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Canadian military trainers deal with mixed emotions as Ukrainians defend from Russia

OTTAWA — Lt.-Col. Sarah Heer says it is absolutely "excruciating" watching from afar as friends and comrades that she helped train in the Ukrainian military a year ago are now forced to fight for their country.

OTTAWA — Lt.-Col. Sarah Heer says it is absolutely "excruciating" watching from afar as friends and comrades that she helped train in the Ukrainian military a year ago are now forced to fight for their country.

Heer finished her run as commander of Canada's military training mission in Ukraine last winter and is now back in Canada. But despite the physical distance, the conflict feels very close for her and hundreds of other Canadian soldiers who have served there in recent years.

“It’s very difficult because part of our role in Ukraine was to form relationships, that’s how we build trust.” Heer said in an interview.

“We’re not just watching people we’ve worked with. We’re watching our friends go through this.”

She said everyone who worked in Ukraine is concerned about friends and allies now fighting, and is doing their best to encourage them while watching with a mix of both fear and pride.

"It's just so inspiring," she says. "It's difficult. It's excruciating and difficult to watch what's happening. But I do think that all Canadian Armed Forces soldiers can also be motivated and inspired by what they're seeing in Ukraine."

Canada first established a military training mission, dubbed Operation Unifier, in Ukraine in 2015. The move was in direct response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its provision of weapons, ammunition and even troops to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The purpose of the mission, which evolved several times before being suspended ahead of Russia’s invasion, was to help Ukraine transform its post-Soviet military into a modern fighting force capable of defending the country.

That training is now on display as Ukrainians fight to protect their country while the rest of the world watches.

Heer took command of Operation Unifier in September 2020. For the next six months, she and 200 other Canadian soldiers worked with Ukrainian counterparts, teaching them the finer points of soldiering.

Lt.-Col. Melanie Lake took command of Operation Unifier from Heer in March 2021, and says she is in daily contact with Ukrainians that she worked with during her own deployment. That has helped counter some of the powerlessness that she and others feel.

“We've all gone through a range of emotions feeling like we just wish we could do more,” says Lake.

“So most people, like the rest of Canadians, are just looking for anything we can do to help. Whether that is just checking in with them and sending a little message of support, or trying to fundraise or (gather) equipment to send over.”

Yet mingled with the concern for their former comrades, Lake and Heer say, is a sense of pride in how well their former students are performing and in the role Canada played in helping them prepare them for this moment.

“I would definitely not want to take any credit for the determination that you’re seeing and the will to fight that you’re seeing from the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” says Heer.

“But I do think, when we look at our Canadian mission ... and what’s happening right now, we do see tangible benefits.”

For example, Canadian trainers had preached to their Ukrainian counterparts the importance of decentralization, which included empowering and trusting those further down the chain of command with information and to make decisions.

Not only has such an approach helped the Ukrainian military defend itself on multiple fronts, the Canadian officers say, it has allowed the force to remain nimble and operate in ways that the Russians weren’t expecting.

“You look at things like these tank-hunting teams that are these are small units, small teams going out with some of the light-armoured weapons that they've been given by NATO,” says Lake.

“They're given discretion and they're given an intent. And they're going out and making a hell of a lot of things happen.”

Still, it has not been easy to watch.

One of Lake’s favourite memories from her six months in Ukraine was visiting Freedom Square, the cultural heart of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which was hit with a deadly barrage of Russian missiles and rockets last week.

“It just felt impossible that something could happen in this magical place. It felt like the happiest place in Ukraine,” she says. “It's just so hard to picture now that that place that was so happy is getting shelled and hit with cruise missiles.”

Despite the pull of the war in Ukraine, Heer and Lake are both staying focused on their current roles. Lake commands 2 Combat Engineer Regiment in Petawawa, and Heer is readying her artillery unit for a potential deployment to Latvia, where the federal government recently promised to reinforce a Canadian-led NATO battlegroup.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press