Don and Brenda Ebbett: Couple’s dedication to Legion is unmatched

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

Just how does a man who has seen most of the world during a long military career, coupled with an unfettered passion for sticky buns, end up in the High Prairie area?

And his wife, who never saw northern Alberta until her later years, and husband decide to purchase land in the area and settle down to enjoy their retirement?

Just ask Don and Brenda Ebbett, both 71, and they will both tell you they couldn’t be happier.

The couple did not meet until they were 35, in July 1985 at the Royal Canadian Legion in Calgary.

“It was Calgary Stampede Week, Brenda was there with family and friends having a great time,” says Don.

Brenda remembers the day vividly.

“When Don came in, he sat at a table next to us, and because he was alone, I asked him to join our table,” says Brenda.

“He did and the rest is history. We have been together ever since.

“A true story of a successful pickup at the local Legion,” she concludes.

The couple were married Jan. 9, 1988 at their home in Calgary with family and friends attending. Just two days later, on Jan. 11, Don departed for Wainwright for six weeks of winter training.

The honeymoon would wait!

Don was born in Bath, N.B. and raised on a small farm outside the village of Upper Kent on the banks of the St. John River. After a dam was built at Beechwood that flooded the family’s best land, at the age of 12, they moved to Moncton.

Don attended elementary schools in Upper Kent and Perth and junior high school in Moncton.

“I attained what is known as Level II N.B. [Grace 10],” he says.

Brenda was born in Wetaskiwin. At the age of five, the family moved to the Lacombe area, then to Calgary, were they had a small farm, raising cattle and horses.

Brenda attended Ogden Elementary School, Sherwood Junior High School and then Ernest Manning High School for Grades 10-12 and graduated in Calgary.

Don’s history in the military is a tale of exemplary service and seeing most of the world. It is also one where he used his natural talents and coping skills to get the most out of each posting.

“I joined the Army Cadets in Moncton, N.B. at the age of 13,” he says.

“I was interested in joining the army since as a young boy. I would watch the convoys of vehicles drive past our farm on the Trans-Canada going from Petawawa, Ont. to Gagetown, N.B. for summer training exercises. I said, some day I’m going to do that.”

And he did! Don, at the age of 16, and with parental permission, joined the reserve [part time soldiers] in February 1966, traveling as a cook. Seeing as how the eager young man had been a cadet since he was 13, someone turned a blind eye to the fact that Don was just under the age requirement or 17 years.

The proposal obviously sounded fine to the young man who, shortly after, found himself in Gagetown, N.B. with the Back Watch Infantry for five months.

“The training there was very intense,” he says “On the day of arrival one of the men in charge told us straight off that he liked the number 30. Although there were many more recruits than 30, the man told them he would do everything he could to ensure that 30 men, and only 30 men, finished the training. True to his word, he worked the infantry very hard.”

However, 31 men finished the training, not without him trying to get rid of that last one, he adds.

“They were 31 pretty tough nuts,” says Don.

After failing Grade 10 for the second time, his mother suggested he join the army.

“At 17, after failing another year at school, again with parental permission, I enrolled in the regular army in July 1967,” says Don.

He completed his basic training with the Second Battalion Black Watch in Gagetown.

Following his stint in Gagetown, he was stationed in downtown Montreal for four months. Here he began working in the ordnance corps in the Quarter Master’s store, selling everything from bullets to beans to pens to toilet paper.

Don left Montreal to head to Western Canada, ending up in Calgary at the First Ordnance Field Park. He had the responsibility of looking after the brigade vehicles that took rations and ammunition to the outlying places such as Williams Lake, Wainwright, Suffield and the Northwest Territories. He says he spent about six months of the year out on the road with the trucks.

In 1969, he left Calgary to travel to a country he would eventually live in for about 12 years over three different visits. The first time Don went to Germany, he was stationed for two years in the northern end of the country with the British army along the Rhine River at a surface-to-surface missile battery.

In 1971, when Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau downsized the military, he as moved to Lahr, in the southern part of the country. The ordnance corps had been shut down and Don says thousands of men quit because they didn’t really feel there was a place for them within the Canadian military.

With obvious disdain, he describes a few of the changes that the Trudeau government implemented that directly affected his position within the military. The people who had worked in what was previously known as the ordnance corps were taken from the sectors of the military that they were accustomed to working in and were sent to another area. He says that the government did not realize that working with supplies in the army is much different than working on an air force base.

Now called a supply technician, he returned to Canada and found himself stationed in Cold Lake. He says the men on the air force base had no ide what to do with the group of men coming in from the army. Of course, they knew almost nothing about the workings of an air force base.

So, all of these men were grouped together and given the easiest, most menial duties.

Often, they worked with the trains of jet fuel coming onto the base. He recalls one time when someone had unknowingly opened up a wrong valve and part of a fuel tank split open. The men had no idea anything was wrong until a lady phoned to let them know that water was leaking out of the top of their tank. Of course, it wasn’t water, it was fuel! Luckily, soil placed around the tank saved the group from a major cleanup.

