A hero can be defined in many ways but in essence, it is someone who is able to achieve great things by inspiring others through their perseverance, integrity and commitment. Only a dedicated few, however, are able to achieve something that makes a difference in this world.

During the late summer of 2008, Commander Chris Dickinson and his crew of 253 on board the HMCS Ville de Québec (VDQ) were able to make such a difference.

The ship had initially been assigned to Operation Active Endeavour, an anti-terrorist mission in the Mediterranean. Having prepared thoroughly, the ship arrived on station in early August 2008.

However, with a desperate situation unfolding in Somalia, the ship was officially re-tasked a week later to conduct escort duty as part of the United Nations World Food Program. The ship began escort duties on August 19 between Mombasa, Kenya, and the war-torn Somali capital of Mogadishu, to help the UN humanitarian efforts in the drought and hunger stricken region.

“It was an important mission for us to undertake,” said Dickinson, the ship’s commanding officer. “HMCS Ville de Québec had a well-trained and motivated crew always ready to take on a challenge. This combination of factors will always result in mission success.”

During the next 78 days, the VDQ and her crew escorted and provided on board security to numerous UN supply ships carrying thousands of tons of life-saving food through the pirate-infested waters. She saw a number of merchant vessels being held for ransom off the coast of Puntland.

“We knew our presence was crucial to the World Food Program,” Dickinson said. “Pirate attacks off Somalia accelerated throughout August and September, and as many as a dozen ships were held for ransom at a time.”

In North American or European waters, such acts would have resulted in an immediate response by law enforcement; here, it was a part of daily life in a region of violence and lawlessness.

In escorting the supply ships carrying food provided by Canada, they were able to help meet the urgent needs of some 400,000 Somalis who relied on food aid – 90 percent is delivered by sea.

Recalling his arrival in Mogadishu, Dickinson said, “As I scanned the devastated harbour I was reminded of how our Canadian naval forefathers must have felt as they herded convoys safely into burning Liverpool after having crossed an Atlantic full of prowling U-boots during World War II.”

Now employed as part of the Strategic Joint Staff, Capt (N) Dickinson, a modest man with a quiet sense of humour, noted that the real hero of this story was his crew. However, it is clear that under his effective leadership, the crew willingly faced huge challenges under very difficult circumstances. A man who inspires confidence and respect, he was able to motivate his crew to achieve their mission. In light of the sailors’ dedication and the training that they receive, the crew was ready, willing and able to meet and conquer every challenge that he presented.

“I believe they have made a difference in this region through their efforts, while being themselves changed for the better by their experiences here,” he said.

As a result of their actions, the ship and its crew received a commendation from the Chief of the Defence Staff, which stated, “With remarkable motivation, amazing flexibility and dedicated effort, VDQ overcame the challenge of simultaneously providing merchant vessels with on board security and naval escort. The individual dedication of each crew member to the humanitarian mission brought hope to a quarter of a million people and highlighted Canadian leadership on the world stage.”

Added the CDS, General Walt Natynczyk: “You have all done an amazing job and should be proud of your recent accomplishments. Canada is extremely proud of you.”

Now under a new commander, the VDQ’s company continues with new missions, knowing that what they did was special, has made a difference, and is something in which every Canadian can take justifiable pride. Their actions reflect the best traditions of the Canadian Navy. As Dickinson says, “It’s easy to be on the side of the angels.”