BIRCH ISLAND—Gerry McGregor was only 17-years-old when he first decided to join the military—so young he had to get his parents’ blessing—a result of a recent recruitment effort in his home community of Birch Island.
“I joined in 1983, in May, and was gone by June, right after school,” Corporal McGregor told The Expositor. “The recruiters came here; they called it the Youth Temporary Employment Program, which was 10 months.”
At 17, Corporal McGregor headed for Wainwright, Alberta for six months of basic training with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. While there, the young soldier met other recruits from Wiikwemkoong and Sheshegwaning.
“After the 10 months I was ready to come home,” he admits.
Corporal McGregor had been moved to Calgary near the end of his training and had been taking a machine gun course when his unit there was deployed to Cyprus. He asked if there was any chance of being sent to Cyprus if he officially joined the army. He was told ‘yes,’ and so stayed on. Soon after, Corporal McGregor, now 18, was shipped off to the Mediterranean.
“I spent four months in Cyprus—it was my first time overseas,” he said. On the way to deployment, Corporal McGregor’s unit had a stopover in Germany for one week.
“It was hot,” he recalled of his first encounter with Cyprus. “I remember getting off the plane and feeling so hot I thought I’d suffocate. It was in the mid-30s every day for four months straight. It rained twice in that time, but only for 15 minutes.”
While stationed in the Mediterranean, the Canadian forces helped the United Nations (UN) to patrol the buffer zones that ran through the capital of Nicosia as well as manning observation posts in and around the city.
“Cyprus was an experience,” Corporal McGregor said of his time there. “Two different countries (Greece and Turkey) stuck on an island, and you’re stuck in the middle while they’re trying to start a war.”
He said the shifts were 12 hours on and 12 hours off for weeks at a time. The long days, coupled with the heat, made for an exhausting time.
“There was no relief at night either,” he added. Before a shift started the soldiers were expected to have their boots spit-shined, their uniform ironed and their hats starched.
A year later Corporal McGregor was posted to Germany, now age 19, for the next three years with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Second Battalion. “I bought my first car there,” Corporal McGregor grinned. “A BMW.”
In Germany, Corporal McGregor was there as part of Canada’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) contingent.
From 1988 to 1992, Corporal McGregor was posted to the Canadian Airborne Regiment.
“I was picked to go to England to get my British parachute wings,” he said proudly, noting that each country has its own style of jump. While in England, Corporal McGregor got to stay with the palace guards behind Buckingham Palace.
“I also got my American wings,” he added. “I trained with the 82nd Airborne Division and the US Marines.”
Corporal McGregor has 50 jumps under his belt. “I could have had more, but I spent two summers on the rifle team.” Being a good Birch Island boy, and the son of Jim and Georgina McGregor, he was also on the hockey team and even played a n exhibition game in England.
Corporal McGregor’s home base became Petawawa, but he trained throughout Canada and the United States. He was released from service in September of 1992 and came back home to work at the family’s J&G Marina, then later at the community’s public works department. Corporal McGregor has also acted as a band councillor for the past 17 years.
“I appreciate what I’ve done and where I live,” he reflected. “I try not to take it for granted how lucky we are. I’ve seen how other people live and they aren’t as fortunate as we are.”
Corporal McGregor said he’s also kept that sense of discipline from his time with the armed forces, as well as the concept of respect for elders and respect for authority.
He said he has a great deal of respect and honour for all those who died in the military in all previous conflicts, recalling a fellow parachutist who jumped just before him from a plane and whose parachute didn’t open. He landed near his comrade’s lifeless body, knowing it could have just as easily been him. Corporal McGregor also lost four friends from his unit who were killed in a car accident. “That was hard on the guys,” he explained. “Seeing a military funeral and the 21-gun salute when they’re lowering the casket, that’s really hard.”
Corporal McGregor is a regular presenter at the Whitefish River First Nation Remembrance Day services, which he says is an honour.
The veteran said he was a mere 130 lbs when he joined the military and remembered a couple of guys from his community telling him he’d never make it through basic training. “That stayed in my mind and I stuck it out,” Corporal McGregor said. “Basic training was probably the hardest thing I’ve done, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met.”