They miss their cheap maple syrup and they have to import ketchup chips, but for Canadian troops, Colorado remains the most sought foreign assignment.
Lt. Gen. Christopher Coates, Canada’s top officer on U.S. soil and the deputy commander for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said his 140-strong Canadian contingent and their families have come to love Colorado Springs. Monday, they’re gathering for a community party to celebrate Canada Day, that nation’s equivalent to our July 4th.
Coates said most of his troops have had Colorado Springs atop their assignment wish list for years.
“The ones that are here really want to be here,” said Coates, who rose through the ranks as a a helicopter pilot. “I have to deal with requests for extensions every year.”
Canadians first came to Colorado Springs at the height of the Cold War, 61 years ago. The partnership to defend U.S. and Canada is unprecedented in military annals. Canadian bosses can give orders to U.S. troops and U.S. leaders can scramble Canadian fighter jets under the NORAD pact.
“Back in the Cold War, NORAD was a huge organization,” Coates said, noting the Peterson Air Force Base command once controlled a string of radar sites across Canada’s northern reaches and swarms of fighters to counter Russian bomber threats.
Since the 1990s, NORAD has slimmed down. But the organization has played a massive role patrolling the continent’s skies since the 9/11 attacks, and the Russian bear is on the prowl , Coates said.
“The threats we face are increasing around the world,” Coates said.
As the threats rise, the border-crossing bonds within the command seldom have been stronger.
The Canadian general Coates reports to is an American boss, who is also a Canadian general, if one in a different uniform.
Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, NORAD’s leader, was born in Canada before he moved to the U.S. and went on to play hockey for the Air Force Academy.
“It’s really sort of special,” Coates said.
The command has its eyes pointed to the far north these days for military reasons, too. Shrinking Arctic ice sheets have made much of Canada’s northern coast accessible to sea traffic. The area is a treasure trove for natural resources and possible flash point for conflict for strategic rivals, including a resurgent Russia, which has been probing the region with long-range bombers, and China, a rising naval power.
“We have a long history with the north,” he said.
On Canada Day, though, many of the command’s Canadian troops will get a break to enjoy their home that’s far from home.
A party is planned at Penrose House, where local dignitaries and Canadian troops and officials will toast NORAD and America’s northern neighbor.
Coates said it’s that community support as much as Colorado’s natural beauty that makes Canadian troops compete to come here.
Colorado Springs’ love for troops might also have created a small but growing ex-patriot community.
“It might be why so many Canadians say this is where they want to call home after they leave the service,” Coates said.