‘Losing brothers is a tough thing to do – they were my family down there and it’s always going to be at the back of my mind. But I’ve got to keep moving forward’
December 16, 2022
This week, John Ivison is joined by Canadian Forces veteran, James Challice, who spent six months training troops and fighting on the frontline in Ukraine earlier this year. He’s spending Christmas with his sons and mother in Ontario but early in the New Year he is heading back to the brutal killing fields of eastern Ukraine.
The contrast with a cozy Canadian Christmas could not be more stark and the decision to return to the war-zone might seem inexplicable to many people. Challice makes light of it: “Some people are cooks, some people are teachers, some work for the town. I just took it as a job…” But it is clear that the fight in Ukraine is personal for the 42-year-old, Coburg native. “I left a lot of stuff on the table down there,” he said. Challice trained 300 young Ukrainians, before leading a team of 15 in the southern Kherson region. “We were really effective but we only had eight guys left out of 15 when I left for home. Unfortunately, two days after I stepped off the plane, they got sent into a trench and ended up getting hit. Only one guy was left from the team and he is in hospital.”
He said the remaining team member, who lost a hand, called him from hospital in tears, apologizing for the loss of his colleagues. “That’s one of the reasons I really want to go back,” said Challice, who admits he’s had some tough times since returning to Canada. “I’m OK. It took a while to piece everything together when I got home. Dragging dead bodies out of the frontline, one after the other, does get to you….It’s still there. Losing brothers is a tough thing to do — they were my family down there and it’s always going to be at the back of my mind. But I’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Challice said that the high casualty rate is the consequence of a Russian advantage in artillery coverage. “The way war works right now with drones, is that they (Ukrainian troops) get sent into spot A to draw fire from artillery and tanks, while other teams get into position to locate and destroy. So, you’ve got to give people to get into position. It’s unfortunate but it is the only logical way to push forward. “With these drones, you can’t hide. There’s no cover, especially at this time of the year when there’s no tree cover and no heat thermal cover.”
He said he will be heading to the Donbas region to train fresh recruits on new weapons systems and reconnaissance, as well as accompanying them on missions. “You’d be dumb not to be scared but it turns out to be a job after a while, so the fear kinda goes away, which is also dangerous.”
He said the biggest problem is that the Ukrainians don’t have enough artillery or armoured vehicles. He said he used to travel to the frontline in a Hyundai Sonata. “By the end of the tour, it
was full of shrapnel and the glass was smashed out. But that thing saved my life a few times, believe it or not.”
He said Canada has not covered itself in glory when it comes to military aid, despite the commitment to send $500 million in equipment. “I feel kinda ashamed to be Canadian. We have all these Coyotes (armoured vehicles) that are being decommissioned. As taxpayers, we paid for them to be built and now we’re paying to decommission them. They could have sent them down there.”
Is it fair to say that Canada delivers less than it promises? “Yes, I can honestly say that,” said Challice. “I know there is other equipment we could be sending. After seeing what they say on the news and then what we see down there, it’s kinda discouraging,” he said.