Monday, August 04, 2014

My military career

People sometimes wonder what it's like to be in the military. I was in it for 20 years, so I figured I may as well share some of my experiences with you.

First, why did I join? That's a funny story. A high school buddy and I never went beyond high school (which ends at Grade 11 in Quebec). I can't speak for him, but I just wasn't the least bit interested in continuing school. I didn't understand why at the time, but it turns out, I was bored. Anyway, after working various warehouse jobs for a year, we both decided that the military was a no-brainer career choice. You could learn a trade and get paid for it. See the world! We both applied, but in the end, only I went through with it. My buddy joined years later, but never made it past trades training.

Boot camp is rough. Time is no longer your own. You're going to be made to do things you never thought you could do. Up at zero dark stupid, barely time for breakfast. Maybe a run for several kilometres. Classes. Marching drills. Weapons training. Ironing uniforms and polishing boots. Late nights. Repeat for many weeks.

Basic training is the great leveller, because everyone is made to function like part of a machine. It's impersonal, but at the same time, it's liberating, because you start over with a bunch of recruits who are in the same boat as you with no obvious edge or stature over anyone.

Yeah so remember that bit about me not liking school? Guess what you end up doing as soon as boot camp is over? Classroom - full time. But this was different, because military training is fast-paced. Everyone goes off to their next training base after boot camp, depending on what trade you'll be training for. Combat arms trades go to Petawawa, Air Force trades go to Borden, electronics and communications trades go to Kingston. Navy trades go to either coast. My training was in Kingston Ontario.

The first thing I had to learn was basic electronics. Taking classes in the military is nothing like classes in a regular school. The pace is fast. I loved that part, because I had always found normal school to be way too slow to keep my attention. The part that wasn't so fun was the parades. Oh, the military love their parades. Dress in your finest spit and polish, march up and down the parade square to the same tunes week after week. Wonder who's going to thunder in (collapse and fall on the pavement) while standing still for 20+ minutes, waiting to be inspected.

One of the great things about being in the military are the folks you meet. Again, the great leveller, because it didn't matter if you were from Trois Rivieres or Red Deer or Bonavista. You were all the same. One thing I noticed was that Quebecers in the military tended NOT to be separatists, because after they had seen half the country and met people from all over, they came to realize that we're not any different from one another and that most of the anti-Anglais propaganda simply wasn't true. Another great thing about the people was the reunions. Some of the folks you met in boot camp followed you to trades training. Some of those folks followed you to your first posting after training was done. Once you were posted to another place, you were highly likely to run into people you met before but hadn't seen in years. This weave of connections continues through your career (and long after). You feel like a member of a special fraternity. Except that these people would give you the shirt off their back.

So what's work like? It depends on whether you're Army, Air Force or Navy. I can only speak for the Army side of things. My trade was Army-centric, so I was always destined to be stationed at Army bases. My first post was on the same base where I learned my craft (Kingston), so I avoided one major move across the country. My first post was a Signals Regiment. That means while most of your days were 8 to 4, with a run every morning for good measure, you spent at least a couple of months or more playing war in 'the field'. That means donning combat boots and everything that goes with them, weapon and webbing and driving a truck to the middle of nowhere to do your job in a tactical setting. That means camouflage, meals on the run, patrols and moves in the middle of the night, defending against a pretend enemy who loved to attack your camp in the middle of a meal. Mud. You drove in it, walked in it, sat in it (in a trench, waiting for the enemy). You learned to sleep while you could, eat well, stay as dry as possible and dress in layers, all while doing your regular job.

You learned to appreciate a hot coffee from a vat cooking on the field kitchen stove and the loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter the cook left out for those who worked the stupid shift. You woke up your replacement at 3am and once they arrived at the sentry post, you relished briefing them on what was going on before going back to bed on a cot in a tent, knowing you'd be up again in less than 3 hours.

