Commander George Forward believes the time he served as a young sea cadet with Effie M. Morrissey sea cadets certainly whet his appetite for a career at sea.
But looking back on it now, the seasoned naval officer says, "I think it was growing up (in Brigus) sailing with my grandfather, George Pomeroy, that really sealed the deal."
Forward's grandfather had sailed with the legendary Capt. Bob Bartlett on the Effie M. Morrissey, after which the sea cadet corps was named in 1976, when it was started by his father, Edward.
"His (grandfather's) stories of his time in the Arctic with Capt. Bob Bartlett, his convoy work during the war, and his time spent sailing on some of Newfoundland's most famous vessels was certainly a catalyst to joining the navy," Cmdr. Forward says.
Cmdr. Forward is currently serving as Senior Staff Officer Logistics Operations for the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), as well as Canadian Task Force Commander of Operation SATURN - the deployment of a Canadian Forces team to serve with UNAMID, the hybrid operation by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) in Darfur.
On Nov. 9, two days before Remembrance Day, The Compass spoke with Cmdr. Forward via satellite phone from his latest post in Darfur.
He talked about growing up in Brigus and a 15-year military career that has already taken him around the world.
Forward had no doubts about what he was going to do after finishing high school in 1989.
"I joined the forces right after high school through the regular officer training plan," he says.
After graduating from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1995, he joined the East Coast fleet that same year and served on five ships: HMCS Terra Nova, HMCS St. John's, HMCS Iroquois, HMCS Fredericton, and HMCS Athabaska.
While not aboard ship he served as station commanding officer at CFS Alert in the Arctic. He did a tour in Bosnia, and was deployed to the Gulf, serving both on ship and land.
He was also with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that responded to the 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan.
His last tour ended in 2008.
When he was first promoted to the rank of commander in 2009, while he was still under 40, Forward recalls he was one of the youngest in the Navy to hold that rank at that time - the average age for ranking officers is 45 to 48.
Some 27,000 peacekeepers from 51 nations are operating in Sudan in an area the size of France, making it the largest UN mission in the world.
"The challenges are huge, but we are fixing things very slowly," Cmdr. Forward says.
Are they making a difference there?
"I certainly hope so. I think so," he says.
Most of the countries represented there are African or Asian. They are there from Rwanda, China, Gambia, South Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia, just to name a few.
Out of the NATO forces represented, there are only four Canadians, three Germans, one Italian and a Dutchman.
"We're the only ones who can ski," Forward jokes.
"Before we showed up there, the force command asked, 'where are the Canadians?' We bring so much. We're the best-trained troops in the world. And everywhere you go there's a Newfoundlander. I'm the only one in the whole country, officially anyway, among the forces."
"The UN's role here," Cmdr. Forward explains, "is to try and make it stable enough for the two million-plus internally displaced people to be able to return home. The only way that can be affected is by a (peacekeeping) presence. So we're spread out thin here - all these little outposts, all over the (Sahara) desert. And everybody has to eat. So I look after all the convoys. We can have a convoy up to 100 vehicles and they all have to be protected.
"They carry food, fuel, water, medical equipment and (medical) experts, among other things. Everything here has to be imported. There are no stores, there's no (shopping) malls or anything. And the roads are horrible."
He adds: "There are so many factions here fighting against each other. The Government of Sudan has signed a peace deal with the Sudanese Liberation Army. However, the army is fractured into so many parts. Then there's the government-sponsored militias, and rebels, who are crooks. So it's dangerous over here. In the last three weeks we've had four shot and killed and eight wounded amongst the peacekeepers.
"The poverty here is striking. The biggest problem the UN has here is the fact the place is literally the size of France and we're trying to police and patrol it with less than 30,000. When you put that up against 2.4 million, it's staggering!"
Working in the Sahara Desert has been a new experience for a man who has spent most of his naval career at sea.
The opportunity to work with troops from all over the world has been enlightening and educational for him. The biggest challenge has been the environment.
"It's hot and dry and the bugs here, my son! Mosquitoes have nothing on these things."
When he arrived there at the end of September, the temperatures were still around 45 degrees Celsius.
"It's cooled off a bit now, down to around 35," he says.
While May-October is called the rainy season, he says, "we may get a shower every three days. And the sand storms are brutal, the sand gets everywhere.
"Here I am in The Sudan into Week 6 of my seventh deployment overseas. Another four and half months and I'll be returning to headquarters in Ottawa, where I have been employed since 2010. I'll be back home in Newfoundland sometime next summer, I hope."
"It's been an outstanding experience," Cmdr. Forward adds of his time in the navy.
"The friendships are outstanding, the work is rewarding. Everything from health care, to pay, to education, it's all there. The opportunities are endless. It's arguably the most honourable profession in Canada, and I'm a strong supporter. I encourage everyone I see to join up."
Support from home
Looking forward to returning to Ottawa and seeing his girlfriend, Sarah Kavanagh, "whose love and support has made this deployment tolerable," Cmdr. Forward also mentions his sister, Jennifer Forward, and her husband David Sesk of Bay Roberts.
"Jenny is one of my best friends and has always been a great sounding board throughout my career. That's the thing that often gets missed. Deploying overseas is nothing compared to waiting at home and trying to carry on a semblance of order when your life is chaos. I don't have kids but some of my team do, and it is the strength and fortitude of their wives that hold their households together and allow us to come over here to face the challenges we do unencumbered by worries at home."
Looking forward to the next challenge, Cmdr. Forward concludes: "My advice to anyone looking to join is to know what you want and how much you are willing to sacrifice to get it. This is not an easy life but the rewards are directly proportional to the sweat. There is always something new and exciting to tackle. You only have to look."
About Cmdr. George Forward
• Name — Edward George Forward
• Occupation — a commander with Royal Canadian Navy
• Age — 40 years
• Hometown — Brigus
• Parents — Edward and Beverly Forward
• Organizations — Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Effie M. Morrissey 249, Brigus Historical Society
• Education — Brigus Academy and Ascension Collegiate; graduated high school 1989; graduated Royal Military College, Kingston, Ont., B.A. Commerce (1995) Masters in Defence Studies (2008)