"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

What is a non-combat Veteran?

with 4 comments

I’ve just noticed that there are a number of search-directed hits on my blog coming from people searching on some variation of “non-combat veteran”. I thought I was the only one writing about this…but it seems to get some play beyond my corner of the world.

I’ve written about the question previously, as some of the public comments on news stories about Afghanistan veterans were troubling – basically that a “real” combat veteran from the sandbox deserved special treatment by their nation, while the “non-combat” retired soldiers deserved nothing more than any other worker.

This is a problematic attitude.

First, in Canada at least, the legal definition of ‘veteran’ – that is the definition that is contained in the legislation regarding pension rights, identifies anyone who has served as a member of the Canadian Forces (past basic trade qualification) as a veteran. This change happened sometime in the early 2000’s.

Second, is the reality of ‘combat’ deployments. I had a friend die in the sandbox, while on patrol with the US (see RIP Geoff Parker, below). I have had a nephew patrol with the PPCLI, and fight, in the sandbox. I’ve also had a number of friends who deployed and worked in the headquarters, and never went outside the wire. From the perspective of Canada, all those soldiers received the theatre medal (the Afghanistan star), and all had served on a ‘combat’ tour, even while the degree of risk they faced varied dramatically – from direct exposure to enemy fire; to the safety of a secure, defended camp (with a Tim Hortons).

Clearly the combat/non-combat distinction, at least in the minds of many of those commenting on the internet, is only about having spent time in a sandy place. I think that to be rather ignorant.

The reality of all combat is that the support staff, those who enable the combat soldier to step outside the wire and take an effective fight to the enemy, vastly outnumber the fighters. I don’t know the present number, but I recall ratios of 30:1 being bandied about 10 years ago. Even if you replace that support tail with civilians, the fact still remains, that most of the people involved in taking a combat operation to the enemy do not see that threat. It is also more than a little funny that most of the WW II veterans we now honour, were not shooting or being shot at, but were pay clerks or cooks or supply clerks. Yet we don’t stop and ask them – were you a ‘combat’ or ‘non-combat’ veteran? If you’re going to parse apart my fellow soldiers today, at least be consistent with all those ancient warriors, and afford them the same distinction.

Also, if your measure of a ‘combat’ veteran is wearing a uniform and deploying to the theatre of operations like Afghanistan, that would extend to include all the Tim Horton’s workers who served in the sandbox…and faced the same level of risk as my friends who served in HQ positions.

The other reality is that you don’t need to be engaged in combat, to be exposed to the hazards of soldiering. I buried six fighter pilots who were co-workers and friends to that low-risk activity called training. You don’t have to look far to find people killed or maimed while just going about the normal business of being a soldier, far from an enemy combatant. It is the nature of the business, because soldiers do things no one else does (and do so without any of the protection enjoyed by even police and firefighters). As well, I’ve counselled soldiers with PTSD who were never shot at, but ended up with psychological injuries as a result of their military duties.

I covered off the police/firefighter – soldier issues in an earlier entry, but it’s worth restating. We saw this clearly in the Elliot Lake mall collapse rescue, which was called off by engineers from the Ontario Ministry of Labour because it was too dangerous for the rescuers. They, in effect, issued a stop work order to the urban rescue team (which held until the politicians decided to interfere). That is a perfect example of the difference between a civilian (and even a civilian rescuer) and a soldier. If that was a military operation, the soldiers would have been ordered to proceed, even at great personal risk, and could not have refused the order. There is no occupational safety code, workers’ compensation system or employment standards code for the soldier. None.

I don’t really get angry about those ignorant comments anymore, as I know they’re just ignorant – that is, they have no idea what they’re talking about. They have no idea about the life of the soldier, and how different that life is from any civilian occupation…even when that soldier is an electrician by trade (although those are getting rarer all the time) or a lawyer, or a padre. I speak to public groups about this topic every year as a part of my effort to educate people on the culture of the soldier, and how different it is from life as a civilian, mainly because of that unlimited liability to serve as you are ordered to do, even if that means surrendering your life to follow those orders. That is simply not duplicated anywhere in our society but within the profession of arms.