Besides the camaraderie, there was alcohol. I was surrounded by alcoholics. I'm not surprised and it wasn't entirely their fault. Alcohol was treated as a reward for a job well done. It started in boot camp and evolved from there. Worse, the military lets you have your alcohol in a private club on the base at a great discount. So what little disposable income you do have can buy a lot of booze. So you buy it. In many cases - every night. That described my first year quite well.

Then I got bored. After a while I didn't feel like emptying my pockets at the bar of the local base Junior Ranks Club. So I bought a motorcycle. Cheapest way to get mobile, which was necessary, because the base at Kingston was at least 3km from downtown, depending on where your barracks was. My bike gave me the freedom to escape the base and explore the world around Kingston, going farther afield with each journey. I guess that's why my first 3 vehicles (not counting a doomed Chevy Chevelle thrown in for adventure) were motorcycles.

Highlights of my first posting. Within 4 months of arriving, we were off on a military convoy to Gagetown, New Brunswick for the first ever modern-day Army-wide Rendezvous (RV81) for 2 months. The road trip was an adventure unto itself. RV81 was an eye-opener. I actually saw napalm dropped from a warplane. I ate lobster in the field. Experienced every season in one day. Before I would leave the regiment, I would also participate in RV83 and RV85 (both in Wainwright AB). My first post also saw me visit our British brethren in Germany for a month. 3 weeks of serious 'we're not messing around' war games followed by a solid week of touring the likes of Bremen, Hamburg and the East German border.

The military training never stops, which is especially good if you're a trades person. I kept returning to the 'school' (the Canadian Forces School of Communications & Electronics or CFSCE) and it was always a mini-reunion. The thing about military training is that it is typically conducted by people just like yourself. The problem with being trained by your peers though, is that not everyone is good at training. I felt like I would be good at it, as the result of a late afternoon when I helped my classmates figure out how a particular military computerized teletype worked when the instructor couldn't. I asked for my next posting to be the 'school'.

I got my wish, but they apparently didn't hear the part about me wanting to teach. Instead I was put in the school's repair shop for 2 years while I begged management to let me switch places with instructors who didn't want to teach (there were many). I finally got my chance and never looked back. It was the right move, I can teach. I enjoyed it too. I got into the groove and as you can imagine, every new course I taught was like another mini-reunion. I got to do this teaching thing for 7 years, mostly because any time one of my peers on another base got told they were being posted to the 'school' to become an instructor, they would threaten leaving the military and the career planners would back down and I got to stay another year. Besides getting to teach, being at a static post like CFSCE meant no mud, no trenches, no 3am patrols.

While at CFSCE, I had the misfortune to be told 2 months after getting married that I would be leaving for a 6 month tour of Alert, Northwest Territories (or Nunavut as it's called now). I arrived in 24 hour daylight and within 6 weeks was plunged into eternal night. I never saw the sun again until the day I left after 6 months. The only things that kept me sane were my phone calls to Darlene and my work at the base radio station (CHAR-FM).

Eventually I ended up with a career planner who didn't care that I liked my teaching job nor that chances were good that he would be replacing me with someone who didn't want to teach. After 15 years in Kingston, I had to leave. I asked for Ottawa, Trenton and Borden, all fairly close but was told no. I had to go to an Army base. After much arguing, we finally settled on Calgary.

Calgary was IMHO the least worse Army posting you could go to (Shilo anyone?), being located in a major city. We fell in love right away. Yes, I was back to 'playing silly bugger' (that's what we Army types call going to the field on exercise) many weeks of the year, but the reward was being stationed in a modern metropolis. I got to enjoy that for just less than 3 years. Then the federal Liberals elected a few MPs in Edmonton and the government rewarded the city by closing a bunch of western Army bases and consolidating the Western Army in Namao, a former Air base on the northern outskirts of Edmonton. With only just over 2 years left of my 20 year contract, I did not want to move, but most importantly, I did not want to uproot my family only to return to Calgary in 30 months. That would have ruined Darlene's now well established career. Plus we had just bought a house.

