This past Father’s Day and a recent news item about Acting Sub Lieutenant Laura Nash and her troubles got me thinking about the many unknown sacrifices military men and women in uniform make for their countries.
Most Canadians think of military sacrifice in terms of death or serious injury on some far away battlefield such as Afghanistan or the World Wars. Also, because of people like LGen (Ret’d) Romeo Dallaire and attention to veteran’s suicides, PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is associated with military service. People familiar with military families may also notice that they move quite often. But other than these items, the general public is oblivious to the multitudes of sacrifices a service person undergoes from Day Zero.
I will use my own military experience as a somewhat typical sample of a military career full of forfeiture. I rejoined the military in 2007 as I was selected for pilot training and had a chance to fulfill a childhood dream. The process had already taken about a year to that point. For most new inductees to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), you show up at the ‘Mega’ in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and you are directed to enter this quarter mile long building through the Green Door. I imagine it is similar to walking into prison. Immediately, you’re told how to dress, where to sit, how to speak and you have started Week Zero of Basic Training. All the freedoms and life’s normal pleasures are washed away until 14 weeks later, you could come out as a freshly minted officer. I already had a degree, so I was commissioned right away unlike the kids headed to military college. I will not even speak to their sacrifices but they are extensive. For myself, I was destined for a 10 month language training course in French. I am not particularly good in other languages, so I was going to be there for the long haul. Now even though there was another language school in Esquimalt on Vancouver Island just a few hours down from my family in Comox, I was not allowed to go. So I got to miss the Grade 9 and 12 years of my kids and almost missed my son’s graduation because of a change in my final language profile tests. To this day, I have never used French in any meaningful way as I am sure neither have many of my compatriots. The language school only kept the large number of pilot trainees in order to keep French language teachers employed. But that is just how things run.
Luckily, I had lived in the military town of Comox for some time and was able to secure an On-The-Job (OJT) posting with the local SAR squadron. I got to spend about a year at home, with courses here and there, and then I was off to Portage la Prairie, MB for flight training. Like many military men who did not want to uproot their family, I went on Imposed Restrictions (IR). Thankfully, the military has this program even though it is expensive to run. This go around, I missed Grades 11 and 12 with my daughter and had to make a special trip to see her graduation. Unfortunately, for me and about 20 other wannabe pilots, a Standards Officer decided to fail us all from Helicopter training. I was five years (about 3.5 years spent away from my family) into the process and a couple months from my pilot wings and I was cut.
My life went to shambles at this point as my wife left and I was adrift for many months waiting to see if the military would keep me or release me. I kept my employment and headed to Esquimalt, BC for training as a Maritime Surface and Sub-Surface officer (MARS). The kids were in university in Saskatchewan and Ontario, so I was pretty much on my own to start another rigorous training regime this time at sea. Way back in 1991, soon after my son was born, I was asked if I wanted to go MARS instead of releasing from the military. I knew I would basically say goodbye to my young family for about five years, so I decided to turn down the offer and took my release. This time around, I had nothing to lose being on my own, so I went for it. Out of the next five years before finishing with MARS, I was gone from my home close to three years. Meanwhile, I had been posted against my wishes to Halifax and had lost two great girlfriends in the process.
This is a minor scratching of my trials and tribulations while in uniform. But imagine a young man or woman trying to make a go of a relationship. Typically, women find men in uniform and then you have a Career Manager’s nightmare called a Service Couple. They pretty much go their separate ways to different provinces for many years and then if they want a family, the woman takes a hit to their career. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has said the military is looking to mitigate this but I have seen quite a few MARS women officers just release at this point. For the men, they find civilian wives who start getting dragged around the country. Whatever careers they had or wanted end up being toast and quite often, they just have babies. They end up effectively as single parent mothers in a different part of the country away from friends and family. Anecdotally, military divorce rates are much higher than for civilians because of the contingencies of military life.
With regards to the young A/SLt who was told to choose between her young son and her MARS training, the internet lit up with condemnation over such supposed inhumane treatment. Civilians could not believe a woman would be told these were her choices, especially in 2017. It illustrates the great divide between civvies and the military. Ordinary folk have no idea of the sacrifices, mental and physical, necessary to become a military member. I saw one fellow near the end of Basic try to gut it out on a broken foot just so he would not have to redo the course. I had nearly blown both of my Achilles and could not walk without searing pain even though we were marching at least 10 miles a day. Another man had to ice his shins two hours a night due to the pain he was in. This was just Basic! The physical issues might wane slightly as you progress through training and your career but daily rigor and discipline are ever constant. Quite a few military members get deployed an average of 200 to 250 days for years before getting a break. Civilians will never understand what service people go through in an ordinary day let alone during a real battle. They have no right to judge and as far as I am concerned should have little right to drive policy as much as they have as I have observed over the last decade.
If you want a military life, be prepared to make sacrifices. It would be great for the young A/SLt to be a MARS officer and be able to look after her young son but it isn’t going to happen. She’s lucky that she got to keep her job for as long as she did. In the past, women who got pregnant were released immediately. Policies are changing and the military is working hard to lessen the sacrifices peculiar to women who ‘Force Generate’ humans. But I am somewhat disturbed by the attitude of the Rear Admiral who came up with this quip. He said that the old stereotypical attitudes on women were almost gone in the military’s upper echelons of power. Unlike men, they were stuck producing the kids and take harder hits to their careers. As a father who spent so much time away from his family, I posit that men miss their children just as much as a woman would. Society has this mythology built upon the women being the only ones capable of nurturing and caring for children, hence most kids end up with the mother after divorce. Men want a family life just as much as women do but it falls on them to foot the bills so they have to go further afield if work is not easily available.
During the Afghanistan War was the only time Canadian civilians would ‘thank me’ for my service because they thought we all went over there. Considering the everyday sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, civilians should be thanking every one of them every day. When was the last time you bought a drink for a military member?
Blair is a personification of a ‘Jack of All Trades and Master of None’. He has held several careers and has all the T-shirts. Time to add the title Blogger to the list.