The other aspect that seems somewhat arbitrary, depending on how you draw that combat/non-combat line, is that some would fall within and some would fall without, only based on the geography at the time they were injured or killed. So, a soldier who loses a leg to a tank track in Wainwright, Alberta, in deployment work-up to go to Afghanistan would be ‘non-combat’, while a soldier who loses a leg to a tank track in Afghanistan inside the wire would be ‘combat’. It gets silly quite quickly. My pilot co-workers who train in a high-risk environment every day of their lives are often at more risk in training, then were those who flew the ‘combat’ missions over Libya. All the days I stood on NORAD alert, with live weapons and short-staffed, managing fatigue to make sure we didn’t have an explosives accident, was never recognized with a medal. My peers who sailed on ships as a part of the NATO fleet post-9-11 were exposed to similar risk, and all received medals.

What’s my point? Underneath all the handwaving, and who received medals and who didn’t, the soldier accepts a certain degree of risk and a large degree of obligation that sets them apart from the civilian world. That obligation unifies all soldiers, and that services makes all soldiers veterans. Those who carried out that duty under enemy fire are well-respected by their peers who stayed in Canada, but they do not wear a different uniform after they come home.

The last MARS officer to die on duty happened while ferrying one of our cheap submarines back from the UK…should his veteran’s benefits have been denied because that was clearly a ‘non-combat’ mission?

I’ve said enough – and I’ve watched more friends die in ‘non-combat’ events than under enemy fire…doing things of far higher risk than any of my co-workers who did HQ tours in the sandbox.

I just noticed ‘the mad padre’ posted this about society’s disconnect with soldiering – so true.  This is one of the reasons so many make those ignorant comments.  He is also accurate in the observation about our willingness to label people as ‘heroes’ (a title that is almost universally despised by soldiers).  Soldiers distrust heroes, because heroes tend to get people around them killed.  Rather, the highest compliment a soldier can receive is to be told that they did their duty, and did it well…or more fundamentally, they didn’t let their buds down when the pressure was on.  The reaction from Edmonton garrison when a local wanted to rename a road, ‘heroes way’ was predictable…they weren’t supportive.


Written by sameo416

June 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. […] And a follow-up post on this same topic. […]

    • Perhaps the solution is to NOT have soldiers drive around the Generals wives in Ottawa while they shop. Non combat jobs without risk (beyond the risk we all face every day in our jobs) should be civilian postings – not military. We could then reduce the number of soldiers (who eventually become veterans) and increase the benfits for those who actually serve.

      Pat Wilson

      November 16, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      • The military has downsized the non-combat portions of the military over the past few decades. There aren’t many left that would never deploy. From 2001 or so onwards if you were medically unfit for deployment, you were released from the service. What that means is there are no “non-combat” jobs in the military. There is only training for combat and combat.

        The point of the blog entry is to emphasize that fact…to say that non-combat injuries should be treated differently ignores the reality that a soldier today is either fighting or preparing to fight. That includes many jobs in Canada that could be done by civilians, but are done by soldiers, such as staff positions. Those soldiers will eventually deploy again, to do that same job in a place like Afghanistan.

        There is no such thing as a civilian job being done by a soldier…even if they’re doing things like civilians might do. There’s no WCB or OH&S or employment standards for any military job, so any argument that seeks to somehow set up two modes of treatment is incorrect.


        November 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm

  2. Bull. Any Non-combat soldier who served in the 60’s knows how the lies, the unfair harsh treatment has affected them over the years. We actually had men who came to our unit from Vietnam only to volunteer to go back to Vietnam rather than deal with the crazy and unfair treatment we had to endure. Check with anyone who served in germany in the 60″s, who was in Infantry, Artillery, or Armor and you will see what I am talking about. And a lot of these soldiers did return home with mental and physical Disabilities. I can be reached at mr_mike2000@msn.com.

    Michael McCulley

    December 10, 2015 at 3:49 pm

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