Hoppe, Thomas: Maclean's 1995 Honor Roll
The late August day began like most others in Sniper Alley during the summer of 1994 - with sporadic gunfire. Sniper Alley, just outside the Bosnian valley town of Visoko, had earned its name from the gunfire that regularly peppered UN relief convoys using the stretch of road to reach the civilians of Sarajevo, 25 km to the south. But on this day, the apparent targets were neither combatants nor peacekeepers. The gunfire came from two ridges occupied by rival armies of Serbs and Muslims. Among both sets of semi-trained belligerents, recalls Thomas Hoppe, now 30, the Canadian sergeant whose eight-person patrol was stationed that day in a fortified observation post at one end of Sniper Alley, "there was a lot of drinking going on. These guys would get totally blotto and take potshots at us. It was irritating."
But Hoppe's irritation turned to alarm when he noticed three young boys cowering near the entrance to a cemetery 45 m away - within firing range of both armies. The Vancouver-raised peacekeeper, a member of the Calgary-based Lord Strathcona's Horse armored regiment, became even more alarmed when he saw bullets kicking up small geysers of dust from the roadway just metres from the cemetery gate. With gunfire continuing from the hills, Hoppe instructed the driver of an armored personnel carrier to provide moving cover by driving slowly out of the post's gate. On foot, Hoppe loped alongside, keeping the vehicle's broad white bulk between himself and the incoming rounds until he stood in the cemetery's driveway. There, Hoppe left the protection of the carrier's shadow to hurry the three youngsters through its big rear doors and into comparative safety. "I wasn't really worried," he says now.
It was the second time in as many months that Hoppe had demonstrated bravery under fire. The 10-year military veteran, who joined the army immediately after graduating from high school at age 18, had deeply impressed his superiors only six weeks earlier when he safely extricated his patrol of two armored vehicles from a fierce firefight that, after erupting between Muslim and Serb positions, had quickly engulfed his unit.
For the two actions, then Gov. Gen. Ramon Hnatyshyn earlier this year decorated Hoppe with the Meritorious Service Cross and the Medal of Bravery - making him one of the few Canadian soldiers to be twice decorated for courage since the Second World War. That honor and its accompanying two gleaming silver medals nestled in matching black leatherette cases have in fact made little difference to Hoppe's life since he retired from the military in the spring. Back in Vancouver, the former sergeant's closest contact with military equipment these days is with the plastic models of tanks and armored vehicles that line one wall of the hobby shop, owned by his parents, where he now works. Single again after a brief marriage, Hoppe has turned to sailing the choppy waters of English Bay to recapture some of the excitement of his former career. But he acknowledges that it is a pallid substitute for military action, and that he is considering re-enlisting. "Canadians," he observes with regret, "don't know a lot about their military or about the guys sacrificing their lives over there. It's sad." Still, with peace at last about to return to Bosnia and Sniper Alley, that is an oversight that Hoppe's courage and double distinction may finally begin to redress.
Maclean's December 18, 1995