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Navy officer from Lindsay takes us inside anti-drug trafficking Operation CARIBBE

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Lt Sheila Tham, public affairs officer, grew up in Lindsay. Photo: The Royal Canadian Navy.
Lt Sheila Tham, public affairs officer, grew up in Lindsay. Photo: The Royal Canadian Navy.

Since Oct. 26, 2020, when Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Summerside departed Halifax for Operation CARIBBE, I have been the voice of the ship’s Facebook page as the deployed public affairs officer. I never expected to find myself on a warship; I’m from Lindsay, and hadn’t been on a ship until the day we left Halifax.

Public affairs is a “purple trade,” meaning we can wear any uniform and work in any element of the Canadian Armed Forces. I’m now a good example of that. I wear the army uniform, I have split my time almost equally between serving with army and with my home position in the air force as the Wing Public Affairs Officer at 8 Wing/CFB Trenton, and now I’ve been attached to the Royal Canadian Navy as well.

On ship I am known as a “rider” — closer to a passenger than a contributing member of the ship’s team, as I don’t have any navy-specific training. As public affairs officers, we are often justifying our existence and explaining our value to the trades around us. Public affairs is a command function, which can be difficult to grasp if you’re not a commander in need of strategic messaging or communications advice. (A command function simply means my work supports the commander’s decision making process and potentially influences the direction that he or she takes in the campaign.) We also act as the liaison between the public and the military, but as a unit floating in the middle of the Caribbean Sea it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how this contributes to mission success. These issues compound on ship: You are taking up a bunk of a potentially useful member of the ship’s company (strike one), you’re a day worker in a sea of shift workers (strike two), and no one is sure exactly what value you bring (strike three).

There is lots to be done on ship and plenty of opportunities to jump in and help. But, because you don’t have navy training, often the ship’s crew will be so busy getting the job done that they won’t have the time to explain or show you how you can be of help. This is a very daunting world to step into and, in my opinion, not for the faint of heart. I woke up most days heavy with the weight of expectation. I owed so much to the ship’s company – the troops who run the vessel.  They work hard to keep things going properly and as a “rider,” I didn’t contribute much to the actual day-to-day operation of the ship. As a rule, navy ships must use every single person to their max due to lack of physical space.

I was also an outsider in a crew that had done training together, so finding my place was a puzzle I kept trying to piece together daily.

An example of this situation is during lowering of the boats. HMCS Summerside is outfitted with three small boats for Operation CARIBBE that needed to be moved (via a crane on the back of the ship, or the sweep deck) and then lowered into the water. This is an activity that takes a lot of hands holding ropes to control the movement of the boat in the air. People of all trades pitch in, but when I first saw the activity, people seemed to magically find gloves and hard hats; they yelled commands that I didn’t even understand (and responded to them). Everyone was grabbing ropes and moving around the ship like a synchronized dance. The crew worked like a well-oiled machine and sometimes it was hard not to feel like an obstruction in the chain.

Instead, I did my best to contribute in the way I knew how — staying out of the way and getting photos of people doing their jobs. I feel really privileged to have had that perspective. The navy is full of skilled people who are excellent at their jobs and often that goes uncaptured; there isn’t usually a photo album at the end of the day.

The job on HMCS Summerside for Operation CARIBBE is nowhere near the job I do in Trenton. The diversity of experiences is another thing I love about public affairs. At 8 Wing, there is a team of imagery technicians who are skilled in photography, videography and graphic design.

On this mission, I hold the camera and am responsible for daily photo or video submissions including editing and metadata/captioning. My experience in speech-writing and arranging media events goes mostly unused, and there’s no liaising with journalists or local media. Instead, I am drafting articles and social media posts for the commander’s review, monitoring social media activity and relaying metrics to (hopefully) optimize our engagement. If it were an army deployment, I would say I was in the trenches (or at least taking photos of the people in the trenches).

The members of HMCS Summerside greeted me with open arms and showed me a piece of their world. I have enjoyed capturing the moments — everything from Sunday Sundaes to mission briefings with the intent of stopping illicit drug trafficking in the Caribbean Sea. I was also happy to learn the variety of ways I can pitch in and support the crew in accomplishing their mission. Working with the United States Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (during a U.S. election, no less) was an interesting and exciting experience. Learning about the culture of the navy and the role of everyone on ship still has me on overload most days.

I will be coming home to Trenton with a new navy perspective that I feel honoured to have gained, as well as a better working knowledge of how to share the story of the people in the Canadian Armed Forces. Because of COVID, I can’t say that I experienced the port visits that so many sailors rave about, but I did experience sailing, acting as a lookout for vessels of interest, long sweaty workdays and being a member of a ship’s crew. I can also say that I’ve swum in the Caribbean Sea during a time when most people are confined to their houses, which is the best consolation prize I’ve ever heard.

Operation CARIBBE is Canada’s contribution to U.S. Enhanced Counternarcotics Operations under U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS). The intent is to detect, monitor and prevent illicit trafficking in the Caribbean Sea and off the Pacific coast of Central America. To make this happen on this mission, Canadian ships transported eight law enforcement officials from the U.S. Coast Guard who integrated with our crew. We work together to find vessels of interest so they can do their work. The synchronization of capabilities between the Royal Canadian Navy and United States Coast Guard enables greater success in reducing drug trafficking while strengthening the ability of nations to work together in common cause.

Canada has been conducting Operation CARIBBE since 2006, and the Canadian Armed Forces has contributed to the disruption or seizure of approximately 105 tonnes of cocaine and more than six tonnes of marijuana.

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