A boy raised in Tulameen B.C. became a soldier, an officer and ended his career in public service with the Canadian Department of National Defence in 2019.
Despite experiencing physical and other injuries, Ernie Parolin, 59, has no regrets about his decision to serve.
It’s all he ever wanted to do.
“From a young age, of course,” he told the Spotlight. “I had uncles that had been in the war, the Second World War, and I really looked up to them.”
Parolin joined up in January 1982, when we was 18.
He spent more than a decade on various patches of home soil, in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Canadian Airborne Regiment.
“Jumping out of planes, that was really fun most of the time…I would love to do it tomorrow, but it’s kind of a young person’s game. Landings aren’t so soft.”
In 1994, Parolin, then a sergeant, was assigned as section commander of United Nations’ peacekeeping troops in the former Yugoslavia. It was the beginning of the Bosnian war, a three-year conflict that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
“Geographically I would say Bosnia, the landscape, is very much the same as British Columbia, the mountains and the forested areas. It was a very beautiful country, outside of the war.”
He recalled providing oversight for engineers who were opening an old mountain road. “It was kind of like, in the old days, the road from Princeton to Tulameen.”
Other responsibilities included establishing and operating observation posts, patrolling lines, mapping mine fields, and inspecting and reporting on artillery placements.
“If they started firing there was nothing we could do to stop it,” said Parolin, underlining the rules of peacekeeping.
“You knew there were people on the other end of it…Potentially they were killing people, but there was nothing we could do about it. That was one thing that has always lived with me.”
During the same period, Parolin’s wife Veronica was working in Croatia, in military intelligence.
The UN forces in Bosnia were sometimes short on supplies and non-military personnel. At one point the infantry was ordered to take charge of patients at a mental hospital.
It was an assignment Parolin described as “disturbing…There were all kinds of sick patients and all kinds of illnesses. We weren’t trained to look after people like that. Things like that, some soldiers carry around with them, as well.”
In 1988 Parolin was a peacekeeper in Cyprus. “It wasn’t as bad as Bosnia,” he recalled, while noting the local residents could be hostile to foreign soldiers who were only trying to help.
Years of soldiering took their toll, and in 2004 Parolin received a medical discharge. Hearing in both his ears was severely impaired, possibly due to long-term exposure to airplane noise and artillery. Joints in his neck and lower back were damaged, and he required three knee operations.
Parolin was also diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and eventually agreed to seek assistance for that condition, available through Veterans Affairs.
“It’s helped me help myself, and helps me help others.”
He watched the war unfold in Afghanistan, over 20 years.
A total of 158 Canadian service people were killed, and it hurt the boy from Tulameen deeply.
“Eighteen of those soldiers (were people) I knew well, and some of those soldiers I’d personally trained,” he said.
“I will always think about them, from time to time…But you also have to be careful how much you dwell on that.”
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