"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Universality of Service

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The principle known as universality of service states that every soldier, regardless of rank or trade, must be able to deploy to an austere location, with minimal medical support, and operate there for an extended period. This is the principle applied when soldiers are medically discharged as unfit for further military service.

The enforcement of this principle was something that Rick Hillier brought to new emphasis when he was Chief of the Defence Staff. He brought to that job an army officer’s perspective (Hillier was a tanker) – that a soldier’s primary reason for existance is to deploy and fight. I suspect that Hillier was reacting to both sustained combat operations, and the large number of military personnel, particularly in headquarters positions, that were on medically restricted duties and could not deploy. Those people were competing on an (almost) level playing field with those who were deploying operationally for things like promotions and postings. Hillier was reacting, at least partly, to the unfairness such a situation creates.

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about that rule. On a tactical fighter squadron, I was very aware of how even one person being medically unfit could compromise my ability to deploy to fulfil our war-fighting obligations. This is something I struggled with daily, and we would almost always quickly post a soldier with permanent restrictions off to a base job that did not involve deployment. However, what always seemed to be missing was the balancing with the amount of investment and training that had been made into an individual – sometimes, highly trained people were being medically released, even while being able to fulfill almost all military obligations…except deploying to the middle of a desert in a tent for 6 months.

There’s now a court case started in Manitoba by a Master Corporal who was punted medically in 2009, asking that the universality of service concept be declared inconsistent with the Charter (that link will die in 30 days).  I’ll include a snip below:

A Winnipeg soldier turfed from the military because she is disabled is suing the Canadian government, alleging her ouster violated her charter rights.

The lawsuit, filed Friday, asks the court to strike down the “universality of service” rule that mandates all uniformed personnel must be ready for combat deployment at all times. The case could have broad repercussions for the hundreds of disabled soldiers, including those with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mustered out of the Armed Forces every year against their wishes.

“It feels like you’ve been thrown out, almost punitive,” said Louise Groulx, a former master corporal at 17 Wing. “Those who make the rules have no idea the impact this has on a soldier’s soul or heart. We’re not disposable.”

My situation was similar to hers, in that I could perform most of my duties unrestricted.  The only thing I could not do was one element of the physical fitness test – bent knee situps.  I offered to do an alternative test to demonstrate core muscle strength, but there was no such option available.  I also had a small  risk of a medical crisis that required immediate surgical intervention.  On that basis, I failed the universality test, because I could not deploy to the desert and live in a tent for six months.

I understand the reasons behind that rule very well.  The three years I spent on a tactical fighter squadron I wrestled daily with the challenge of meeting our war-fighting commitments when I had people coming up as medically restricted.  Our usual practice was to post them into a base job that didn’t require deployment on short notice.  In fact, those years I was dealing with those issues I was injured myself and was still deployable (as my medical category had not yet been formalized).  So for three years I was fully deployable, and did deploy several times including right after 9/11.  Part of my reason for remaining deployable was a leadership issue – it is hard to tell people they must be ready to deploy, if you yourself are unable to meet that requirement.

After leaving the squadron, my medical category was formalized, and I was offered the three-year period to heal.  With that three-year period comes some restrictions: no promotions, no posting, no career courses.  I had just been offered a postion at staff college (kind of a military MBA), and was in a position on the merit list that I would have been promoted in about 6 months (and in fact people below me on the list were promoted that year).  Given the choice of sticking around for three years in a ‘what if’ situation, losing what I had sweated for five years to obtain, and then ending up released anyway…the choice was academic.  I refused the healing time, and expedited my release (which was a good call as the three years would not have made any difference medically).

Now, I understand why the military ordered me medically discharged.  I understand universality of service and the need for it very well.  I still balk at the waste and the arbitrariness of that approach.  For me, the military had invested much money in my training and experience: two university degrees, about 2 additional years of training, and I was one of the few (maybe the only) person in my occupation who had worked both in NATO and NORAD (when we re-started arctic deployments I was the only engineer on base who had deployed to Inuvik or Yellowknife before).  It seems somewhat capricious to lose all of that training and 20 years of experience.

It seems doubly wasteful when you consider that, as a senior officer, my days of deploying to a tent in the middle of the desert were over.  In the Air Force I would not, like an infantry battalion commander, be taking my troops into the field.  At most, I would deploy into a headquarters position on a central base (with a Tim Hortons next door).  That job I could do (and did do for several years after my injury).  I remember one of my co-workers at the time telling me that I would never be medically released because at my rank I would never have to deploy again, and his shock when my release was announced.  That sense of waste is held in tension with the idea that those who are fully deployable should not be compared directly with those who are not in a merit-based system (although having an operational deployment on your assessment always bumps you up in the rankings).

I’m not bitter about this path that I’ve followed, but I wonder when I see soldiers with PTSD and TBI from Afghanistan being medically released, when those conditions are treatable and the person could give years of service.  What about those with traumatic amputations who still want to serve?  Is there not some place that they could work within the existing structures?  In asking that question, I’m aware of the inspirational story of Master Chief PO Carl Brashear , who served as a US Navy diver even after having a leg amputated.

I will watch this case with interest, to see if the court determines that the military has been too black and white with the universality rule.





Written by sameo416

October 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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