Super soldier becomes Alberta’s next lieutenant-governor

EDMONTON — Alberta’s new lieutenant-governor is one of Canada’s most decorated peacekeeping soldiers

EDMONTON — Alberta’s new lieutenant-governor is one of Canada’s most decorated peacekeeping soldiers. But the Navy wouldn’t have him. And the Air Force kicked him out.

“I was more interested in girls and beer,” laughed Don Ethell, a retired colonel, as he recalled in an interview last week why the Air Force discharged him as a teenager in the mid-1950s for neglecting his duties.

“You’re 17 and the hormones are raging.”

He said when navy recruiters learned about his air force hijinks, they also told the teen wild-thing to take a hike, son.

But “by coincidence I then walked past an army recruiting unit. There was a sergeant there and he said, ’Sure, we’ll take a chance on you.’

“They took me on probation for a year, and things looked up from there on in.”

Half a century, 14 peacekeeping missions and a chestful of medals later, the Calgarian became the province’s 17th lieutenant-governor in a ceremony at the legislature Tuesday.

It is the capstone on a career that has taken Ethell around the world, to hot spots in Beirut, the Middle East and the Balkans, and to refugee camps in Kenya and Somalia.

“It’s now payback time,” said Ethell, 72, in a phone interview from southern California, where he was on duty looking after two grandchildren.

“I’m going to pay back the Canadian people and the people of Alberta for all the good things they’ve done to Don Ethell and (wife) Linda, our two boys and our family.”

Ethell was born in Vancouver on July 23, 1937, in a world on the knife’s edge of war as German Chancellor Adolf Hitler blustered and demanded the annexation of Austria to his Reich.

Ethell’s mom was a nurse and his dad a chief petty officer in the navy. Both were away a lot. His childhood was boarding school and home for summers and Christmas.

Young Don was a dock rat, prowling the wharfs and jetties of Esquimalt in the 1940s, memorizing every number, rivet and gun emplacement on the massive destroyers and light cruisers bobbing at anchor.

“I had an inkling I wanted to join the military in some sort,” he said.

By the time he enlisted, the shooting wars in Europe and Korea were over, but the Cold War was just heating up and there was peace to keep.

“My grandkids say, ’You don’t need to study history, Grandpa. You were there.”’

From 1960 to 1963 he was stationed in Germany, constantly hopping on and off red alert as Kennedy and Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear war in a standoff over Soviet missiles stationed on America’s doorstep in Cuba.

He remembers war-scarred German cities pockmarked by rubble heaps and empty-shell buildings. He recalls the bone-weary citizens merely shrugged their shoulders when told in 1961 that their Russian overlords were building a massive concrete wall in Berlin.

“They were just glad the war was over. They just wanted to get on with their lives.”

In his peacekeeping missions, he was shot at but never wounded.

Whenever he took new observers under his wing, he made sure they read books on the areas they were patrolling and saw both sides of a conflict.

Amid the ethnic violence in the Balkans in 1992 he was with a group of European observers told by the Croatians that they had found some Serbian women and children in a bunker and wanted to return them to their home across no-man’s land.

“It was organized that would get escorted across the line that night back to their own side,” recalled Ethell.

“When we came forward that evening to pick them up, the troops had disappeared. And the women and children had been slaughtered.

“The atrocities always stick in your mind.”

He retired in 1993 and travelled around the world as a military adviser, helping provide relief for sprawling refugee camps in Kenya and Somalia.

He remembers walking through lawless camps of 50,000 refugees. When the sun went down, assassins would come out to settle inter-tribal scores. It was normal, he said, to have 50 people murdered a night.

Doctors in the medical tent divided the sick into three groups: those treated and released, and those hospitalized. The third group, he said, were the “matchstick children” — youngsters with withered bodies emaciated by AIDS.

“You knew they were going to die and you would do as much as you could for them,” he recalled.

“I thought the term ’matchstick children’ was terrible, but it was very true.”

Recently, Ethell worked for Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Forces Advisory Council strengthening mental-health services for soldiers.

He’s a member of the Order of Canada and has received the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Order of Military Merit.

He has been married for 50 years to Linda, a lifelong Calgary woman whom he met while bowling with friends.

He reads voraciously and admires D-Day commanding general and former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower. He doesn’t watch war movies, but said everyone who wants to understand the carnage of war should take in the first 45 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Two months ago, he was invited to lunch at the downtown Westin hotel in Calgary by a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office.

Linda waited in the lobby.

And waited.

Eventually, Don came out and walked over to her.

“They want me to be lieutenant-governor,” he recalled telling her.

“She had to pick herself up off the floor.”

A few weeks later, he went to Ottawa and met Harper, who made the appointment official.

On Tuesday, he took over from Norman Kwong in a ceremony that included a 100-member military honour guard and a 15-gun salute.

As lieutenant-governor, he is the Queen’s representative in the province, responsible for signing bills into law, playing host to dignitaries, handing out awards and opening and closing sessions of the legislature.

The work begins immediately. He has already accepted an invitation to hand out awards and be in a parade for 27 cadets in the tiny community of Castor south of Edmonton.

Ethell said he never considered saying no to Harper’s offer.

“No. Not at all. Duty called.”