Former CAF Reservist reflects on ‘veteranship’

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By KEN JACKSON

SPECIAL TO THE DRIFTWOOD

I completed three years of service as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Reserves, specifically as a private in the 72nd Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.  Veterans Affairs, I am told, says that I am a veteran.  The Legion’s membership criterion also considers me to be a veteran.  So why in my 64th year am I still unsure?

It’s a simple question with not so simple answers.  I have technically been a veteran since 1977.  Yet it’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun to feel comfortable enough allowing myself to be recognized as one. I think some of the answer is associated with how I’ve performed when dealing with dangerous work-related challenges I’ve faced, often in a leadership role with responsibility for others.

Serving in the Reserves meant part-time service with some real military training. Being an infantry regiment, we trained as combat soldiers, including receiving weapons training where I lost some of my hearing.  I enlisted at 17 or maybe 18 years, not old enough to vote or drink but I was old enough to die for my country, as the corporals in my life reminded me. Without an active duty role or assignments for peacekeeping duty, as some of my unit eventually were, I did not consider myself a veteran after my honourable discharge.

There were many in my family, the generations before mine, which had active service during the Second World War. The greatest family sacrifice we had was the passing of my father’s father, a volunteer with the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He died in the hospital at home after WWII ended, having spent much of the war in a POW camp in Hong Kong after being shot in combat. My father was four years old when he last saw him.  Though he’s long passed, he was a veteran.

Five of my uncles, brothers of my mother, also served in the CAF during that war, though none were seriously injured. Being quite a bit younger, I never heard much about their service, apart from seeing some of the black and white photos of them in uniform at Grandma’s house. It’s hard to imagine how she felt with so many of her sons in active duty, all volunteers. My uncle Sebastian and I had the most conversations about his service in the navy, doing convoy escort duty for Atlantic crossings from Halifax to Europe, his ship protecting the convoy against submarine attacks. They all served in active duty, some in combat, others trained for it but had not yet been called up.  

Uncle Seb’s stories were more about the daily hardships of wartime service where, at any moment, the entire crew had to snap to action launching depth charges and hedgehog projectiles against an unseen enemy in horrid Atlantic Ocean weather.  Imagine spending two years service at sea and never having enough seniority to shift from sleeping in a hanging hammock bed to a coveted 14-inch wide table bench that the lucky ones with seniority got to sleep on.  I think of Uncle Seb and all my uncles as veterans.

From my youngest memories of Remembrance Day services, I remember seeing the aging faces, medals on chests, stories told in interviews that brought them to tears. There was no doubt in my mind they were veterans. That imagery certainly influenced the inaccurate view of myself and many Canadians that to be a veteran one must have seen combat in one of the world wars or the Korean conflict, not just served in the CAF.  

That misconception has dogged me since my service. The notion that in my early 20s, my Reserves role completed, that I’d be fittingly standing beside those honoured individuals as a veteran was simply not conceivable. I admitted serving, but always very modestly, in part because I openly considered myself to be a less than stellar example of a private. I was not particularly fit, so the physical demands of some of our tougher infantry training in harsh conditions had me labelled as an underperformer. I was not picked on but nor did I earn much respect for my efforts.

Reflecting back to then, I was not as proud of how I had performed as I was for having volunteered to serve, making the notion of claiming a veteran status as preposterous.  Forty years on, I don’t feel any different about that time when I was still in my teens but I feel much different about myself and how I’ve lived my life since.   

My career in the oil and gas industry began not long after my Reserves service was completed. I plunged into the middle of a boom cycle in the late ‘70s that I was unfamiliar with and largely unprepared for, lucky to survive my first year working in operations outside of Fort McMurray. Over the 30-plus years that followed, I had operational and managerial positions around Canada and the globe: front-line operations in locations like China, Egypt, Russia and Iraq, onshore and offshore.

I was directly involved in a number of operational mishaps, some as an emergency responder, where I learned to draw upon leadership skills that I never knew I possessed.  The kind where I had direct responsibility for not only my own life but also those who worked for or with me. As an example, I led a firefighting team via helicopter to a large offshore oil and gas facility that was on fire in the Gulf of Suez. My assignment — for which I had no formal training  — was to respond to the fire, secure the platform and evacuate the personnel on board. Every life on board that helicopter was my personal responsibility, a mistake potentially costing one of our lives and destroying a family. 

I cannot equate that situation to the images I have of an infantry combat team flying by helicopter into a battle scene, but I know enough to understand that the importance of leadership and all the responsibilities that go with it are largely the same. Realizing that has made me more comfortable over the years with the idea of representing my behaviours in life to a panel of the corporals and sergeants of my early life: How I’ve carried myself and accepted my responsibility for others, often at greater risk to myself.  I think I could now look them in the eye and know that they were proud their butt kicking and lack of coddling had made a lasting and favourable impression on my life after my service. 

I’ve also experienced anecdotal events that helped me feel more comfortable being labelled as a veteran. Internationally, working in high-security locations such as Kurdistan in Iraq, where our security team of ex-special forces soldiers from various nations respected both my work performance and the fact I’d served my country (their words) as the reason I was welcome to dine at their table. Or when Legion past president Bill McKenzie, a top-ranked non-commissioned officer of the sort who used to loath my kind of under-performance as a private, openly invited me to march with the veterans in the Remembrance Day parade. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

So now, in a few days before this writing is printed, I am scheduled to attend my first ever Legion-sponsored veterans lunch, where only veterans and escorts are invited. I am certain to feel nervous and unsure in that esteemed company, perhaps relaxing after fulfilling my initiation responsibility of buying “first shout” libations to all in attendance. Perhaps the first time I’ll truly feel I’ve earned the honour of being called a veteran.

Salt Spring’s Poppy Campaign chair Ken Jackson reads at the First Poppy ceremony at Centennial Park on Oct. 27 this year.
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