brett, noting that some UN forces won't go into dangerous areas unless they know a medevac team is ready to fly if something goes wrong.

Moreau agreed.

"We provide the mobility to other nations to be able to do their thing," he said. "To be part of that team and that new concept, I would say it's an honour."

The Canadian task force includes two types of helicopters, the CH-147F Chinook, at right on the badge, used for medical-evacuations, and CH-146 Griffon, left, which serve as armed escorts for the Chinooks. (Chris Wattie/Reuters )

The two soldiers are looking forward to the comforts and conveniences of home, after spending over seven months in fairly spartan digs. There is no alcohol on the base, and the internet is primitive.

"We play a lot of crib, we play a lot for poker," said Brett, who said she'll be glad to see her husband and dog again in Toronto.

Moreau, who is stationed at CFB Valcartier near Quebec City said he's excited for Christmas, when his girlfriend is expected to give birth to a baby girl.

And, after months of scorching heat, he's ready for some cooler weather and a very Canadian pastime.

"'Hockey season is coming, so I can't wait to watch the Habs going for another cup," he said.


Simon Nakonechny is a videojournalist at CBC News Montreal.


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