In a post sometimes reserved for business executives or minor royalty, Rick Mercer may be the first professional comedian to serve as honorary colonel of a Canadian air force unit.
Mercer, who is younger than some of the aircraft in 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron, says he is"probably an unconventional choice" for the unpaid ceremonial gig.
"But I'm happy that it's the guys with the Sea Kings because I always root for the underdog," he told CBC News Online on Wednesday as word of his appointment spread. "And I've always felt perfectly safe riding in Sea Kings."
The squadron, based at Shearwater near Halifax, consists of 309 men and women and 13 Sikorsky Sea King helicopters.
The helicopters, older than most of their crew members and famously inclined to break down in recent years, were delivered between 1963 and 1969, the year Mercer was born.
"He will be a phenomenal asset to the squadron," Lt.-Col. Jeff Boucher, the squadron's commanding officer,said in a telephone interviewfrom the base.
"The guys are really looking forward to him coming down…. I think they are fully expecting him to be funny from the minute he arrives."
Mercer, a veteran of entertain-the-troops trips to Afghanistan and elsewhere, caught the squadron's eye with a TV monologue in 2005, Boucher said.
"In one of his rants, he was going on about being stuck in Halifax in the snow —couldn't get his vehicle moving, not in the best part of town— and along come these two people, and without him even asking, they assisted him, and it turned out it was two military guys in uniform. That sort of twigged us that he was good for the military."
Building squadron spirit a goal
After a long courtship, Boucher and two other officers from 12 Wing at Shearwater visited Mercer in Toronto in mid-January to prepare for the announcement.
They "explained to him the squadron history, what was expected of him, how he can help us, how we can help him, a little bit on the Sea King, how we go to sea and the formation of the detachment, so that when people interview him, he would have some knowledge of the squadron," Boucher said.
"He'll come when we have squadron parades, changes of command," Boucher said. "He'll get invited to everything the squadron does, but obviously, being in Toronto, his busy schedule won't permit him to come to everything."
One of his roles will be to build squadron spirit, starting with his first official visit in early April,the commander said.
"We offered him a Sea King ride and he immediately said, 'No.' I thought he was scared to fly in the Sea King, but he's been in the Sea King on numerous occasions and that's not the case. He said, 'No, no, I want to spend the day with the guys on the squadron, just a relaxed day, wander around, meet the guys.'"
To wear or not to wear a uniform?
Mercer said he doesn't know whether he'll wear a uniform when he acts as honorary squadron head.
He and Boucher said they've never heard of a comedian getting the title, although hockey great Guy Lafleur, singer-composer Loreena McKennitt, and broadcasters Ron MacLean and Wayne Rostad have all been honorary colonels, and Prince Edward, the Queen's youngest son, visited Canada in 2006 as colonel-in-chief of the Saskatchewan Dragoons.
Most honorary colonels aren't celebrities, however.
"In a lot of the honorary programs, it's more a local businessman, somebody who can put the message of what the unit does out in the community," Boucher said.
"But with Rick, we get a whole lot more than that because he's already putting the military message out to everybody."
The squadron's long-lived Sea Kings are to be replaced with Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclones in 2008 or later.