For Cody Matthews, Latvia looked a lot like his North River home.
It was a land of tall forests broken up by gentle farmland that slipped by as he manned the machine gun atop a Canadian Army jeep, a fairly simple task that for Matthews was one of Latvia’s true delights.
“It’s less walking. We always carry lots of heavy stuff, so being able to get a lift was nice,” said Matthews, a reserve master corporal with the Nova Scotia Highlanders. “As a reservist, I really enjoy working with the regular forces, it broadens my horizons.”
Matthews was in Latvia from January to July of this year, joining several hundred Canadian soldiers helping to guard the tiny Baltic nation against a possible Russian invasion.
When he first arrived in January the weather was frigid, the mercury plummeting to -40 Celsius, forcing soldiers on patrol in the wilderness to don goggles, thick jackets, shawls and gloves to help ward off hypothermia.
Matthews spent many hours manning the C-6 light machine gun atop his army G-Wagon, fully exposed to the elements, or walking through the forests and fields on countless foot patrols. One mission in southwestern Latvia had Canadian soldiers patrolling around an airbase that came under simulated enemy fire.
Often dismounting from their vehicles, soldiers had to carry their machine guns and other equipment such as their personal C-7 assault rifles through the bush.
However, Matthews enjoyed watching the landscape slowly come to life as winter gave way to spring and summer, which brought local Latvians out onto the streets, especially during the long June evenings.
His unit was deployed at the Adazi military base just outside the Latvian capital Riga, allowing Matthews to see some of the nearby townships as well as the countryside.
Typically, local towns had humble dwellings reflecting the poverty of many Latvians, which Matthews described as “very Eastern Bloc,” a legacy of the Soviet occupation until 1991.
“What I usually saw was run-down apartment buildings, but they always seemed to get out and enjoy themselves,” recalled Matthews. “We went to Riga every now and then, we often had to do airport runs so we’d stay for dinner. It was an old-fashioned city, the architecture was very fancy and old-looking, cobblestoned walkways and all that jazz.”
While the Latvians knew how to enjoy themselves, Matthews noticed the host nation’s army taking the possibility of a Russian attack extremely seriously. The Canadians often acted as enemy soldiers whom the Latvians practiced fighting off during some exercises.
Helping the Latvians defend their country from Russia are NATO soldiers from the United Kingdom, United States Italy, Spain and other European nations, as well as Canada. Latvia’s Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania are also receiving similar such help.
For Matthews, one of the biggest challenges was “probably working with all the different nationalities, there was a language barrier.”
Nonetheless, Matthews enjoyed his time in Latvia, even though he missed his dog Zelda and girlfriend, who lives in downtown Truro.
Now back in Nova Scotia, Matthews works as an instructor in Aldershot near Kentville, teaching new recruits essential soldiering skills, such as shooting and camouflage in the field.
NO LAUGHING MATTER
Matthew’s fellow master corporal Donnie McNutt, a reservist from Truro, had this to say about his time in Latvia.
“You might laugh at this, but their cellphone plans are 10 Euros per month with 20 minutes of talking, unlimited texting and data,” recalled McNutt. “I had a local sim card.”
McNutt was also posted to the Adazi base, where he practiced urban combat techniques with his fellow soldiers, storming buildings and dashed from house-to-house or even room-to-room, in simulated war conditions.
“There’s a lot of good stuff. There was one exercise where the idea was that black ops [soldiers specializing in covert operations] would fly us to a place, drop us off and then you’d go around dismounted, [before they’d] pick you up and take you back,” said McNutt.
Like Matthews, he welcomed the chance to ride in vehicles instead of walking with heavy equipment. Attached to the regular forces, McNutt rode in light armoured vehicles, the Canadian Army’s standard personnel carrier.
On a paved road, the eight-wheeled LAV can travel up to 100 km per hour, but McNutt was only able to drive it for about 200 metres during the training he received. Unlike some heavier vehicles like tanks, the LAV is controlled using a steering wheel.
“It drives more like a Honda Civic,” recalled McNutt.
When not riding in the LAVs or patrolling on foot, McNutt often found himself digging First World War-style long trenches on a live-fire range, a typical army defensive position.
“There’s times when you drop somewhere and dig in,” said McNutt.
He returned home to Nova Scotia at the same time as Matthews and took on an instructor job at Aldershot.