"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Soldier’s Way

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A short talk I gave to some local business groups this week of remembrance.

How pleased I am to be here today sharing some thoughts about our Canadian Forces, and the soldier’s way of life. One of the things that I do to repay everything Canada has done for me, is to talk about the way of the soldier, to do my part to make sure Canada’s citizens know what their citizen-soldiers are all about. What I thought I would talk about this morning is a bit about what you might call the “way of the soldier” looking at my service experience and some recent history of the military in Canada and its interaction with the public, and then to let you hear in the words of two soldiers how Canada is being represented in the world, to reflect this week of remembrance.

First, just a bit about me. I joined the Canadian Forces in 1983, and served for 20 years. My departure wasn’t voluntary, but I was medically discharged after a vehicle accident caused significant damage to my back, rendering me un-deployable and leaving me with a chronic pain condition. I served as an aerospace engineer, in the air force, and spent most of my time in aircraft operations and maintenance with the Canadian fighter force in Cold Lake and Germany. My specialty involved aircraft weapons systems and explosives. After I left the military I was ordained as a priest by the Anglican Church, and spent some time in parish ministry, before I had to leave that work as I found it a bit too trying on my back. I did several years of work as a forensic engineer, and for the past few years have worked as a full-time member of an appeal tribunal.

When I joined the CF, it was in the midst of the Cold War, and the cracks in the Iron Curtain were not yet visible. That was, in many ways, a simple time to soldier – you knew the enemy, they were on the other side of a well-defined line, and would fight a traditional war. To serve in the Cold War was to have a clear idea of who you were and what your mission was. We trained to fight a war of attrition, to hold the line long enough for the Americans to reinforce the central European theatre. That training included sustained operation under nuclear and chemical warfare conditions…in gas masks and what we called “poopie” suits…if you can image performing aircraft maintenance while wearing a SCUBA diver’s outfit, you’ll get the idea. In about 1991 that all changed when the wall came down.

Around that time, I clearly recall that the Canadian public was at best indifferent, and at worst outright hostile about the military. A friend of mine was walking down a street in Toronto…this would have been around 1985…and was stopped by a lady who asked if he was in the military. When he said yes, she asked why he enjoyed killing women and babies. We weren’t always received with open arms in all public encounters.

Between about 1991 and 2001 was a time of some confusion in the military, as we had lost our focus on that clear Cold War mission. This period began with the first Gulf War, included Somalia and the murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Airborne regiment and the Rwandan genocide. The public attitude continued – In a job interview in Kingston, Ontario in 1993 my wife was asked, “You seem like a smart lady, what are you doing married to a military person?” This was also the time of combat operations in the former Yugoslavia, a story that is still not fully known by Canadians. Our troops were there on a mission to bring peace, but in reality ended up dealing with one of those former Soviet Bloc country’s very well-trained and well-equipped soldiers, particularly in the Battle of the Medak Pocket. The military kept much of the news quiet, so even though our soldiers were encountering great risk, and distinguishing themselves, no one back home knew about it, and most of those stories are still unknown (we only kept up because of the classified intelligence briefings we regularly received).

Then something happened, with the attacks on the World Trade centre in 2001, and the Canadian participation in combat operations in Afghanistan in 2002, there started to be a shift in public opinion. I spent my first weeks of the new world order sitting on NORAD alert in Comox, with fully loaded fighters standing by to shoot down any passenger aircraft that were not under control of their pilots. At my last Remembrance Day while serving, in Winnipeg in 2002, I was approached in a Tim Horton’s after our parade by a young man, who thanked me for my service to Canada. I was speechless.

What was different this time was a wider recognition of the role of the military. The military had also gotten a lot smarter about using the media to get the stories of soldiers out there, and we have seen many embedded reporters carrying us news from the front. Consider also the spontaneous development of Highway 401 in Ontario as the “Highway of Heroes” and the masses of people who turned out every time a soldier’s body was brought home. This outpouring of public support is unprecedented in the west, and our US neighbours are stunned by what they see happening in Ontario. Something very special has been happening in this relationship between our citizens and our citizen-soldiers.

