Gordon Usipiuk’s last major battle – the one he is most proud of – was the Battle of Medak Pocket in 1993 in Croatia.
But what should’ve been a largely celebrated battle, it was the most significant fight for Canada’s forces since the Korean War, was almost completely glossed over upon his return.
Since 1992, tens of thousands of Canadian military served in the United Nations mission to stabilize the region, where a violent civil war with ethnic cleansing was taking place between Serbs and Croats.
Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) was sent to the Medak Pocket with orders to implement a cease-fire. Things quickly turned deadly when they were met with open fire from the Croatian army.
“We were in what we would call a hot zone,” said Usipiuk, who was sergeant major of Charlie Company. “We were constantly exposed on a daily basis to artillery fire, mortar fire, machine gun fire, sniper fire and also we had to deal with mines and booby traps.”
The Canadian soldiers played an integral role in the UN’s mission, pushing the Croats back to their original lines and soon after reverting to their role as impartial peacekeepers.
As many as 27 Croats were killed, with four Canadians wounded.
Despite the significance of the battle, it was almost completely excluded from the news, overshadowed by the discovery that Canadian Airborne Regiment members had tortured and killed a Somali teenager. Public faith in the Canadian Army quickly dissipated after a cover-up by senior bureaucrats and officers at National Defence Headquarters was uncovered.
“When I got home, my wife had clippings from the Winnipeg Free Press … from what I could tell there was no news or headlines about (Medak Pocket).”
“It was really disappointing,” said Usipiuk, a Colwood resident.
Stories eventually trickled out and nine years after the battle, in 2002, the Governor General of Canada gave the 2 PPCLI the recognition they deserved, awarding them the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation. The commendation is awarded to any unit or sub-unit that has performed an extraordinary deed or activity of a rare high standard in extremely hazardous circumstances.
Usipiuk spent his life, since he was 17, serving in Prince Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and completing two UN peacekeeping tours: Cyprus in 1984 and Croatia in 1993.
He only just retired in 2006 and is now vice president of the Victoria-Fred Whitehouse branch of the National Association of Federal Retirees. One of their four priorities is to advocate for the well-being of veterans.
For him, Remembrance Day is a day to “remember the dead and to honour the living, the veterans who survived.” He recalls fondly meeting his hero, one of the most decorated veterans Lt. Col. William “Robbie” Robertson.
He also remembers his mother, who was only 16 years old in Poland when the Germans invaded and put her on a prison work farm for five years.
Thinking of his mom, his voice cracks and his eyes well up with tears. For Usipiuk, one of his greatest sacrifices that still evokes guilt to this day was leaving behind his mother during the years he was in service.
“Instead of staying home and supporting my mom – early in 1976 my father (died by) suicide. I like to think alcoholism took his life – I joined five, six months later. I spent the next 30 years away from home, where I should’ve been home for my mom as the man of the house, but I didn’t.”
Usipiuk recalls his mother being very proud of his career.
Acknowledging the difficulties of being in the military is an important part of honouring the sacrifices that veterans have made, he said.
Usipiuk wants to see better education on military history in schools, as well as better support for veterans.
“For the younger generations, I’m a little concerned about how much they really know about military history,” he said.
“In my mind, history should be a required course.”
He is currently signed up to talk in schools if a project goes through with the Legion and will wear his medals with pride.
Despite recognition for Medak Pocket coming late, Usipiuk said the mission remains the highlight of his career.
“The part that I was most proud of was being able to go to Croatia, meet the people – the people were lovely – and we helped them in any way that we could. But to also be a member of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, to step in between two warring factions the Serbs and the Croats and to actually put a stop to the ethnic cleansing that was going on in the area of our responsibility.”