The forests in Latvia are dense with thick undergrowth and trees reaching high into the sky. The tree trunks are tinted orange and darken as they grow taller. Latvians park along the roads and begin to walk throughout the area as they search for wild mushrooms.
The scenery looks like a moment caught in time as many of the cars are older from when the country was occupied and people look around for the little pale fungi.
Driving down the highway and coming around a turn, the Adazi military base cuts through the forest. The buildings that make up the base are surrounded by high fences lined with barbed wire. It’s a simple facility but one the Latvian government is spending millions of Euros on.
Since NATO launched Operation REASSURANCE in 2014, growing the base and international connections has been high-priority for the Latvian government. In 2018, the Canadian mission was extended to 2023, and in 2019 the Latvian government announced they would invest around 52 million Euros a year.
With more than 500 Canadian officers currently in the country, the mission is the largest running Canadian-led NATO operation. There are nine nations working together, and all need to feel at home.
Canadian Warrant Officer Chad Zopf strides through the base, saluting as he passes the other officers. A small Tim Hortons coffee booth located in a convenience-store like building offers a taste of home.
As a teenager, Zopf first saw the military while watching the news. The professionalism drew him to it, he said. He also enjoyed being physically fit, so it was an easy transition.
“Ever since then, I’ve been traveling around the world,” he said. The Regina native has so far been to Bosnia, Haiti and Afghanistan.
In Latvia, his main role is working with the networks connecting the mission to Ottawa, he said. It’s not always simple, as at his work there are four different nations: Montenegro, Albania, Spain and Canada.
“We’re learning a lot of hand gestures to communicate,” he said with a laugh. “It could be any part of the day and they’re saying ‘Good Morning.’ I guess it’s just their way of saying ‘Hello.’”
There can be the occasional miscommunication, but overall the nations get along well. Officers from Canada, Albania, Czech Republic, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and occasionally the United States are based at Camp Adazi.
“We stand out like a sore thumb because our colours may be different … They definitely know we’re tourists,” Zopf said. “It’s very humbling for us to be here.”
Hockey more than 6,000 kilometers from home
Back on the base, Zopf has a bit of his Tim Hortons iced cappuccino. It’s not quite the same as what’s made in Canada but it has a similar taste. Zopf walks towards one of the more popular spots on base, the recreation area. There are soccer nets, basketball hoops and every so often music comes from a building where instruments are available to anyone wanting to learn or jam.
Zopf smiles as he steps into the ice hockey rink. The boards on one side are plain white, and on the other side are painted with the flags of the different nations.
“Right now, we have a contingent of I want to say about 50 odd hockey players,” Zopf said. “We brought our goaltender from back home. So I think when on paper, we have the best goaltender, for sure.”
The hockey season kicks off in the fall in Latvia, and Zopf says the Canadians are going to give it their all to win this year. If they do, they win the prestigious prize of bragging rights.
“It’s a huge, huge boost for morale when you come out there against these other units,” he said.
Candy as a morale booster and personal support for Padre
Between exercises, regular duties, professional development days and physical activity, every so often an officer needs a break. That’s when the ‘Padre’ is there with candy to hand out. It may not be the first role that comes to mind when thinking of the military, but it’s something Troy Dennis loves.
“There’s no social workers out here,” he said. “I act in that role of the support and sometimes looked at [as a] social worker, but then help support the troops.”
Dennis performs religious ceremonies, although that doesn’t take up too much time, he said. In his downtime, he lends a hand with shelters, goes to the ranges, spends time with officers and lets them chat about anything on their mind.
Dennis, originally from Prince Edward Island, joined the military after hearing about it from friends who were enjoying the experiences. Latvia is different than most, something more Canadians should know, he said.
“This doesn’t happen all the time,” he said. “It’s a pretty cool opportunity that we have to come and work with the other nations. It doesn’t happen for all the troops.”
“We have a wonderful chance to work together. It’s a great learning experience, good cultural experience.”
But it can have its challenges when it comes to language barriers.
“Sometimes it gets some hand gestures going back and forth. There are people who can translate in our building,” he said, “NATO’s main language is English, so that’s helpful.”