Don again went abroad in February 1977, this time to Egypt on behalf of the United Nations. In addition to the Canadian, troops from Ghana, Finland, Sweden, Austria and New Zealand were stationed along the Egyptian-Israel border near the town of Ismalia.

Surprisingly enough, one of the items he distributed to the personnel in the area was a parka. The veteran says that although it was usually 40C in the daytime, the desert became extremely cold when the sun went down. Sand does not hold heat well.

Land mines were a big concern for the troops stationed in the area, for they could never really keep track of where the dangerous explosives were. Large windstorms would often come up and move the mines with the sand, making some of the terrain quite hazardous on which to travel. Some men were lost by hitting these explosives.

The area where Don was stationed did somewhat integrate the various nations together. The Canadian’s quarters were surrounded by the Polish army, as they protected the Canadians. Even when the Canadians would go into Cairo to pick up mail and soldiers, Polish guards went along. The Canadians, in turn, fed all the troops.

On Sundays, the troops were allowed to go into Ismalia. He says they would go to a place that had steaks on “special” on Sundays. The only thing was, it was always a guessing game as to what you were really eating, as the meat had a different colour and texture every week.

Don says he remembers Egypt as hot and noisy. He remembers the sound of prayers coming across huge speakers several times a day.

He laughs as he says they nicknamed the Suez Canal the “Sweet Water Canal” as an ironic twist on what they witnessed as they lived alongside the body of water. He says everything from donkeys to human bodies floated down the canal as a fairly steady rate.

Don says the differences between Egypt and Israel were starting. Many times Egyptian men would become volatile with the troops, sticking rifles in their faces. These men would also often try to get into the military compounds at night to steal whatever they could find.

On the other hand, Don describes Israel as lush fields of green within the desert.

Of course, no one can go to this area of the world without doing a little bit of sightseeing. He was awed at the sight of the pyramids and the Sphinx.

“That’s ancient history, living ancient history.”

He also had the experience of going to the birthplace of Christ and swimming in the Dead Sea.

In September, he was set back to Cold Lake for more equipment and from there made his second trip to Germany. He would be back in Lahr for another six years, although this time tension was heightened. This was the time of the Cold War and Don remembers going through many drills that required being ready to ship out to war in a moment’s notice.

“The Russians at that time were a formidable force,” says Ebbett.

When the time came to leave you “pack your kit, you kiss your momma goodbye.”

He says that it was amazing to see 50,0000 to 100,000 people working together so efficiently.

While in Germany, he took advantage of the close proximity to other interesting countries. He visited Ireland, which he loved, and went to Holland to take part in the Nijmegen March. The Nijmegen March was started in 1909 by the Dutch military in an attempt to increase their military’s long distance walking abilities, but it grew to an international competition that includes military personnel, civilians, cadet teams, and police and emergency services.

The trek is comprised of four straight days of a 30-mile walk in a cloverleaf pattern around the city of Nijmegen. Don says that doing this walk with a 24-pound pack and a rifle took a lot of preparation. He figures that they hiked at least 1,000 km before the competition to try and get in shape.

In 1983, he returned to Calgary to work in a service battalion. He was promoted to Sergeant Major and became a part of the 1st Battalion of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in Calgary.

Here he was Regimental Quarter Master Sgt., which meant that he was in charge of the store that supplied the regiment.

In 1986, Don again went abroad, this time to northern Norway. His group was stationed there for one month along with the Italians, the Americans, the Germans, and the Norwegians. The troops were stationed there as a means of blocking off a route for Russia to come into the area through Finland.

He says that they lived in snow huts, using one Coleman stove and a lantern for heat and light. Of course, when the temperature hit around zero, all means of heating were turned off, for no one wants their sleeping area to become a sloppy mess. This was the way of the Canadians.

The Americans, on the other hand, almost “near froze to death,” says Don. The temperature often got down to around -20C, and he says that the Americans would have big stoves heating their huts leaving them to live in a constant slush.

Soon it was decided that most of the troops in the area would pull out, as the Cold War was winding down. All of the Canadian’s food and supplies were shipped out by plane first. Then, the Prime Minister decided that the aircraft that was to come and get the men should be used first to take some of his senators to the United States, says Don. Left with no food and no supplies, the Canadians had to become even more resourceful.

Don got a huge tent from the Norwegians and the group crammed in, sleeping elbow to elbow and feet to head on the ice. They sometimes went to the nearest town and got the extra pizzas left over at the end of the day at a local restaurant. They ate half frozen British canned mutton, for there was only one heater to heat the food.

“We were like beggars,” he says.

Finally, Don and a couple of other leaders hitched a ride to Oslo, a nearby city in which was a Canadian embassy. From the embassy they got enough money to go to a local restaurant, a nice reprieve from the leftovers they had been eating.

Finally, the government hired Air Canada to send a plane to come and pick the men up. After four days of being left in the cold with no supplies, the troops were non too happy.

It may have been episodes such as this one that enticed the British to call the Canadian battalion the “Can’t Do Battalion”.

Don later received a medal for his leadership role in taking care of the troops during that time.

