A soldier's story: Job stress in a changing military
Adjusting to life after serving in Afghanistan can be wrenching on professional and personal levels
Changes in the Canadian Forces have been fast, furious and non-stop since my last article on this site in 2010, which we called "Adjusting to life after Afghanistan."
That adjustment has been much more wrenching than I initially thought, on both my professional and personal life.
Since 2002, the Afghanistan mission has claimed the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers. It has also left a further 635 wounded in action and 1,436 wounded with non-battle injuries.
But those numbers don't touch on the human cost incurred here in Canada, whether by suicide or other post-traumatic stress disorder injuries.
This last decade has taken a massive toll on the Canadian Forces, and still does, most recently highlighted by the spate of military suicides that have cropped up these past few months.
With NATO now determined to allow Afghanistan to take more responsibility for its own stability, Canada, like other allied countries, has seized the opportunity to step back and take a "train the trainer" mentoring role in Afghanistan's military schools.
Not only has this greatly reduced — though not eliminated — the risk to Canadian soldiers there, it has allowed the military to cut back expenditures to stay in line with government-mandated budget cuts.
I felt a need to break free of the military stigma about discussing one's mental problems.
Budget cuts and purchasing restraints have been felt almost immediately, and range from a shortage of paper and pens, to rations and portable toilets for field and other training.
Eating field rations that have exceeded their advertised shelf life by a year quickly became the norm during my last field posting. You can only complain so much, before just shutting up and simply eating what's before you.
With the focus no longer on Afghanistan and the constant preparation for deployment, I have also noticed the slow transition back to the enforcement of smaller rules and regulations that had slipped over the years.
All the norms of military discipline that had taken a back seat to preparing for combat seem like a new world to those who joined after our involvement in Afghanistan.
Getting "jacked" for having your hands in your pockets or for taking your hat off in line at Tim Hortons is definitely a new concept for those who have come on board more recently.
After leaving the Royal Canadian Dragoons in 2011, I spent two years at the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, and it was a tumultuous time for me both career-wise and in my personal life.
A shoulder injury sidelined me from the majority of hard-core army stuff I was accustomed to as a Warrant Officer, like parachuting in with my platoon on training missions. At the same time I was going through a divorce.
It was around then I decided that if the opportunity arose I would "pop smoke" or release from the military and pursue a career elsewhere. It was not an easy decision, knowing the corner I would be backing myself into professionally.
Immediately I felt myself ostracized from career progression, and seemed to be passed for military jobs that tended to be based on experience and standing.
When you are asked by your peers "What the hell happened?" and why someone else was awarded a particular job when I looked to be the next in line, it makes you feel like a number and not a real serving soldier anymore.
I didn't even feel the need to bring it up with the chain of command, as I knew it was all about efficiencies and the new order of things.
When I did discuss the situation with my one of long-time supervisors, the answer was what I expected — that "I was on my way out the door, so they had to protect themselves as well."
It is a tough pill to swallow after 22 years of service.
With that 22 years of service — including four overseas deployments (Rwanda and Afghanistan), a number of in-Canada deployments (Manitoba flood, Quebec ice storm, training, searches for missing persons) two marriage breakdowns and a number of injuries — comes a barrack box full of mental issues that need to be resolved.
I found myself reaching the point where my psychological issues were ruining my life, my relationships and my work, and I felt a need to break free of the military stigma about discussing one's mental problems.
So one day I walked into the Warrior Support Centre in Petawawa and asked for help.
Spilling your guts to a stranger is not an easy task, perhaps especially for someone who has been trained as a soldier to do the job and not complain. But I felt I needed to gain control of my life, and my future.
I don't believe my psychological issues are tour-related, but I have issues nonetheless, and to be an effective leader and soldier, I needed to deal with them.
Although I am content with my current military job, I have reached a point in my life, especially after the pace of these last years, where I think I have given enough.
Having the ability to know where I will be, or what job I will be working at in two or three years, or even what time I will be home has become important to me and I am looking for that stability. Maybe the hinted posting to Ottawa this year will give me that sense of "normal" I am looking for, sort myself out and recharge.
For my generation of soldier, the Canadian Forces once offered a fairly predictable career path based on training and ability. But the Afghanistan experience raised both huge expectations and demands on soldiers and their families that we are all, in our own ways, struggling to deal with.