The passing of the torch or, in the case of the Canadian military’s search and rescue division, the flag took place at 103 SAR Squadron in Gander July 18.
Major Byron Johnson handed over the reigns of the squadron to Major John Leroux at the ceremonial Change of Command Parade, presided over by 9 Wing Gander base commander Lt-Col. Kevin Toone.
Maj. Johnson spent three years at 103 SAR, commanding the unit for the past year. He said it was an honour to command such a highly-skilled group, even though it was for only a short time.
“Routinely flying the highest-rated mission, the most challenging missions, achieving the fastest response times, producing the greatest number of pilot airplane hours with the highest servicability rates, and having a great time doing it has become a great tradition as this squadron,” he said. “To Major Leroux, you have ever reason to be as confident as I was heading into this as I was. The tradition of excellence, I have no doubt, will continue under your leadership.”
Meanwhile, Maj. Leroux, who has been serving at 103 SAR squadron for the past year, told the squadron members and others in attendance, he is looking forward to commanding what he considers the best search and rescue unit in the country.
“We can not shy away from our success, we are strong and proud,” he said. “We have so far this year medivaced 31 people and rescued 30 people. We have flown 160 hours of SAR Missions, and if you look at the other two squadrons they have done about a combined 70.”
Maj. Leroux said he’s more excited than nervous about taking on his first command because, during the year he has spent flying with the squadron, he’s gotten to know and understand the quality of the unit’s members and the commitment they have to their job.
However, he knows there are challenges ahead, and he’s not going to be one stuck behind a desk trying to meet these challenges.
“I need to be out there with the guys to understand what they went through to make decisions; as commanding officer I’m here to give guidelines to all those younger pilots.
“I need to be connected to what’s happening and it’s best to be out there instead of behind a desk all the time. Also, I’m a pilot at heart and need to fly,” he chuckled.
After the ceremony, one of Maj. Leroux’s daughters, Emma, spoke to the media and said she considers her Dad a superhero.
“We’re proud and happy for our dad for sure,” said Emma. “I feel he’s a superhero saving all those lives and putting his life at risk for other people. We’re always nervous when he goes on missions, but he comes home, so that’s good.”
However, Maj. Leroux sees his family, which also includes his wife Janie and oldest daughter Alison, as the true heroes of the military.
“My family makes a lot of sacrifices for my career, having to move every two or three years, but never ever once have they complained about moving, so they are onboard,” he said. “They understand what I do and we live a special life. My kids don’t get to grow up with the grandparents and aunts and uncles, but the same time the RCF, air force, 1034 squadron and the community becomes their family.
“Being able to do this is what makes them, as well as the families of all military members, very special.”
Alison and Emma said the hardest part of the moving around is having to leave friends behind, but this also brings with it some excitement.
“It’s definitely hard because you get best friends and then you have to leave, and going to new schools is sometimes hard, but then you get to see so many places and make new friends,” said Alison. “It’s hard but it’s also fun.”
Going to miss Gander
Meanwhile, as Maj. Leroux starts a new life as the commander of 103 SAR, Maj. Johnson moves on to a new position at 8 Wing/CFB Trenton in Ontario, where he will be more involved in a standards role instead of actual search and rescue missions.
He said he is leaving Gander with mixed emotions. Now only was this his first base commander position, but it’s also where he began his military search and rescue career in 1996. He was here until 2001, and looked at his return three years ago as a homecoming of sorts.
“I’m always excited for a new challenge, but this place is pretty special, so both myself and family will miss it here,” he said, noting that during his three-year posting at 103 SAR his wife Jennifer and daughters Mya, Keily and Nora had settled into life in Gander.
“I really enjoyed my time here. It’s one of the best places to work in our search and rescue organization,” he said. “Gander is a unique place to work. The small size of the unit and the community, and the dependence Newfoundland and Labrador has on search and rescue. Search and rescue is important right across Canada, but especially so in Newfoundland and Labrador because of the weather, the waters, the unforgiving terrain, and the diversity of the missions.
“We take a lot of pride in making sure we’re 110 per cent ready to go and proficient in our jobs.
“I’m certainly going to miss Gander.”