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Reservist Rooks retires after 50 years

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(L-R) Captain Robert Rooks accepts a plaque from Estevan PPCLI Army Cadet Corps commanding officer Captain Craig Bird. Rooks retired from the reserves of the Canadian Forces on January 26 after more than 50 years of involvement.

Captain Robert Rooks of Estevan spent more than 50 years of his life in the Canadian Forces reserves.

His dedication not only allowed him to serve his country for the vast majority of his life, but he also influenced generations of young people through his involvement with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) Army Cadets Corps in Estevan.

An added bonus: he became a pretty good bagpipe instructor and player.  

Rooks officially retired from the reserves on January 26, although it wasn't by his volition. He turned 65 that day – the mandatory age of retirement for a Canadian Forces member.

His introduction to the reserves came in 1963, when he signed up with the South Saskatchewan Regiment at the age of 14. Legally, he had to be 16.

“But if you could get somebody to sign the papers saying that you were 16, then that would work,” said Rooks.

In Rooks' case, his backer was Harry Nicholson, the long-time mayor of Estevan. Rooks said it was easier in the 1960s to fudge one's age when applying for the Canadian Forces, than it is now.

Rooks' older brother was already a member of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, and his father was friends with one of the sergeant majors. There was also some family history in the military.

“My uncle was a soldier in World War I,” said Rooks. “He was killed at Vimy Ridge.”

The regiment disbanded in 1968, so Rooks joined the 20th Armoured Regiment. At that time, he had left Estevan to go to university.

Upon returning to Estevan in 1972, Rooks shifted to the PPCLI reserve. Most of the officers in the PPCLI were non-commissioned officers from the South Saskatchewan Regiment, he said.

He quickly became involved with the army cadets in Estevan, and his passion for the cadet movement has never swayed. He spent 17 years as the commanding officer of the army cadets through multiple stints.

In 1976, Rooks and Don Burlinguette teamed up to start the PPCLI Army Cadets Pipes and Drums Band. And they learned to play the bagpipes, too.

“Since we had started this pipe band, we had better learn how to play the pipes, so that we knew what we were doing,” said Rooks.

Not only has Rooks become quite proficient at the bagpipes – he has even been the lead instructor at a summer bagpipe school in Alberta – but Rooks has developed an affinity for the instruments.

“Over the years, the pipe band has been successful and the cadet corps has been successful,” Rooks said. “Some of our cadets have joined the forces. Some have been in the navy, the army and the air force.”

The role of a reserve officer was different when Rooks first joined. The regular forces were so large, they did everything. Now Rooks says the reserves are more integrated with the regular force.

The closest he came to being deployed overseas was the Six-Day War between Israel and several of its neighbouring countries in 1967. It ended quickly, and the reservists were never called in, even though tensions remained high for months.

Rooks considered joining the Canadian Forces on a full-time basis, but eventually opted against it.

“I think the reason why I decided against it was I would constantly be uprooted,” said Rooks. “You were probably in any one place for two or three years.”

The night before his 65th birthday, Rooks was honoured during a Discharge with Dignity ceremony at the annual Robert Burns Night, which is, fittingly enough, hosted by the army cadets each year. About 225 people turned out for the event, and they gave Rooks a lengthy standing ovation at the end of the ceremony.

They weren't the only ones to applaud Rooks, either. Mayor Roy Ludwig recognized Rooks for his dedication to Estevan's youth. Rooks received letters of congratulations from Premier Brad Wall and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I commend you on your career of service to our country, and you can take great pride in your commitment to defend our nation, and the values for which it is known and respected throughout the world," Harper said in the letter.

Rooks was also presented with an plaque by Captain Craig Bird, who is the current commanding officer for the army cadets.

"We wish you a happy retirement, and many more years," Bird said.

The timing of the Burns night, the Discharge with Dignity ceremony and Rooks 65th birthday was fitting, since the cadets and the pipe band have been such a big part of Rooks' life for so many years.

"This Burns night that we have in Estevan is the only one that I know of, and it might be the only one in Canada or all over the world, where the cadets and young people do all of the activities," said Rooks.

"They pipe in the head table, they pipe in the haggis, they put on a presentation, and it also flows over to the (Drewitz School of Dance) Highland dancers, who are all young people."

He told the audience that serving in the Canadian Forces isn't like a Rambo movie and other Hollywood blockbusters. There aren't any one-man armies. A soldier depends on others in their regiment.

"As an individual, you must learn how to become a good soldier, or a good piper or a good drummer, so you can stand on your own two feet, and be excellent in your training,” Rooks said.

Rooks' duties weren't finished for the night once the Discharge with Dignity ceremony was finished. Dressed in his Scottish attire, he and the other members of the drum and pipe band entertained the audience with their instrumental skills, and the Drewitz Highland dancers performed for several songs.

And while Rooks might now be classified as retired, he promises that he will remain involved with the army cadets and the pipe and drum band as a civilian, and he looks forward to remaining involved with Estevan's youth.


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