'The decision broke me,' says naval officer asked to choose between career and son

Naval officer Laura Nash claims she was told she had too many "family issues" and was given a choice between her career and her child — a choice that led to depression, an impending medical release from the military and an uncertain future.

'It was a catch-22,' says single mom now facing medical release from military

Laura Nash, a single mother, claims she was told in 2013 she had too many 'family issues' and was given six weeks to decide between her career as a warship navigator and her young son, Ronin. (Supplied photo)

Acting Sub-Lt. Laura Nash is on her way out of the military after being given what she says is an utterly impossible, unfair choice.

The single mother says she was called into a meeting with two superior officers, both of them women, in late 2013 and claims she was told she had too many "family issues."

She faced a training deadline to go to sea and was given six weeks to decide between her child and her career as a warship navigator. 

"The decision broke me," Nash, 33, told CBC News in an interview. "I couldn't make the decision. It was a catch-22. I didn't want to live without my child, but I needed a means of supporting him and so I didn't want to lose my job."

Last week, the Liberal government released its defence policy which set goals of increasing the representation of women in uniform, more respectful treatment and greater career flexibility.

Nash's case is a demonstration of how far the defence department and the military have to go in order to achieve those lofty goals.

There is little institutional support and, more importantly, empathy for single moms in uniform, said Nash.

She was, at the time of her dressing down, at the navy's principal West Coast fleet base in Esquimalt, B.C. for her chosen occupation as a maritime surface and sub-surface officer — something that requires frequent deployments and long stints at sea.

No options, no backup

Nash never expected to be in such a difficult position. A former champion kayaker, she joined in 2010 and was in a relationship when she became pregnant. Nash was comfortable with the notion her child's father could take care of him while she was at sea.

But her relationship dissolved in 2012 and, in order to keep up with the demands of training and military life, she was forced — frequently — to send her boy, Ronin, who is now six, to her parents in Belleville, Ont. where they cared for him.

I can't just leave a child on a beach.— Acting Sub-Lt. Laura Nash

It was, however, only a temporary arrangement, one that would be difficult to carry on once she had been fully qualified and posted to a warship, at which point, even when in port, she would be required to stand 24-hour duties.

Her parents both worked full time. Child-care options through the military family resource centre were limited, particularly in light of the waiting list for spaces which has — at times — stretched to two years.

She had no one.

"I can't just leave a child on a beach while I sail away," said Nash, using the navy slang that refers to relatives left behind in port.

"It's stupid. So, I tried to make the decision the best I could, and there was no answer. The only thing I could think of was going for help to mental health because it was causing me to suffer and causing anguish to think about giving him away."

And that was where her journey out of the military began in early 2014.

Nash, who reached the rank of acting sub-lieutenant, is being given a medical release at the end of July. (Mike O'Shaughnessy/CBC)

Nash says she sought help for depression, one so deep she — briefly — contemplated suicide. But she pulled out of it and was determined to fight.

By that time, Nash had been placed at a Joint Personnel Support Unit, which is supposed to help ill and injured military members rehabilitate or get ready for release to civilian life.

Nash says she repeatedly asked for a transfer to another occupation, such as logistics, which would not require her to be away from home as often.

She was initially given permission to switch, but the paperwork got sidetracked within the system. 

By the time Nash found out, it was too late.

She was posted ashore and her transfer request was effectively denied when a base doctor refused to sign off.

Nash is being given a medical release at the end of July.

She says she has spent the better part of the last two years doing nothing and has not even been given a medical re-evaluation.

Grievances, harassment complaints

In the meantime, she has filed grievances and harassment complaints within the military related to her treatment.

Also, there is a complaint still formally pending before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, in which Nash claims some policies at National Defence, notably travel policies, discriminate against single mothers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in on the case Tuesday afternoon at an event on Parliament Hill to announce Vancouver would host a women and girl's advocacy conference in 2019.

"It's very simple: The choice Laura had to make is not acceptable. It is not acceptable in Canada," Trudeau said.

"This is a very difficult situation for Laura, but we also know it's one that has to end. It's not the first time, I can only imagine, in the history of the Canadian military this has happened, but I certainly hope it will be one of the very last times."

Natalie MacDonald, Nash's lawyer, said her client was penalized for being a woman, having a child and seeking mental health care, something the military says it has taken great pains to de-stigmatize.

"Laura Nash was clearly reaching out and needed help from the Armed Forces and they didn't provide it," MacDonald said in an interview.

Throughout her ordeal, some suggested to Nash she should have never chosen a career in the navy if she wanted a family, something MacDonald finds outrageous particularly given her client asked to be transferred to another occupation.

"That's ridiculous," she said. "That's absolutely unfair. It's discriminatory and I would hope in 2017 that kind of attitude would be banished from society."

"Quite frankly, a woman is able to choose whatever career she wants to but, when she has family status issues, which is exactly what Laura Nash was experiencing on the basis of her sex, the employer — and even the Canadian Armed Forces — needs to accommodate that request for accommodation."

More career flexibility promised

National Defence was reluctant to talk about Nash's case specifically, citing matters of privacy but there was last week a sweeping acknowledgment in the Liberal government's defence policy that the military needs to be more flexible.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said the military wants to move beyond the notion of career "accommodation" because it has a "grudging sound to it."

Specifically, he is looking at case-by-case exemptions for ill and injured, who are on track to be medically released, and a more nimble system that will allow full-time members to move to the reserves and back again as circumstances allow.

As much as anything else it is a dollars-and-cents calculation, given the investment the military puts into training someone.

"What we want to do is alter — somewhat — how we look at people," says Vance, speaking to CBC News about the policy and not individual cases.

"Everybody's valuable in the armed forces." 

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance has talked about encouraging women to serve in the military. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Much has been written about misogyny, assault and bullying against women by men in the military, but Nash says her experience has been that women in uniform can be more harsh and judgmental.

"Women just treat other women terribly," she said, adding that she knows of at least three women who gave up their children — in one capacity or another — because of their military careers.

Nash said she went looking for empathy from one career officer who told her she too had "personal issues" around deployments because she had to find a place to store her car and change cell phone plans.

"That's the way that some of the women in the military look at children," said Nash. "They're just another piece of administration to deal with. They're not humans. They're not something that needs to be taken care of and raised and loved and something to be with their moms."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.