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Sandbagging in the North

They called and he came.

And for John Walsh, his first domestic support operation is one he will never forget.

A reservist with Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada, Walsh, along with other members from his regiment, were ready to respond to the floods in Ottawa and surrounding areas in April.

“It was a volunteer decision because I had never done anything like that before apart from exercises and training. It’s a big part of what we do, so I wanted to help,” Walsh said.

Walsh, a 21-year-old geography student at the University of Guelph, was stationed in Bracebridge and surrounding townships in the Petawawa area for eight days.

“In Bracebridge, there was a lot of destruction. Many homes were submerged, docks and boats were destroyed and town roads were flooded and impassible,” he said.

“I helped fill sandbags and line houses to help stop the flooding. It was a bit challenging working in wet conditions but that was all part of it.”

After large amounts of rain and melting snow, the Ottawa River flooded to a peek of about 113 metres above sea level, its highest point in nearly 60 years.

“Many people had left but a few stuck around and they were very thankful. One man even brought us homemade cookies,” Walsh said.

“It was rewarding to see how thankful people were.”

The number of military personnel helping battle floods in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ottawa reached 2,000 and over the past several years, the Canadian Forces have been increasingly called on to provide support in dealing with natural disasters.

“It’s vital in that the local services, from police to fire departments, can’t always handle everything. For us in the reserves, we can provide a lot of manpower to help.,” Walsh said.

Exercise Arrowhead Response, running from April 26-28 across Southwestern Ontario and headquartered in London, ON, was only meant to practise the planning and execution of domestic support operations during crisis like natural disasters or industrial accidents.

But a call for help from flood-ravaged communities diverted many of the soldiers taking part in the training exercise, to do the real thing.

And the timing could not have been better.

“Having our soldiers from various units across the region here in London on this exercise expediated our reaction time,” said Colonel Chris Poole, Commander of 31 Canadian Brigade Group (CBG).

“This is one of the most important missions the Army Reserve trains for-aiding local authorities in Canadian communities-and we’re proud and ready to send the help that our fellow Canadians need.”

About 48 per cent of those who responded were reservists.

“That’s so impressive and it was all done on such short notice,” said RHFC Commanding Officer, Lieutenant -Colonel Steve Coe.

“It all happened so quickly. Hands went up and that’s what it’s all about. They wanted to help and that’s why we are there, to help and to give back to our communities. It’s the call to service,” Coe Said.

Walsh, who resides in Guelph, On. is a private with the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada (RHFC) and decided to join the regiment three years ago.

The infantry regiment in 31 Canadian Brigade Group, Canadian Armed Forces is headquartered at the historic Armoury in Cambridge, ON.

It is one of the oldest regiments in Canada and first came into existence during the War of 1812.

“A friend gave me the idea of joining the reserves. I thought it would be a cool idea and a good part-time job while attending university,” Walsh says.

“You learn so many new skills and you are always honing these skills. There’s always room for improvement. I really enjoy the comradery as well because you work as a team and you meet all sorts of people from different backgrounds.”

And just last year, Walsh was chosen to undertake mortar tasking.

“There’s only a handful of infantry regiments across Canada to receive mortar tasking and I was chosen to be part of this platoon,” Walsh said.

This important weapon system has recently made a comeback in the reserves and is a new assignment for the RHFC.

“We still have to fulfill out infantry role but now mortars are part of this as well,” Walsh says.

“It’s very different using a weapon more associated with artillery skills rather than infantry training which I’ve received. It’s interesting to receive another perspective.”

Keeping brushed up on the mortar weapon system is constant for Walsh who is now getting used to carrying and firing the weapon and receives regular on field training.

“It opens up opportunities like a possible tour in Latvia in the future,” Walsh says. “It would be interesting to go overseas and put the skills into practice.”

But for now, Walsh is thrilled to have been able to lend a hand when he was needed.

“This is a really interesting part-time job and it’s easy to balance it with your civilian job,” Walsh said.

“But to be able to help people during the floods, it felt really great to be able to do something while working together with other regiments and to see how appreciative people were that we were there.”

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