Expert marksman digs into his reserves

Linda Slobodian Calgary Herald, Saturday 30 June 2001

By the age of nine, Edward Fitch knew he was going to join the army. So his mom tells him.

Sure enough, at 17, right out of high school, Montreal-born Fitch --son of a Second World War infantry rifle platoon commander -- eagerly signed up.

Basic training '67 was brutal. The cadets were at the mercy of a commander who failed two-thirds of them.

A board of inquiry later deemed him a "tyrant" with a penchant for hazing rituals. On one exercise, he pulled a live round from his pocket, ominously warning it was "for the first guy who screws up."

Fitch was one of the few who passed. Mr. Tyrant was shuffled off into a corner safely away from people.

One cadet -- who went on to graduate with a degree in civil engineering (despite going through a phase where he thought he'd never make it past captain) -- spiralled up in the ranks.

Brig.-Gen. Fitch is now in command of Land Force Western Area.

"What the Canadian army was doing happened to fit my temperament and philosophy. I'm of the Jewish faith.

"A fundamental belief in Judaism is we're put on the earth to perform tikkun olam, translated from Hebrew as repairing the world, making the world better," says Fitch.

He deeply believes in what the army's made of -- "wonderful people who love Canada, appreciate democracy and are willing to fight for it."

A change of command takes place in Edmonton on July 11. Fitch will head to Ottawa, faced with the formidable task of rescuing the Army Reserve.

Last year, the government announced a new policy for Land Force Reserve Restructure, to increase forces from 13,500 to 15,500, improve training, replace equipment.

Fitch will be project manager, a title he's not crazy about.

"Army people think leader. I won't change it because the larger bureaucracy is accustomed to managers. It would confuse them unnecessarily."

He's bound for "contentious" territory.

"Two army commanders have tried to reform the reserves and both of them hit very thick brick walls. The brick wall is in the alumni of the reserves -- there are a large number who are very powerful individuals and politically influential individuals."

Fitch doesn't aim to plow into any wall.

"No, I don't like that, that hurts. I'll use the wall. Find something useful for the wall to do . . . make it your friend."

This would be the commander whom soldiers describe as one who "exudes decency" and "treats everybody with dignity" and is "a leader with integrity." Truly the stuff an officer and a gentleman is made of.

Fitch, married to Sharon and the father of two girls, has received numerous medals. He was recently appointed the Canadian Forces Patron of Shooting by Gen. Maurice Baril.

"I'm the godfather of firearms," boasts the top-notch marksman.

The kid who joined the army to have "fun" has come a long way. Always an "adventure," but not always fun.

At 19, Fitch trained in Esquimalt, B.C., the only one in army uniform.

"At lunchtime, I'd go to the mess and most of the good, old boys were in the bar drinking beer, but I wasn't welcome there. So I went and got a sandwich and went back to work."

Being ostracized may have saved him grief many succumbed to.

"Small thing, but I never learned to drink at noon. I escaped that. Who knows? I don't know what my propensity for alcoholism is," says Fitch.

Always one to find the silver lining, he says his "Pollyanna" view of life can get on people's nerves. A great sense of humour and that willingness to glean the good prevails, despite being a "near post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) casualty."

One thing that led to that was seeing "man's inhumanity to man" in 1995 as a colonel in Croatia and Bosnia with the United Nations Protection Force.

Peacekeepers went in to sort out the madness having little authority, at the mercy of questionable orders.

"I had a pistol, but we were prohibited, get this -- to this day, I shake my head . . . If I came across a blatant war crime in progress, my orders were to go somewhere and report it."

Being a leader, he decided if tested, he'd do the right thing.

He was tested.

The remnants of a Muslim faction that fought with the Serbs was pushed into Koplensko, Croatia, women and children with them. More than 22,000 refugees were confined to five kilometres of road by the Croatian army. The press called it a refugee camp. Fitch says it was a concentration camp.

"The Croats provided zero resources. They sealed it off and wouldn't let any of the inhabitants in or out. One guy got too close to the boundary and they shot him."

People needed food, water. But UN civilian staff, not wanting to get politically involved, refused to help.

"Sometimes you had to make a moral decision in those conditions that didn't match your orders. My orders were not to support this place. It didn't exist. But I saw 22,000-plus people and winter coming on they were going to die," says Fitch.

He went to a superior.

"He said, 'Don't tell me about this.' I took the message. I stole from the UN," says Fitch, who ordered his men to help.

Fitch is in the first generation of generals sent on operations, so they suffer the invisible wounds.

"Critical incident stress is treatable by peer counsellors. It's usually a walk-and-talk kind of thing," says Fitch, who has been known to spot the hurting in victims and invite them for a walk.

One in 10 requires professional help.

"I would say I was in that larger group who suffered symptoms but didn't acquire a chronic condition."

When National Defence recognized something had to be done for the increasing number of PTSD victims coming out of missions in the 1990s, Fitch embraced the chance to help.

Six therapists now work at a trauma support centre in Edmonton.

"Last I heard, they were up to about 250 complete files of people with varying degrees of PTSD. Varying degrees -- to have it mild is not good."

He believes it's a fraction of the walking wounded, but finds a nugget of good to be derived from pain.

"In the best sense, I think it makes you a better person. You've confronted human evil. It's no longer theoretical, it's no longer far away. It gives you an appreciation for things you didn't have before, like democracy and law and order, an essential value of society because without it, look what happens."