Canada remains a proud contributor to international peace and security. For instance, Operation REASSURANCE is Canada’s contribution to NATO missions in Central and Eastern Europe. Up to 915 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members are deployed, making it Canada’s largest current international military operation. One notable facet of Operation REASSURANCE is Canada’s deployment of 540 soldiers to lead the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia. The mission mandate in Latvia is to be ready for any conflict. As an Imagery Technician with the NATO Battle Group in Latvia, Sgt Donnie McDonald describes herself as “today’s reporter, tomorrow’s historian.” This is her story.
Born and raised just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland, Sgt McDonald shared a personal connection with the military from a young age. Her grandfather served in the Second World War, but like many veterans of the time, he was reluctant to share his experiences. Nevertheless, Sgt McDonald was motivated to join at the age of 33 because she enjoyed travel and adventure, the financial security of the CAF, and the draw of the unknown. Sgt McDonald is what they call a “late joiner” and regrets not enlisting at a younger age.
The transition from civilian to military life happened quickly and naturally for her. There was a culture shock as nothing prepares you for the regimental mindset. There were days where she thought: “oh my gosh, what have I done?” However, her success came from her parents, who taught her the importance of punctuality and self-discipline, making her have “half the battle won already.” The rest of Sgt McDonald’s success came from her adaptability – what she describes as “tuck and rolling” – resulting in a career that her family now describes as the coolest job ever.
Sgt McDonald has been an Imagery Technician in the CAF for the last eight years, having first served as a Meteorological Technician before transitioning to her current trade. Her job is to capture all the moments of training, exercises, and operations to provide a digital overview of the Canadian and allied militaries. For Operation REASSURANCE, the mission was to deter and defend. Sgt McDonald explained it quite simply, “how can you deter if no one knows you’re there? My job was to make sure the media and social media had enough visuals to make sure people knew we were there.” This visual storytelling is for anyone back home in Canada who is curious about the mission and any aggressor that threatens Latvia. “The images and footage that we gathered helped to proactively counter any false narratives from those less supportive of our mission.” Ultimately, the work of Sgt McDonald, or any Imagery Technician, is instrumental to the success of the operation in terms of establishing Canada’s presence in Latvia.
Canada was among ten nations invited by the Latvian government to assist their army – the nine others being Albania, Czech Republic, Iceland, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. An Imagery Technician in Operation REASSURANCE embeds themselves with the soldiers and captures their day-to-day activities. As one might guess, this role resulted in long days both in the field and in the office.
While deployed, Sgt McDonald’s day began at 5:00 AM before training started at sunrise. She would meet her Spanish teammate, Sgt Luis Barbero, before determining the grid locations for the day’s exercises. The two of them would spend the next 12 hours shooting photos and videos of their fellow soldiers. At sundown, Sgts McDonald and Barbero would return to their office and spend another four to six hours meticulously going through the 5000 photos and hours of video from that day. In all, Sgt McDonald estimates that she shot over one million images on her tour. People would joke that Imagery Technicians have an easy job but are then surprised by their amount of work to support the mission. On a good night, which rarely occurred, Sgt McDonald might sleep for six hours. Her days were long but extremely rewarding.
The most rewarding part of Sgt McDonald’s deployment included her interactions with people from around the world. She found it humbling to be part of the international community contributing to security and realize that “everyone is pooling together and working towards the common goal.” These people had a lasting impression on her as she explains: “the Spanish kind of adopted me as one of their own.” The soldiers from Montenegro were some of the nicest people she had met and, in many ways, resembled Newfoundlanders due to their kind hearts and willingness to share their last pieces of food – particularly chocolate.
Chocolate, or any food, was the common denominator for these allied nations – one of the challenges Sgt McDonald faced while on deployment was the language barrier. In many instances, English would be the fifth language of some of her colleagues. So when a language barrier presented itself, chocolate served as an excellent conversation starter and aided Sgt McDonald in her work. As she put it, chocolate – particularly the strawberry cheesecake flavour from Milka – made sure she got the images and video she wanted.
Operation REASSURANCE was Sgt McDonald’s fourth and favourite tour because of the opportunity to interact with and learn from other countries. She has also participated in Operations ALERT, ACTIVE ENDEAVOUR, and ARTEMIS, each offering unique challenges and learning experiences. Through her time in the military, Sgt McDonald has learned that she is more adaptable than she initially thought and has become comfortable being pushed outside her comfort zone. As she so eloquently put it, “I’m weird enough to enjoy the stress.”
At the outset of her career, Sgt McDonald’s greatest ambition was the call of adventure – to go and see places and make a difference, even if she considered herself just one small cog in the wheel. Her goal now is to make a positive impact as a senior Non-Commissioned Officer by helping to train and guide junior enlisted CAF members. As Sgt McDonald said, “I have the best job in the military [because] I get to experience a little bit of everyone’s life.” If she could pass on her knowledge, she would be happy.
It is crucial to highlight the sacrifices that Sgt McDonald and other CAF members make to reinforce peace and security in the broader international community. Her deployment on Operation REASSURANCE occurred during COVID-19, an unpredictable and complicated factor even when not participating in military service. Before leaving and returning to Canada, each member had to undergo a two-week quarantine, resulting in a month of isolation. Furthermore, the pandemic prevented CAF members from taking well-deserved time off during their tours. Instead, members of the Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia went over seven months without seeing their friends or families – including during the winter holidays. While their actions seem far away from Canada, we owe a great deal to our CAF members. Sgt McDonald’s story is one of many that contribute to Canada’s security at home.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Sgt Donnie McDonald and the Canadian Armed Forces for their gracious support in the writing of this article.
Photo: ‘The Team’ – Sgt Luis Barbero (left) and Sgt Donnie McDonald (right) on top of a Pizarro (2021) by Sgt Luis Barbero.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.