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Retired Col. Don Ethell shown with Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean at the Order of Canada inductions in 2006. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Retired Col. Don Ethell shown with Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean at the Order of Canada inductions in 2006. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Retired colonel ecstatic to become Queen's right hand in Alberta Add to ...

Alberta's incoming lieutenant-governor is one of Canada's most decorated peacekeeping soldiers. But the navy wouldn't have him. And the air force kicked him out.

"I was more interested in girls and beer," laughed Don Ethell, a retired colonel, as he recalled why the air force discharged him as a teenager in the mid-1950s for neglecting his duties.

"You're 17 and the hormones are raging."

He said when navy recruiters learned about his air-force hijinks, they also told him to take a hike, son.

But, by coincidence, "I then walked past an army recruiting unit. There was a sergeant there and he said, 'Sure, we'll take a chance on you.'

"They took me on probation for a year, and things looked up from there on in."

Half a century, 14 peacekeeping missions, and a clutch of medals later, the Calgarian is poised to become the province's 17th lieutenant-governor in a ceremony at the legislature Tuesday.

It will be the capstone on a career that has taken Col. Ethell around the world - to hot spots in Beirut, the Middle East and the Balkans, and to refugee camps in Kenya and Somalia.

"It's now payback time," said Col. Ethell, 72, in a phone interview from southern California, where he was on duty looking after two grandchildren.

"I'm going to pay back the Canadian people and the people of Alberta for all the good things they've done to Don Ethell and (wife) Linda, our two boys and our family."

Col. Ethell was born in Vancouver on July 23, 1937, in a world on the knife's edge of war, as German Chancellor Adolf Hitler blustered and demanded the annexation of Austria to his Reich.

Col. Ethell's mother was a nurse and his father a chief petty officer in the navy. Both were away a lot. His childhood was boarding school then home for summers and Christmas.

Young Don was a dock rat, prowling the wharfs and jetties of Esquimalt in the 1940s, memorizing every number, rivet and gun emplacement on the massive destroyers and light cruisers bobbing at anchor.

"I had an inkling I wanted to join the military in some sort," he said.

By the time he enlisted, the shooting wars in Europe and Korea were over, but the Cold War was just heating up and there was peace to keep.

"My grandkids say, 'You don't need to study history, Grandpa. You were there.'"

From 1960 to 1963, he was stationed in Germany, constantly hopping on and off red alert as John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear war in a standoff over Soviet missiles stationed on America's doorstep in Cuba.

He remembers war-scarred German cities pockmarked by rubble heaps and empty-shell buildings. He recalls that bone-weary citizens merely shrugged their shoulders when told in 1961 that their Russian overlords were building a massive concrete wall in Berlin.

"They were just glad the war was over. They just wanted to get on with their lives."

Recently, Col. Ethell worked for Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Forces Advisory Council strengthening mental-health services for soldiers.

He's a member of the Order of Canada and has received the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Order of Military Merit.

He has been married for 50 years to Linda, a lifelong Calgary woman he met while bowling with friends.

He reads voraciously and admires D-Day commanding general and ex-U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower. He doesn't watch war movies, but said everyone who wants to understand the carnage of war should take in the first 45 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

Two months ago, he was invited to lunch at the downtown Westin hotel in Calgary by a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.

Linda waited in the lobby.

And waited.

Eventually, Don came out and walked over to her.

"They want me to be lieutenant-governor," he recalled telling her.

"She had to pick herself up off the floor."

On Tuesday, he'll take over from his retiring predecessor, Norman Kwong, in a ceremony that will include a 100-member military honour guard and a 15-gun salute.

As lieutenant-governor, he is the Queen's representative in the province, responsible for signing bills into law, hosting dignitaries, handing out awards, and opening and closing sessions of the legislature.

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