It is also a different time to be a soldier. Consider that there have been something like 25,000 CF soldiers through Afghanistan in the past ten years, almost 40 per cent of the total strength of the CF. This is easily on par with the size of our fighting force in the Korean conflict. By 2015 veterans like me will outnumber WW II and Korean veterans 3 to 1. We are also facing a new type of warfare, counter-insurgency, which we have seen before but not on this scale. Compared with combat in the past, there are no fixed lines of defence, no permanent defensive emplacements, and the “enemy” looks just like everyone else. This is called ‘asymmetric warfare’ because you never know who the enemy is, where the enemy is or even when the enemy is. The Canadians have continued to innovate, and our model of provincial reconstruction teams, that is a fighting force, combined with aid and reconstruction, were the model by which NATO undertook to transform Afghanistan. The transformation in Canadian public opinion, and in the CF in the past decade has been amazing – and it is difficult for me not to get emotional, when I saw all the intersections along Calgary Trail blocked off by police, firefighters and paramedics when there is a convoy of soldiers returning from overseas.

I have noted some comments on media websites which suggest there is a significant difference between a combat veteran and a ‘non-combat’ veteran. I find this distinction somewhat mystifying. Soldiers do not typically seek for combat, because we know too well what combat can mean. We do look for a chance to prove that we can do our duty, that what we have trained a lifetime for we can achieve and not let our comrades down. We look on those who have seen combat with some envy, because they have met the ultimate test of a soldier, but we don’t dismiss those who have not seen combat as a different type of solider. If we don’t, why do non-soldiers?

At its root it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way of the soldier, of the law and of history – so just a word on this. Soldiers are not employees by tradition or by the law. For example, there is no employment standards code, no occupational health and safety code, no workers’ compensation for a soldier (veterans benefits are very different, and not always as quick or generous as WCB benefits). A soldier serves under what is called unlimited liability – which means an inability to refuse to follow a lawful order, even if that order meant death. There is no other part of our society where there is unlimited liability to serve. There’s also a great misperception that the only place of real risk is combat, which is far from the truth. Military training is a dangerous business, and I’ve lost 6 friends in training for the 1 who died in combat. Those training accidents, or a death while on real-world operations not due to combat, are still soldiers dying on duty doing things that are done in no civilian work place.

Since part of my focus is remembrance, I’ll recall Kevin Neasmith (who we called ‘Nasty’), who died when his CF-188 became uncontrollable on a training mission in Cold Lake, Rich Corver (who we called ‘Opie’) who died on a night mission in Inuvik…Hollis Tucker (who we called ‘Tuck’) who died on a day mission off Vancouver Island. When I compare those three (and several others whose memory I hold dear) to another comrade, Geoff Parker, killed by an IED in Afghanistan, I have no difficulty in seeing a great equality in their service…and I have no doubt that they would all agree with me. They all died as soldiers doing things not done anywhere but by Canadian soldiers. This unlimited liability to serve is the thing that defines the soldier and is something that makes all soldiers equal.

American journalist Sebastian Junger wrote a marvellous book about the 15 months he spent with the US 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan. He has produced one of the best analysis of the soldier in combat I’ve ever read. He has this to say about this courage, “Civilians understand soldiers to have a kind of baseline duty, and that everything above that is considered ‘bravery’. Soldiers see it the other way around: either you’re doing your duty or you’re a coward.” He then talks about the words spoken at a firefighter’s funeral as an example, “When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.” This is very true in the culture of the soldier, and the greatest fear of anyone in uniform is that they will let their buddies down when it really counts, as Junger states, “As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy.” When a soldier takes their oath of service, they accept that unlimited liability to serve, even if it means their death, and everything after that point is just duty. This duty is that equalizing factor among all soldiers.

I don’t like to get into discussions about whether or not our mission in Afghanistan was good or not, or lawful or not, but much prefer to put answers to those questions in the words of soldiers who had ‘boots on the ground’ there. This is a typical soldier’s attitude, that leaves the politics and academic analyses to others, and focuses on the reality of where they are, and completing the mission. I think that to be the most compelling witness, and it also carries with it some good thoughts about the culture and ethos of the soldier, so I’ll close with some words from a Canadian soldier.

