CHILLIWACK PROGRESS 130th: Former editor on assignment in Persian Gulf War

Venturing into war zone was a ‘profoundly life-changing experience,’ writes former editor Andy Holota

Andy Holota stands in front of a building alongside a road in the Kuwait desert. On the building is a warning spray-painted by American combat engineers, advising of air-dropped American mines on the area beside the road. BLU-91 and 92 designate anti-tank and anti-personnel air-dropped mines. (Submitted)

Andy Holota stands in front of a building alongside a road in the Kuwait desert. On the building is a warning spray-painted by American combat engineers, advising of air-dropped American mines on the area beside the road. BLU-91 and 92 designate anti-tank and anti-personnel air-dropped mines. (Submitted)

This year marks the 130th anniversary of The Chilliwack Progress. In celebration of the occasion, we asked four former editors and publishers to submit feature articles on their years at B.C.’s oldest community newspaper founded in 1891.

By Andrew Holota

It is exceedingly rare that a journalist working in the Canadian community newspaper business would ever go overseas to follow and report on local news.

Yet, during my time as editor at the Chilliwack Progress from 1988 to 1993, I had such a unique opportunity.

It was 1991, and the first Persian Gulf War had run its short but violent duration early in the year, as U.S.-led Allied forces crushed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military after his brief invasion of Kuwait. What remained was a vast area of the country in flames from oil well fires, littered with destroyed and abandoned military equipment including countless live landmines and other unexploded ordnance.

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The United Nations stepped in, organizing a peacekeeping force to deal with the deadly detritus of war, and ensure that further incursions and fighting would not re-ignite.

Enter 1CER, a Canadian Forces combat engineer regiment based in Chilliwack at the time – experts in dealing with deadly explosives and rebuilding infrastructure.

It occurred to me and my colleagues in the Progress newsroom that in order to truly cover the story of our own military base participating in this global mission, we needed to be on the ground with the troops.

And hence, along with photographer Robert Koopmans, I found myself on a C-130 Hercules military transport plane, landing at the Kuwait airport, in what had to be one of the most unique ‘self assignments’ for Black Press Media community journalists.

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Venturing into 60 C desert, driving through long columns of destroyed military vehicles, exploring kilometres of battle trench networks, minefields and bunkers – all laden with the implements of modern warfare – was a profoundly life-changing experience.

Accommodations consisted of a huge empty warehouse converted into eating and sleeping quarters. Encountered during daily patrols were the roaring fires and dense, soaring smoke created by the destruction of Kuwait’s hundreds of oil wells by retreating Iraqi forces.

In years following, I went to Croatia, and then Bosnia, with Canadian peacekeeping – and in the case of the latter – sometimes peace-making forces.

The call to duty accepted by these individuals – threat of death, witness to extreme violence and its aftermath, separation from families, spartan living conditions, for many months on end – is something most civilians cannot fully fathom.

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Flying over burning oil wells, which had been set on fire by Saddam Hussein’s troops as they retreated from Kuwait.

Flying over burning oil wells, which had been set on fire by Saddam Hussein’s troops as they retreated from Kuwait.

The Progress produced three print supplements from our local and overseas coverage of Chilliwack’s combat engineers in the Persian Gulf. In following years, I wrote stories and shot photos from other United Nations assignments handed to our forces.

I felt what it was like to return home to a land of peace and safety, which is almost beyond words, and at times, tear-inducing.

Being a community journalist and editor is deeply rewarding, without ever having to leave one’s own soil, and I regard Chilliwack as one of the finest communities I’ve had the opportunity to cover.

The engagement and experience with Chilliwack’s combat engineers and other Canadian military units thereafter, has been a pinnacle in my lifelong pursuit as a journalist.

For that, I shall always deeply appreciate The Progress, the community, and the people who are so fortunate to call it home.

Andrew Holota is the editorial director of Black Press Media. He oversees editorial strategies and standards, including print and digital, co-ordinates training and mentoring programs for multimedia journalists, and provides legal advice to the chain’s publications in B.C., Alberta and the Yukon. Andrew’s journalism career began more than 40 years ago.

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