By Ashley Thompson
Shawn Fletcher is looking forward to some peace and quiet after a 25-year military career that proved to be anything but ordinary.
Fletcher, who retired as a warrant officer on Jan. 4, completed six tours of duty after joining the army in 1987.
He participated in an United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, completed three tours in Bosnia between 1994 and 2000, deployed to Southwest Asia as a section commander in the Middle East from June to August 2003 and functioned as apolice sub-station commander and mentor to the Afghan National Army Artillery during an eight-month stint in Afghanistan in 2008.
From every tour, and every war, he learned something different. In Bosnia, for example, he experienced life in a warzone for the first time as a mortar tube commander.
“We were in-between the two warring sides, which is not a really good place to be,” the Windsor-born, Kenora, Ont. resident recalled.
“They sent us there on a peacekeeping mission, but there was no peace to keep.”
In Afghanistan, his longest deployment, he accompanied members of the Afghan National Army in the battle zone, dodging enemy fire from the Taliban while enduring extreme heat and fatigue.
“You’re wearing almost your own body weight in body armour, ammunition — and you wear that every day for eight months,” he said, noting that the temperature often rose to about 54 C.
Fletcher says one of his proudest accomplishments is returning home “with all his bits and pieces” after training members of the Afghan National Army how to hold their ground.
“You’re mentoring them in a battlefield environment when the war is on. It’s not like you’re doing it in the confines of a base or a classroom, you’re actually mentoring them and teaching them and coaching them as you’re getting shot at and all that other good stuff that comes with war.”
He says interpreters travelled with the troops to help Canadian soldiers communicate with the Afghan people, and the Afghan trainees learned to communicate with their English-speaking counterparts in the battlefield by using hand signals.
Battlefields aside, Fletcher, a married father of two, says being away from his family - and only calling home once every two to three weeks while in Afghanistan - was one of the greatest challenges he faced in his military career.
At the end of the day, when you see all that stuff, you have a greater appreciation for the country that you live in - Shawn Fletcher
“To be quite honest, there’s a lot of people that I’m glad they never, ever have to do that. It’s rewarding, but there’s a lot of things that I’ve done and seen… that I wish I never did,” he said.
He says many Canadians would be shocked to learn how people in other parts of the world live — what they live with and without — and what a typical day in the life for an Afghan person may entail.
“At the end of the day, when you see all that stuff, you have a greater appreciation for the country that you live in.”
In addition to honing his survival skills in foreign lands, Fletcher provided security for G-8 Summits, shot avalanches down in British Columbia and participated in relief efforts following the Winnipeg flood in 1997 during his time in the military.
“There was never a dull moment,” he said.
In his retirement, he plans to enjoy the great outdoors as a professional hunting and fishing guide in Lake of the Woods, Ont.