N.S. military officer connects with Ukrainian heritage, locals on Forces mission
A Canadian Forces officer from Sydney River, N.S., says a six-month Joint Task Force mission to Ukraine — the birthplace of his grandfather — was a highlight of his career.
Lt.-Col. Kristopher Reeves returned to Canada after commanding a unit of 270 Canadian military personnel in the eastern European country in fulfilment of a Canadian commitment.
"People have maybe heard that Crimea, part of Ukraine, was annexed [by Russia] during a very tumultuous time in the country, but also, they're still fighting a major war of aggression in their east," Reeves told the CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.
"They have two of their provinces where they're losing five, six soldiers a week to Russian-backed separatists."
Reeves's unit was tasked with providing training to help reduce the loss of life and helping Ukraine bolster its military complement.
'What's your father's name?'
Cultural outreach was a secondary part of the mission, Reeves said, and he had a leg up when it came to connecting with Ukrainians.
Reeves's maternal grandfather, Michael Wolodka, came from Ukraine to Canada as a eight-year-old boy, growing up in the ethnically diverse Whitney Pier area of Sydney.
Reeves visited Wolodka's hometown with some of his unit. He likened the reception he received at city hall to meeting Cape Bretoners for the first time.
"I think the first question they asked me was, 'Well, what's your father's name and what was his father's name?'"
The staff at city hall got on the phones, calling all 1,100 Wolodkas in the area to track down some relatives.
Trying to narrow down the search, they asked him questions he couldn't answer about what his grandfather remembered of the place.
Finally, they got his grandfather, now 94, on the phone.
"Oh my, as we were talking to him, his Ukrainian started to come back," Reeves said. "He started to give information about his mom, [who] lived on one side of the river and his dad lived on the other side, and I think there wasn't a dry eye in the room at that point."
A few weeks later, Reeves brought a larger contingent from his unit to the community.
"[We] rented every small motel room in the region, had a big cultural exposition that night," he said. "[We] got up the next morning, the troops were interested to know more, so we all went to church — they're Ukrainian Catholic — and then we had a soccer game against some of the Ukrainian veterans.
"So, [we] really built a strong bond with this small town and we kind of used that model throughout the rest of our deployment to get to know Ukrainians better."
Reeves said the Ukrainian mission was "the most important and most impactful I've ever done."
The personnel under his command, "warrior-diplomats," he called them, had similar experiences.
"All of them … made strong connections with the Ukrainian military and civilians that they came in touch with," he said. "And you know, I'm proud, because they were ambassadors for Canada for six months straight, every day of the week, every day of the month."