County native prepares the way for fellow soldiers in West Africa

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If you think it’s been warm lately, just be thankful you’re not in Mali, Africa, where the temperature gets a wee bit warmer than it does here.

“We have a digital temperature monitor here. It sits under a sun screen… not in direct sun. It will indicate temperatures up to 49 C, today it was 46.3,” said Stellarton native Blake Roach who is in Mali as part of Operation Presence with the Canadian Forces task force to the UN mission.

“Most days it just shows a dotted line which means it’s over 50. And it does feel well over 50 some days. You put antiperspirant and sunscreen on just as a habit, but it sweats off in about 20 minutes.”

Warrant Officer Roach and his fellow Canadians have been in the West African country since June, preparing the way for a larger group of CF personnel who will arrive later.

Roach and his colleagues are sharing space on a German base, Camp Castor, outside the city of Gao.

“The living conditions are pretty good. There is a “tent city” where some personnel are housed as well as some hardened structures. It is pretty much the same as any military camp I have been on. However, we are limited to a two-minute shower once a day; water in Africa is, as you could imagine, a valuable commodity.”

And although it ain’t Pictou County pizza, the food isn’t bad at all, Roach said.

“The food is pretty good. Not as good as “home cooking” but pretty good…We seem to have sausages quite frequently. I don’t have to cook or clean up, so I can’t really complain.”

He said the best part of his time in Mali is seeing fellow soldiers — friends — that he hasn’t seen in some time.

“The Engineer Branch is not very big and people are spread from coast to coast. This is the third time I have been part of a Theatre Activation Team. This means we are the first people to hit the ground before the actual Task Force arrives. We, as engineers, establish the essentials/necessities for people to live and work. We do refrigeration, carpentry, plumbing, environmental studies and of course my part of the picture — the electrical work.”

Seeing friends is the best, and the dirt is the worst.

“What I dislike the most is the dust. It is so dry here the dust is like talcum powder, only red, much like PEI soil only really, really dry. The dust gets everywhere. You don’t really realize how dirty you are till you wash your hands.”

He’s had a chance to work a bit with the Germans when equipment comes in and has had a chance to interact with some local folks, too.

“We have locals who work in service industries in the camp: food prep in the kitchen, cleaners, laundry. There is no need for me to leave camp, it is not part of my mission here. We did have a group of mostly women who came to the camp for a local ‘market day’. They had carvings, jewelry and paintings, some of it very well made. I bought a painting.”

So, what exactly does a Construction Engineer Superintendent (Roach’s job) actually do?

“I usually oversee the design and implementation of a project. Here, I actually get to do the hands-on part of the project as well… which is really nice. Most of the equipment the task force is using is operational strictly on North American power specifications. We needed to design a system which would convert European spec electrical to North American spec. So back at my unit, 1 Engineer Support Unit in Kingston, Ontario, we needed to source equipment which would be robust enough to withstand the extreme environmental conditions of Africa. And it is not so much as the larger pieces that are important… it’s the small piece. There is no electrical supplier in Mali so we needed to think of everything… So we plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Canada is known as nation with a strong peacekeeping tradition and this mission to Mali is the latest in a long line of deployments of which we can be proud. But, Roach said, once you’re there, it’s business as usual.

“For me it does not feel different from any other tour. As a construction engineer it is just a job site. I am not really near the pointy end of the stick, so to speak. I still feel like I am on any job site I have ever been on prior too… At this time I just happen to be in Africa.”

Roach has been around the world with various Canadian operations, including twice in Afghanistan. Despite the time away from home, and the long days, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“This my sixth tour in 13 years and it seems like I started this whole journey yesterday. I really am enjoying my career in the Canadian Armed Forces. I am still waiting for a tap on the shoulder and someone telling me: ‘You’re having too much fun, you have to leave.’ But leave I will in six-plus years. I will age out. That will be a sad day for me. But I would not have been able to achieve all I have without the support of my lovely wife Charlene. She has been wholly supportive of all my deployments, all the exercises and all the days and nights away from home. I am what I am because of her.”

Warrant Officer Blake Roach of Stellarton is in Mali, Africa, as part of the Canadian Forces’s UN peace supporting mission. (Canadian Forces photo)