A mission that 'left a mark': Canadian helicopters coming home from Mali

The Canadian contingent in Mali is coming home after testing out a new approach to medical evacuations in combat zones.
Canadian infantry and medical personnel disembark a Chinook helicopter during a medical evacuation demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, Mali, Saturday, December 22, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Col. Travis Morehen had been on the ground in Mali for only four days when he got a brutal and bloody reminder of the perils facing United Nations peacekeepers in the embattled West African country.

Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists blew up a forward peacekeeping base in Aguelhoc, in the country's northern Kidal region, killing 10 soldiers and wounding 25.

The Jan. 20 attack, for which Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen claimed responsibility, involved a convoy of insurgents fighting a pitched battle with peacekeepers.

Morehen, who was about to assume command of Canada's helicopter detachment at the time, watched as his predecessor scrambled two CH-147F Chinooks and three CH-146 armed Griffons to rescue the wounded and recover the dead.

"It was a stark introduction (to) how vigilant we needed to be and how important this mission was," Morehen told CBC News Thursday.

"This tour has left a mark on everyone."

Canada's mission to provide life-saving medical evacuation services and in-country transport to UN peacekeepers in Mali comes to an end Saturday, when the Canadian contingent begins to withdraw to be replaced by Romanian helicopters.

The mission — and the unsettling beginning of his deployment — left a deep impression on Morehen, a veteran of combat operations in Afghanistan.

Honouring the dead

His change of command took place just as the helicopter carrying eight of the 10 peacekeepers killed in Aguelhoc touched down at the main UN airfield in Gao. Nearby, a UN C-130 Hercules was waiting to ferry casualties to Chad.

Morehen and the other Canadians organized an impromptu ramp ceremony for the fallen soldiers as their caskets were carried between the aircraft.

"That was an emotional moment for me based on the experiences I had in Afghanistan," he said. "It really brought home the serious nature of our business and how we had to be prepared to minimize any further caskets from coming home."

The ramp ceremony was a gesture of respect that deeply moved the Chadian soldiers who saw it, and who expressed their appreciation and shared a moment of silence with the Canadians days later.

Col. Travis Morehen, seen here at the mission base in Gao, has been commanding the Canadian chopper contingent in Mali, which ends Saturday. 'We are continents apart, but we're peacekeepers together in the service of peace in Mali,' he said.

"We are continents apart, but we're peacekeepers together in the service of peace in Mali and it was a common reminder of how we stand for them and they stand for us," said Morehen.

The Canadian contingent, with its 250 pilots, ground crew and medical staff, has been conducting a slow-motion withdrawal since the end of July. The task force stopped ferrying UN troops around Mali, which is plagued not only by Islamic extremists but by violent tribal and political divisions.

The Canadians continued carrying out medical evacuations as they were preparing to leave. Those mercy flights end on Aug. 31 and are due to be picked up by a Romanian air detachment, which will begin operations near the end of next month.

A new approach to medical evac

The Canadian Chinook helicopter contingent came equipped with a mobile surgical suite, which allowed medical staff to begin treating wounded peacekeepers immediately before takeoff. It was a novel concept and Mali proved that it works, Morehen said.

One of the benchmarks set by the Liberal government for peacekeeping operations was that Canada's contributions would have to demonstrate an enduring impact.

Morehen said he believes the year-long mission has given other countries ideas on how to better conduct such operations, particularly medical evacuations.

A Canadian Chinook helicopter flies over a German armoured vehicle during a medical evacuation demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, Mali, Saturday, December 22, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Canadians conducted 11 medical evacuations during their year-long deployment, treating 42 patients — including two French soldiers wounded during counter-terrorism operations against Islamic extremists, a mission separate from the UN peacekeeping operation.

Since 2013, the French have been conducting a major (but mostly off-the-radar) campaign to keep al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups at bay. Extremists overran vast portions of northern Mali six years ago, but were expelled in a coordinated military operation.

The UN stepped in to provide a stabilization mission in April 2013. It's now the most deadly active UN mission.

The Canadian contribution to that mission had been scheduled to shut down entirely at the end of July, but the federal government extended the deployment to the end of August to give the Romanians more time to get into the field.

Morehen said some of the Canadian aircrew will return to Mali in late September to help bring the Romanian task force pilots and medical technicians up to speed.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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