Are you noticing a common thread here? A career in the military can be tough on families. The moves are not as bad as they used to be. It was typical for a military member to have to move to a new posting every 3-4 years. With budget cuts, this has changed dramatically. An Army trade, once they found themselves on an Army mega-base (like Gagetown, Petawawa or Edmonton), would likely stay there for possibly half of their career. Regardless of when the transfers come, the member has little choice in the matter and families have to adjust. I was very lucky in that I only had to ask Darlene to put a stop to her career once and with a couple of years to complete my contract, I wasn't about to do it again. So I made the hard choice and went to Edmonton alone, coming home when I could on weekends. It was a rough 30 months, but in the end, I was able to resume my life in Calgary, which has proven to be the right decision. So to recap, 15 years in Kingston, 3 in Calgary and 2 in Edmonton (alone). That was a lot less moving around than most of my colleagues. I felt sorry for those who moved a lot, because it's hard to sell a house when you don't get to pick the time. There are a lot of military members who end up having to buy high and sell low and they often do not get reimbursed for the entire loss. Although military members get to rent military housing, that's only an option when there is housing available. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of the local real estate market. Imagine being posted from Shilo Manitoba, where houses average $274,000, to Toronto, where it's $569,000.

While with the western Army, I had a couple of opportunities to go into combat zones. I declined each time. With my career waning, I didn't feel the need to gain any combat experience. I also didn't want to take any unnecessary risks this close to the end of my military career. That may sound selfish, but there were many eager colleagues willing to take my place. Unfortunately, some of them were permanently changed by their experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan. They witnessed horrible atrocities that a life in peaceful Canada cannot prepare you for. They came back different people, suffering PTSD, angry, distressed, depressed. One of my coworkers was unrecognizable. He was being groomed for quick promotion through the ranks and when he returned from overseas duty, he had become a violent, angry, withdrawn, impatient person. Another friend suffered some kind of mystery chest ailment which sidelined his career, made it difficult to get out of bed, and forced him to undergo years of treatment and pain management. It's people like these who are abused the most, because the military only wants you if you are fit and able to perform at peak physical and mental capacity. The moment you cannot function at 100%, even if it's your duties that caused the situation, they are no longer interested in you and you are eventually released. At this point, you would think that the government has your back, but unlike the way it used to be in the 1970s, now they just want you paid off and forgotten.

One of the highlights of my career was being able to help my fellow Canadians. In 1998, a very bad ice storm hit eastern Ontario and Southern Quebec and we were called in to help. We assumed the power of Peace Officers during that operation. Over 1,000 transmission towers collapsed in chain reactions under the weight of the ice, leaving more than 4 million people without electricity, most of them in southern Quebec, western New Brunswick and Eastern Ontario, some of them for an entire month. It took us 3 days to get from being on notice to catching a flight on a chartered wide body aircraft. Canada didn't have the air transport it needs back then. It's better now, but only marginally. My unit arrived in the thick of the 'black triangle' where the transmission towers had crumpled like toothpicks from the weight of the ice. The military had put up as many seniors and families with young children as it could fit in the recruit school complex, which is completely self-powered. We went on patrols of neighbourhoods making sure nobody was taking advantage of the situation and looting empty houses. Many residents left to live with friends in unaffected areas or to stay in shelters. Those that remained were happy to see us, although they were amazed that we had come all the way from Alberta to assist them. The ice storm led to the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War, with over 16,000 Canadian Forces personnel deployed, 12,000 in Quebec and 4,000 in Ontario at the height of the crisis.

Looking back on my 20 year career, I have no regrets. I went from a shy, undisciplined person lacking self-confidence with no career to a disciplined, confident technologist who loves to teach.


Retro Blog said...

Thanks for the Canadian Military history lesson, well done soldier.
You getting any military retirement?

Karl Plesz said...

You mean pension?