When he needs to talk to a troop who doesn’t speak English, there’s also Google translate, which has become a staple on base.
For a professional development day in August 2019, the base held a vehicle display. It was a chance for the nations to line up their latest arms and technology to educate each other. Officers were on hand to wander and see the other nations’ vehicles, as others were prepared to show their arms to others.
Officers compared and explained the differences between their own arms. There were different anecdotal remarks about minor differences as Canadians wandered and took a look at the Spanish Leopardo Tank while comparing it to a Canadian Leopard tank.
The atmosphere is light-hearted and chatty as Saturdays typically are, with a blend of military colours walking around.
“We need to work together to stay prepared,” Francrisco Arburaz said. The officer has been with the Spanish military for five years so far and is on his first deployment to Latvia.
It’s important to share what they know and what system each country is using, he said. As well, it’s been difficult but positive trying to learn different languages, Arburaz said.
“People here are friendly,” Arburaz said. “Latvia is a very beautiful country. It has a lot of natural good weather now. Nothing winter.”
A mixture of modern day and occupied history
Jokingly, the Latvian people say their summer is short and their fall is long, so the winter weather will arrive in only a few months. However, in August, winter seems far away.
The country is abuzz with hikers, truckers, commuters and more all going down the highway. From the base, it’s only a short trip to the capital city of Riga.
On the drive, patches of forest are cleared as farmers go up and down the rolling hills combining the area. Some equipment is clearly new, while other pieces appear to be from the Soviet era with ruins of old buildings just on the outskirts of the farms.
While some of the capital city of Riga has modern buildings and educational institutions, there’s an area of ‘Old Riga’ that appears trapped in time.
This is where Katheryn Symington sits down at one of her favorite local restaurants. She’s been in the country for about a year after moving here with her husband. After marrying a military officer, Symington decided to move with him on his out of Canada postings.
“My first question was ‘Where the hell is Latvia?’” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always wanted to live in Europe. That’s an adventure that I can check off my list. But you know, it was kind of a shock to begin with.”
It can have its challenges, Symington said, as people are removed from their immediate family. This makes her military community important when on deployment.
“There’s no Canadian Tire to lean back on here,” Symington said. “One of the biggest struggles when you move out of the country, is where do you go for things?”
While shopping, Symington sees the language barrier first hand. English was taught to school children starting in the 90s, so many young people know the language, while the older generation can be more difficult to talk to.
“As time goes on, I can understand the gist of a lot of things,” Symington said.
The people are different than those in the prairies, she said. People in the prairies in Canada can be friendly and open whereas people in Latvia are stoic.
“When you approach somebody and smile, they almost looked at you like you like they’re expecting you to do something bad,” Symington said. “Their understanding is people who smile a lot are either trying to sell them something, or (are) perhaps less intelligent.”
There’s no comparison when looking at Latvian history versus Canadian history, she said. Latvia celebrated their 800 year anniversary in 2015, while Canada celebrated 150 in 2017.
“The culture, the buildings, I’m just enthralled,” Symington said. “It’s experiencing the community.”
One experience that stands out to her was the centennial in 2018.
“They had light shows all over the city,” she said. “I heard a drumbeat. And I saw people walking around. It was a march they did years and years ago to protest the occupation and they wanted to be their own country.
“Nobody was talking. And nobody was saying anything,” Symington said. “I think it was so touching.”
“They have been overpowered by everybody. Everyone has occupied them one way or another and they’re proud of themselves.”
Heidi Atter is a journalist in Saskatchewan. She graduated from the University of Regina Journalism School in April 2019. She has a black-belt in Taekwon-Do, has competed in fencing internationally and kayaking nationally and is always looking for the next adventure. Heidi hopes to be a foreign reporter in the future after building her portfolio through working in Saskatchewan, Canada, and beyond.
This piece is written after Heidi Atter won the Kay Robbins Journalism Scholarship that funded a trip to Latvia to learn about the Canadian Military in person. The scholarship was funded through the University of Regina Journalism School and the trip was set up with the help of the University of Calgary’s Center for Military, Security and Strategic Studies and Robert Bergen.