Paul Abbott turned passion for tanks into military career

Paul Abbott

LITTLE CURRENT – Little Current’s Paul Abbott has seen the world through his time spent in military service, both on active duty and off, including a brief involvement in the American-led invasion of Grenada in 1983, but his decision to join began with humble, practical motivations.

“At the time I wanted to have something that was secure. And I guess my ambition in life at that time, being young, was I wanted to drive a tank,” laughed Mr. Abbott.

Times certainly have changed for the veteran, who can now be spotted zipping around town driving his Smart car.

He was born in Exeter and moved to a Manitoulin farm when he was 10. After high school, he was away from the Island until his return in 1996.

Mr. Abbott graduated from high school in 1979, worked for a short while and eventually joined up through the Sudbury recruiting centre in 1981. He had no family history of military service.

He completed an aptitude test in Sudbury, which qualified him for certain military branches. The Army Corps was one of the options that suited him, according to the test, and was the one he chose.

Soon, it was off to Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis in Nova Scotia for 11 weeks of basic training.

“For anybody that’s young and in good physical shape, I’d recommend it,” he said.

Following basic, he went off to Harvey Barracks in Calgary for a further three months of trades training. His ‘TQ3’ course familiarized him with more army-specific tools and techniques, such as the vehicles, guns and tactics required for that corps, as well as standardized components like first aid.

There was physical training, too, as he and his crew would run four to five kilometres, five days per week.

But at the nearby Gagetown base in Oromocto, New Brunswick, he finally got the opportunity he had so waited for—driving a Cougar armoured fighting vehicle as part of his courses. He would later go on to drive a Leopard tank when stationed in Germany.

“I’ll never forget that first time I got to drive one for as long as I live. When you have 1,200 horsepower under your foot, it’s quite a thing,” he said.

Paul Abbott, in the first crouching row of soldiers, third from right, with his cohort in basic training.

Following his eastern experience, Mr. Abbott joined the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Royal Canadian Regiment, based in Wainwright, Alberta, which specialized in winter warfare. He served there from 1981 through 1984.

“It was really good training; some of the best in the world was with the Strathconas,” he said.

Before his stint with the Strathconas was up, he took on a special assignment with the United States Army in 1983—just as that country led an invasion into the Caribbean island nation of Grenada that only lasted a very short time.

“I was only deployed at that point for maybe 24 hours before we flew out again. It was a rather nasty thing that took place after a hostage situation back in the day,” he recalled.

The Grenada invasion of 1983 began on October 25 and ended on December 15. In 1979, a coup overthrew the existing government and installed a Marxist-Leninist government that allied with Cuba.

It quickly militarized and the US was concerned about the rise of Soviet strength in the oceans near its shores.

In October 1983, a group backing the deputy prime minister kidnapped the sitting prime minister and overthrew his government, later executing the overthrown leader.

The US then joined forces with Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and St. Vincent and led an invasion on the island. Grenada and Cuba partnered with fellow Soviet states to defend the country but were outnumbered by nearly three-and-a-half by the US-led side.

Across both sides, 113 people died and more than 500 faced injuries. The invasion ended when the foreign forces installed a new government.

“I was in advanced recon and a sergeant,” said Mr. Abbott of his role in the invasion. “The US service was totally different than Canada. A lot of Canadians during the Vietnam era went into active service with the Americans over there; my experience was something similar to that.”

Although his time in Grenada was interesting, he said he would not have wanted to relive his active service experience again.

He described his trades training in Alberta as “the biggest challenge for me in the military. I had to really give it everything I had to make it, but I graduated and made it.”

After leaving Alberta, he took the course on driving the Leopard tanks at Gagetown and then operated them in Germany from 1984 to 1987 while he served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in its regiment’s stint in Germany. There, he continued to operate the German-made Leopard tanks.

The Dragoons returned to Canada and Mr. Abbott spent his final service years at Petawawa until his release in 1990.

Post-military, he studied at Kemptville College of Agricultural Technology for two semesters in small engine mechanics. He would later return to Manitoulin where he and his father (the late Don Abbott, who was the yard foreman at Tim’s and Co. Building Centre for 22 years) ran small engine services at his house for 17 years.

“One of the things I still use in my life from the military is discipline. That was one of the things that helped me get through; how to take orders and adjust to military life,” he said.

Mr. Abbott has also found camaraderie, friendship and support through the Royal Canadian Legion both during his military service and after his release. He has been a member of legions in Germany, Petawawa and here at Branch 177 in Little Current, the latest one for the past eight years.

“It’s been great to be a part of the Little Current Legion,” he said.

People attending Legion events in the area will likely recognize Mr. Abbott from his involvement in fundraisers, ceremonies and events. Although his military years are now in his past, Mr. Abbott still recognizes the benefits they brought to his life.

“If young people want to get physically fit and see the world, by all means, I’d encourage you to join the forces,” he said.