This is a tragic story, that of Captain Nichola Goddard, who has the dubious honour of being the first Canadian female combat soldier to be killed in combat, just after her 26th birthday. When people ask me about my thoughts on the mission in Afghanistan, I point them to the words Nichola wrote in a letter to her parents, as they provide the best summary of what those Canadian soldiers are doing in that foreign land. Nichola was a gunner, an artillery officer, and was serving the Canadian battle group as their FOO – forward observation officer. She was also a graduate of my school, the Royal Military College of Canada, with a degree in English. You don’t have to be a great philosopher to see what a great loss this is – a bright young Canadian with almost unlimited potential, who died in a distant land. Listen to her words, in a letter she wrote home:

“The Afghan soldiers are very professional and very competent. They are also in amazing physical shape. Watching them run up and down the mountains with all of their gear was phenomenal. Seeing how proud they are of their country and how determined they are to work towards peace was inspiring.

I think that my proudest moment over the last 15 days was after a 10 km march with a 2,000 foot altitude gain. I was carrying approximately 100 lbs of kit. It was a lot. It was the most physically challenging thing that I have ever done — and I’ve done some crazy stuff. There were two points where I almost gave up. After we had done the climb up, and were coming down through the valley, one of the Afghan soldiers came up to me with an interpreter. The interpreter came up and had a three-minute conversation with the five men who were watching me. Then he turned to me and said, “Please excuse their staring. They are just very surprised that you are a woman working with all of these men. I have told them that you climbed over the mountain with us with your heavy bag and that you had no problems. They think that you must be very strong. I explained to them that you are just like the men, and that you can do everything that they can do the same as them.”

It was perhaps the greatest statement of equality that I have ever heard — and it was given by a Pakistani-raised, Afghan male in the middle of an Afghan village that is only accessible by a five km walk up a mountain. It just goes to show that anything is possible and that stereotypes are often completely wrong.
I keep thinking about my grandparents, and what they must have gone through in World War I and II. This is nothing compared to that. I have an end-date. I know that I’ll be home sometime in August. I am so proud of all of the veterans that I know, but especially both of my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am in such good company in uniform. It truly is an honour to be wearing a uniform overseas.
I don’t want you to feel that I am depressed or defeated. Far from it. The longer that we are in theatre and the more that we actually interact with the Afghan people, the more I feel that we are serving a purpose here. I think that these people are trying to achieve something that we in Canada have long since taken for granted. They lay down their lives daily to try to seize something that is so idealistic it is almost impossible to define. It goes beyond women wearing burkas and children being taught to read and write. The Afghan people have chosen who will lead them. Their new government is striving to make Afghanistan a better place. I had never truly appreciated the awesome power of a democratic government before. We are here to assist that legitimate and democratically elected government. It is easy to poke holes in that statement and say that the system is corrupt and that violence and poverty make people easy targets for our own agendas. Those statements are true; however, we have to start somewhere. With the best of intentions, we have started in Afghanistan. There is nowhere else that I’d rather be right now.”

This witness of our modern Canadian soldiers is a powerful image to a world that is, in many ways, far less stable than it was during the Cold War. I despair over the violence in the world, and that Canadians have died seeking to stop that violence, and especially I despair over the loss of someone like Nichola Goddard. At the same time, I wonder about how much impact I have had on our planet in my life compared to her – we talk much about equality in Canada, and she went and lived it…by demonstrating to those who had never conceived of such a thing as a woman able to do what only the men could do. Whether that will achieve lasting change will be judged by history, but there is no doubt as to its impact. . While I focused on just one of our soldiers, I could tell many, many similar stories of others who died, and the many more who lived and have carried this powerful Canadian witness throughout the world. Our role as citizens, particularly at this time of the year, is to stop and remember those who have died, but more importantly to support those who continue to serve, and their families. Thank you.  

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Written by sameo416

November 9, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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