Nova Scotia

Missed interview turned into lifetime of logistics for this veteran

Growing up in Weymouth Falls, N.S., Claude Cromwell had plenty of family members in the Canadian Forces and decided to follow their footsteps.

On Remembrance Day, a recently retired chief warrant officer talks about his life in service

Claude (Ollie) Cromwell was born in Weymouth Falls, N.S., and saw the world with the Canadian Forces. (Department of National Defence )

Growing up in Weymouth Falls, N.S., Claude Cromwell had plenty of family members in the Canadian Forces and decided to follow their footsteps.

He enlisted in 1979, at age 17, and planned for a career in the air force. 

"Like any young fellow, I was out running the streets with my friends and missed my appointment," the Ottawa resident says with a laugh. 

When he realized his mistake and tried to make amends, he was told he'd have to wait, or find another path.

"I didn't want to wait, so my next selection was a supply technician in the logistics branch," says Cromwell, who also goes by Ollie. 

So, ironically, a youthful logistical fail led him into a rewarding 40-year career handling logistics for the Canadian Forces. His job was to ensure the troops had the tools they needed to get the job done. 

Cromwell was a teenager when he signed up and left his home in Weymouth Falls for a career that would take him around the world. (Submitted by Claude Cromwell)

Doing the bread run in the Golan Heights

His first international deployment came in 1983 to the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel.

"Three times a week, I would take a refrigerated truck and go into one of the nearby towns and buy fresh groceries — bread, milk and vegetables," he says. 

Next came West Germany from 1984 to 1990, where he witnessed how the divided country went from a NATO bastion in the Cold War to a reunited country at the centre of Europe. 

In 1993, he served in Cyprus.

"We had got the orders to close out the mission in Cyprus, so my primary job was to identify all the Canadian-owned equipment, catalogue it all, count it all, and start returning it back to Canada," he says. 

In 1998, an ice storm paralyzed Montreal, and Cromwell was one of the soldiers deployed to help the city survive the winter freeze. His unit cleared fallen trees, cut firewood for those without power, and their kitchen cooked two meals a day for people.

Cromwell drove all over Montreal to get chainsaws and other supplies the troops needed to do the job.

A tankless task

The next year, he deployed to Kosovo with the first Canadians on the ground as the country recovered from war. Kosovo had little, so the Canadians brought everything. Cromwell organized it. 

"We ended up going in self-sufficient with all the vehicles we needed, all the weapons we needed, all the hard rations, the ammunition, the vehicles. You name it, we had it with us," he says. 

Once they got there, he was handed an unusual puzzle to solve: the military had dropped tanks far from where they needed to be, and no one had a plan for moving the tanks. Cromwell moved mountains to move the tanks. 

While Canadian troops helped locals rebuild schools, furnish them, and rebuild bridges, Cromwell found himself in yet another strange country where he didn't speak the language, trying to get good deals on roofing supplies and bridge-building materials.

Cromwell says he was often the first Canadian many people met. "The biggest thing we learned was to never be in a rush," he says. "The locals always want to talk and they always want to know about Canada."

Enduring racism from within the ranks

For many people, he was also the first Black Canadian they'd ever met. While he took pride in sharing his culture, he also knew that he'd suffered racist insults from other Canadians while in uniform.

Cromwell says members of the Canadian Forces would make racist comments or racist acts from the very early stages of his career. When he fought back as a young man, he was often ignored or dismissed, told he'd taken it "the wrong way." 

With few non-white people in positions of power, he often thought he had no option but to let it go. 

"There's not as many Black people in the Canadian military as there once was and I think part of that is probably due to them enduring racism throughout their career. A lot of Black people tend to get out after a small stint of time," he says. 

He hopes it's changing and that younger troops will feel confident that if they speak up against racism, they will be taken seriously and the culprit will face consequences. 

Cromwell stands next to a 'tank graveyard' left from an earlier conflict in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Claude Cromwell)

Later in his career, he organized the military response to the 2003 fires in Vernon, B.C., and served in Afghanistan in 2006, which he calls the "conflict of all conflicts." 

"Canadians had never had such a huge presence in one area that we had to support at one time," he says. "When we started out, we only had enough equipment and enough material to support half the people."

A career highlight in Nepal

Cromwell's last overseas posting was in 2015 to Nepal after that nation's brutal earthquake. "Our job there was to provide humanitarian aid in any way we can," he says. 

That meant finding a source of clean drinking water and getting tools to the engineers who cleared out the rubble and stabilized buildings, and to the medics who treated the hurt. 

Cromwell, right, and colleagues speak with locals in Nepal as the Canadians prepared to help reopen a road to a bridge in 2015. (Submitted by Claude Cromwell)

"That undertaking was probably the highlight of my career, because we didn't deploy with any weapons. We were there to help in a humanitarian way," he says. 

"When we got there, everything was in a state of disrepair. By the time we left 30 days later, we'd seen huge improvements. We could actually see what we had done, and the locals were very appreciative." 

Remembrance Day as a civilian

In 2017, Cromwell was inducted into the Order of Military Merit. Last year, after a distinguished 40-year career, the chief warrant officer retired. 

"It is a good career. It's what you make out of it. I consider the military a big family and the only thing I miss is the camaraderie," he says. 

Halifax ceremony solemnly marks Remembrance Day

2 years ago
Duration 3:10
The Royal Canadian Legion held a scaled-back Remembrance Day ceremony at Halifax's Grand Parade due to COVID-19 restrictions. Nova Scotians were encouraged to watch from home to pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

This Nov. 11 will be his second as a civilian, an experience he hadn't had since he was a teenager. He had hoped to mark the day back home in Nova Scotia, but COVID-19 scuppered those plans. 

"I do hope that life gets better for all Canadians, all troops in the military, especially any troops of colour. Hopefully they don't have to suffer quietly like those of us that were in before," he says. 

"I look forward to the young girls and guys that are following behind me, that they won't be subjected to it and if they are, something will be done about it."

Meanwhile, he and his wife are moving to the Ottawa community of Metcalfe. "The first thing I did was set up all the storage areas, make sure the shelves are up and organized and put in properly, putting everything on the shelves where they should be," he says. 

He was tempted to turn all the cans so the labels face out, military-style. "My wife once told me, You're a sergeant major at work, but not at home.'"

He left the cans as they were. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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