Stories of Remembrance: Chris Hadfield

In 2005, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Canadian celebrities spoke about the meaning of remembrance as part of the Stories of Remembrance Campaign, a project of CanWest News Service (now Postmedia News), the Dominion Institute (now Historica Canada) and Veterans Affairs Canada. This article is reprinted from that campaign.

Hadfield, Chris
Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield piloting the Canadarm during mission STS-74.
Chris Hadfield
Retired International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield at the rehearsal for the 2013 Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Ontario. He was there to rehearse for his musical performance the next day.\r\nPhoto taken on: June 30, 2013. 31944711 \u00a9 Paul Mckinnon | Dreamstime.com

Intercepting the Soviets

Long before he rode rockets into space on widely heralded adventures with NASA, Colonel Chris Hadfield flew risky, fighter jet missions for Canada, operating without a shred of fanfare on the shadowy front lines of the Cold War. A 25-year-old aviator fresh out of fighter school, Hadfield was posted in 1985 to Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Quebec, where his CF-18 squadron guarded Canadian airspace as part of its duties with North American Air Defence Command (Norad).

During his first night on standby in Bagotville, Hadfield and fellow pilots were scrambled to intercept a group of Soviet "Bear" bombers flying south through Canada, just off the coast of Labrador.

"At that time the Soviets were flying their long-range bombers into Canadian airspace for a couple of reasons. Sometimes they took shortcuts through Canada on their way to Cuba. Other times they came to practice their cruise missile launches on North America," says Hadfield.

"We were obliged to get to them before they could get to the line where they could release those things. So we would be scrambled in the middle of the night, in our armed CF-18s, to intercept them and see what they were up to."

CF-18 Fighter over Germany
A CF-18 fighter from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, CFB Baden-Soellingen, FRG, flies over clouds in southern Germany (courtesy National Defence Headquarters).

That first night on duty, Hadfield vividly remembers finding the enormous bombers flying high above the sea, their engines humming as they plowed through the darkness. Turning on his fighter's search lights, he lit up the Soviet planes and shadowed them through the early dawn hours until they had left Canadian airspace.

It was the first ever intercept of a Soviet Bear bomber by one of Canada's new CF-18 fighters - a feat Hadfield repeated seven more times for his country.

"What surprised me at the time," he says, "was that we couldn't tell anybody about these intercepts. It was a secret, but I couldn't figure out who we were keeping it a secret from.

"The Soviets knew we had intercepted them, and to me it seemed like, 'Hey, people should know this is why we have CF-18s doing this work. We are actively defending our own airspace against invading, armed aircraft.' But it wasn't until many years later that those incidents were made public."

A Debt of Thanks

Today, says Hadfield, Canadians still aren't very good at explaining, understanding or recognizing the work done by their armed forces. Yet every day soldiers, sailors and airmen still carry out difficult, dangerous tasks for their country at home and abroad - work that mostly goes unreported and unheralded.

He says Remembrance Day should be a time to honour not only the risks and sacrifices of former military warriors, but today's military, too.

"I feel a personal debt of thanks to all the folks who are serving in the Canadian military around the world right now," he says. "I don't think they get thanked nearly enough, and they get put in some horrific positions, with responsibilities that far outstrip those faced in the regular, daily lives of ordinary Canadians. We should all take some time to think about them."

Not that the veterans of Canada's former wars don't also deserve our attention and memory. Hadfield's great-grandfather fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, as did his great-great uncle, who died during the battles at Ypres.

When Hadfield graduated from Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1982, he marched during his graduation parade with his great-grandfather's army sword at his side.

"There was a strong sense of that history in my family," he says. "I was raised with a tremendous respect and sense of debt to the people that had fought on our behalf, and to me it was always a very patriotic and important part of society that interested me."

Honoring Peacetime Warriors

Hadfield says that today's military members - many of whom carry out their duties in risky environments, with few tools or resources, but a large amount of improvisation - are equally deserving of our recognition and respect.

"We are horrifically overtaxed in the military today," he says. "Canadians have a tremendous expectation of our military to be very competent, but they're not also willing to give them the tools to do that. So we rely on great individual effort and creativity to get things done in the armed forces. It's a very demanding job.

"So I'm extremely proud of our military and for what it does for Canada. We continue to owe a huge debt to its people for doing so much for so little."

Canada in Afghanistan
From 2001-2014 Canadian soldiers served with an international coalition fighting the war in Afghanistan — a legacy of the 9/11 attacks. (Photo by Richard Foot)
HMCS Fredericton
HMCS Fredericton returns from a deployment to the Arabian Sea, arriving Halifax on the Navy Centennial, 4 May 2010 (DND, HS2010-0194-001).
Canadian Soldier in Cyprus
A Canadian soldier patrols the Green Line in Nicosia. He carries a C-7 rifle (courtesy National Defence Headquarters).



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