I had to let my daughter go because of my job in the Canadian military

As a realist and a feminist, I know we need more women and more parents in the military. Many, many more. But as a human, a veteran and a former medical professional, I just can't recommend that life to anyone.

I know we need more women in the Canadian Armed Forces. But I just can't recommend that life

My daughter moved back to her grandparents for the remainder of her school years. It was the hardest decision of my life. (LS Eduardo Jorge/Combat Camera/Canadian Forces)

Whenever I am asked if I recommend military life to other women, my answer is always categorically: no.

This usually surprises people who know me because I am a vocal feminist, a bit of a tomboy and a six-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). I believe to my core that sex and gender do not, and should not, limit what you can do in life. But women and the armed forces just don't mix.

Overwhelming reports of sexual assault in the Canadian military offer the most compelling reason. But there's also the fact that being a single mom in uniform is next to impossible.

My story has marked similarities to that of acting Sub-Lt. Laura Nash, a single mother who says she was effectively forced to choose between her career in the military and her son. A few years ago, I had to make the same agonizing decision.

Like Laura Nash (pictured) I had to choose between my child and my life in the military. (Supplied photo)

When I joined in 2005 as a medical technician, I was assured by a recruiter that the military life was compatible with being a single mother. As the mother of a then eight-year-old girl, I wanted to be certain I could work and care for my daughter without issue, and her father was not an option as he had abandoned us the day she was born.

I was told that, as a single mother, I would never be posted to a field unit where members are often deployed two or three times a year. So, I left my daughter, temporarily, with her grandparents in Nova Scotia and went away for a year of training.

Upon completing my training, I was posted to 1 Canadian Field Hospital in Petawawa Ont., despite my entire family and support structure being back east. When I begged the army to change the posting, I was told I could only be posted elsewhere if I had a serving spouse who was already posted at a different base. Basically, without a serving husband, I didn't matter. I observed married women being posted with their spouses, and married men having spouses posted wherever they went. It seemed to me that the army only gave you a posting you wanted if you were a man or there was a military man in your life.

Searching for child care

At the field unit, with my daughter living with me again, I was deployed twice a year to Wainwright, Alta. for anywhere from a couple of weeks to two months. Child care was virtually impossible to find because nobody was willing to take on a child full-time for that length of time. The Military Family Resource Centre was not helpful, and when I finally did find someone able to do it, I had to pay $2,000 up front, which was a tall order on a private's salary with outstanding student loans. So I was often forced to drive my daughter home to Nova Scotia and leave her there with her grandparents for six months at a time.

She moved back and forth between the two school systems more times than I could count and endured the 20-hour drive between provinces repeatedly. When I complained, or expressed my inability to be both a mother and a soldier to my Chain of Command (CoC, or bosses) they dangled my livelihood over my head constantly. Any time my parenting conflicted with my job, I would be put on duty (essentially, made to work extra hours) or my reviews would reflect what was often termed a "lack of esprit de corps." My promotion was delayed. I thought of leaving but I couldn't afford to survive on my own, a point that was frequently highlighted in threats from my command.

In 2009, I was deployed to Afghanistan and returned in 2010 with severe post-traumatic stress disorder resulting in major depressive disorder, as well as hearing loss and degenerative disc disease in my neck from a series of vehicle-related incidents and mounted patrols.

The army threw drugs at me, made a cursory mention of the mental health department and basically told me to shut up. I managed to get a posting to CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia after five years of begging, but my CoC in Petawawa tried to take the posting away because my tour of duty had not left me enough time to find a home. The mental health department stepped in and secured my posting after I showed up on their doorstep so upset that I had become nonverbal.

The Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont., where I was posted after my training. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Finally, I made it to Greenwood and got my daughter back, but at 13 years old, the transition to a new school did not go well, and she was terrified by my nightmares, sleepwalking and flashes of inexplicable temper. Ultimately, she moved back to her grandparents for the remainder of her school years. It was the hardest decision of my life; I had to let my daughter go because of my job. That is a decision no one should ever have to make, and one of the biggest reasons why I won't recommend the military life to women or single parents of any kind.

Diversity in the CAF

The CAF likes to make it sound as though it welcomes everyone; that new recruits will become part of a great big family, which will work together to find solutions to any or all problems or limitations. Indeed, in response to Laura Nash's story, Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff made a point of saying that "everybody's valuable in the armed forces."

But that's simply not true. The military's Universality of Service policy requires a certain level of ability from all soldiers, including that they be deployable. That means that even people in desk jobs must be healthy and free to be deployed. Even the chaplain must be in great shape. This negates the possibility of disabled people, injured soldiers and people with family obligations serving in the armed forces. In turn, this prevents the CAF from benefiting from all they have to offer.

Parents should be valuable to the military. As a soldier, you might have to go into a civilian home and rescue children or families — a task that a soldier who also happens to be a parent could approach with a certain degree of sensitivity and understanding. We need injured soldiers in the military because their vast institutional knowledge does not suddenly disappear when they lose a limb. And we need women in the military to shake up the "old boys' club": to see to a new generation of soldiers who aren't restricted by outdated social norms.

And yet, my recommendations are a paradox. As a realist and a feminist, I know we need more women and more parents in the military. Many, many more. But as a human and a former medical professional, I can't recommend that they put themselves in that position.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Arwen Falvey is a writer and veteran. She served six years as a medical technician and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.


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