In 1990, he returned to Germany with the First Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. His stay would be fairly short-lived, however, as in 1991 the Canadian military began pulling out of Germany.

Because his division was one of the first to leave, Don was told to stay behind and help the other units get their supplies back to Canada, as he had already been through the process once and knew what he was doing.

In 1993, after returning to Canada, Don went up to Yellowknife to distribute rifles to the Northern Rangers. The Northern Rangers were Inuit and First Nations men who lived in the remote towns of northern Canada that were given a red top, a red ball cap, a rifle, and 200 rounds of ammunition a year. They were supposed to be a sort of protector of Canada’s north, but actually found much better uses for their talents than to be the Canadian military’s watchdogs.

Across the north in various locations are bunkers filled with supplies that would be useful if a plane crash were to happen or someone became stranded. The Northern Rangers knew where these bunkers were and often became instrumental in rescuing people who were unfortunate enough to find themselves stranded in the area.

In 1994, Don left Yellowknife and was promoted once again, this time to Chief Warrant Officer, the highest non-commissioned rank available.

Upon returning to Calgary, he was again promoted, this time to Chief Supply Officer. He was given the responsibility of picking 150 men and women out of 300 to go to Bosnia. He would individually assess each person, looking at where their career was going, if women were pregnant or wanted to become pregnant, and other factors that would influence the decision.

From 1996-98, he worked as the base regimental Sergeant-Major, with 2,000 men working underneath him. Don says that he was basically the mother of the men, ensuring that their needs and wants were looked after.

Don Ebbett as a child.

On Aug. 4, 1998 he left the Canadian military after 32 years, 153 days service.”

Afterwards, beginning in 1989, he has served as a High Prairie Legion for another 32 years – about the same service in the army!

But it doesn’t tell the story of how he ended up in Sunset House.

Don was posted to Yellowknife in 1993. In 1994, on his way up to Yellowknife, Don had stopped and talked to a real estate agent [Sam Wiff] in Valleyview. While in Yellowknife he purchased a piece of land “with plenty of trees and water” that the agent recommended to him without even seeing it.

Of course, Brenda had to go and look at it before it was purchased and she knew that he would love it.

“She couldn’t stand now knowing what they were buying so she got on a Hercules aircraft and flew to Edmonton where she was picked up by a friend and they drove to Sunset House to see just what we bought,” Don says.

“I was very pleased with what I saw and could see the potential for further development,” says Brenda.

And they did buy! They happily reside at the farm where they “raise goats and chickens and pigs and to watch the world go by”.

“The farm is a quarter-section hobby farm in the Sunset House area,” says Don “At present, we have a small herd of about 28 goats and 130 chickens which we share with the lynx and owls,” laughs Don.

“We have, in the past, raised pigs, turkeys, rabbits, and donkeys.”

And two large gardens that keep their freezers full.

Today, Don is president of the Royal Canadian Legion, a position he has held since 2000., now 21 years. Previously, he also helped as a civilian instructor with the High Prairie Air Cadets, an organization very close to his heart.

Don recognizes that his time in the military gave him the opportunity to travel to see different cultures, and to meet a vast variety of people. Even though his hearing suffered as a result of this chosen occupation [he is 80 per cent deaf in one ear and 60 per cent deaf in the other], he is very content with where is life took him.

“If not [for the military] I’d probably be still in New Brunswick picking potatoes.”

Brenda did not work in the military like Don. She worked in the offices at Canada SKF Company in Calgary for six years, then at B.C. Bearing for 17 years. When living in Yellowknife, she managed the jewelry department at the local Walmart store.

After returning to Calgary, she had the “wonderful job” of babysitting her two granddaughters until retiring to the farm in Sunset House.

Brenda is now a 20-year member of the Royal Canadian Legion, where she handles hall bookings. She is also the membership chairman.

Both are passionate about volunteering in the community, especially the Legion.

“From my younger years in a small community in rural New Brunswick, I saw how being involved made for a happier life,” says Don.

“The military is also a community where working together and helping each other leads to success.

“I’ve been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion for 55 years. The Legion is an organization that is totally committed to volunteering and community service.”

Bother enjoy hosting an annual afternon for seniors at the farm.

“J.B. Wood Continuing Care staff would bring a busload of their residents to our farm for an afternoon of fun,” says Brenda.

“They arrived around 11 a.m. Don would have a fire started no matter how hot it was outside. Hotdogs were roasted and salad and desert were served. After lunch and a short rest, they were taken around to visit the goats, chickens and donkey and to pick raspberries. Then another rest and they were headed for home around 3 p.m.

“It was always interesting to watch and observe as they were often taken aback to the days when they were on the farm. Hopefully, after COVID and weather pending, they can come again!”

No mention of the Ebbett family would be complete without mentioning the most important of days – Nov. 11 – a special day each year for the Ebbetts when the community and nation honours its Veterans. Don is extremely grateful for the turnout each year.

“To me, it’s really super.”

And, of course, the invitation is always extended to everyone attending to enjoy some sticky buns!