There is a perception for those within the Canadian military that the majority of Canadians outside of the military do not truly understand what it means to live a military life. These perceptions can certainly create alienation or isolation for the military members of our society, including military personnel and their direct families. In an attempt to give these military members a greater voice, this article aims to create greater awareness around some of the realities of military life - a way of life I have personally experienced, and normalize its perception, with a goal of fostering greater inclusion among all Canadians. These reflections are attributable to the interviews with my direct family including my father, a retired Lieutenant General after a 35 year career in the Canadian military; my mother, who experienced the military life as a wife and also as a daughter of a 32-year career Royal Canadian Airforce pilot, and both my brother and I, children of a military family.
There once was a stigma about a career in the military in which if you couldn’t make it anywhere else you joined the military. While that stigma may have faded, the goal of building a successful military career remains largely overlooked by most Canadians. My father hadn’t originally considered the military, unsure of his career path after graduating from University of Waterloo in Kinesiology. With encouragement from my mother, who was well familiar with the military family life, and special recruitment packages being offered at the time (ie. join as a lieutenant instead of a second lieutenant and eligible for promotion to captain in 3 years versus 5 years), he saw the military as a means to serve an initial commitment of 8 years. As the job provided a plethora of personal development training, alongside appropriate promotions at each stage of his career, it kept him professionally satisfied as it transformed into his close to 35-year career. That said, Canadians don’t value or reward military service the same way as do our neighbours to the south. This was very apparent during my father’s later postings to the US as a General late in his career; when comparing the places they stayed, the events in which they partook and the influential people they met. As a result, many Canadians still overlook this career opportunity altogether without a proper understanding of positive societal influence, honours and rewards one may receive for such a career choice. In a similar vein, Canadians may more easily overlook the contributions and sacrifices military personnel have made for our nation, which can adversely affect the psyche of those that have served. While I personally passed on a military career, this decision was more attributable to a desire to chart my own path versus following in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. That said, I hold a lot of respect for those that choose this honourable path, and I’m glad to see more high-potential and good spirited peers joining the military ranks.
A career in the military means being immersed in military life for you and your family, which can bring both positive and negative effects alike. The military world immerses you into the geo-political conflicts of the times, including associated postings enabling cultural immersion. The direct participation in major world-changing events, can lay a large burden of stress from the choice of our nation’s actions that are directly felt by military personnel. The stress is felt regardless of whether or not you get deployed, given the high-stakes combat preparation training under the assumption of imminent in-field deployment. Additionally, the family may feel these stressors from being scared or worried of loss of life for their loved one, being in face with the realities of war themselves, such as when my brother as a child remembers armed soldiers in their fatigues using mirrors to search under his school bus for bombs, or the projection of the stresses by personnel onto their families. I’ve personally experienced these concerns as an 8 year old child when my father was posted to Rwanda for peacekeeping from 1994-1995. As my brother had already moved out, my mother was left to raise me. While most days were filled with pride regarding the positive influence of his role, there were certainly memories of elevated stress either from worries of his safety, or from the challenges of being raised by a single mother during this time.
The degree to which each person is affected varies, much like all psychological traits are on a spectrum, and from my perception, everyone is affected to a certain degree. Unfortunately, in my experience those in the military have a hard time sharing these events and associated feelings, especially with those outside who’ve also experienced a similar level of comparative stress. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that military personnel are posted away from the family a lot, resulting in many missed bonding moments. As my father said, missing out on many of these family moments were some of his biggest regrets, from birthdays to sporting events to graduations. For some, this can further lead to feelings of isolation, or contribute to a wedge between military personnel and their direct family. On the flip side, for those who are less affected, either due to the way they compartmentalize these stressors, their supportive networks including family, or other, a more enlightened and worldly view can emerge, gratifying for both military and family alike. From my perspective, being exposed to more countries and cultures from a younger age relative to my peers certainly helped me cultivate a more global view. Additionally, as I was proud of the work my father was doing for Canada internationally, especially as a peacekeeper, it certainly fed my desire to incorporate a sense of serving my country in my future endeavours.
Non-military family members may expect that the family will move to a new location maybe once or twice during their years in a household. Military families move much more frequently, which certainly forced each of our family members out of our shell, even as we experienced feelings of shyness, and provided for experiences that build valuable character traits useful later in life. That said, for some who are more introverted, restarting in a new environment is a very stressful experience, and combining other stressors mentioned above, can certainly result in hardships. Fitting into new environments may require a bit of putting oneself out there, trying new things, which could also include taking risks, and that in turn can be a slippery slope down a harmful path. For instance, my brother, never known for picking fights, got into his first and only fight when immersed in a new school in which new kids were not welcomed. A continuous string of these types of events, may lead to greater sadness and loneliness, resulting in potential traumatic experiences for themselves and their family. This can be especially true in neighborhoods or cities which don’t encourage inclusion, especially for newcomers. Personally, there were times in which I felt like a floater, moving from one group of friends to another without establishing trusted connections. Fortunately, participation in sports did alleviate some of those negative sentiments, which for others could include participation in extracurricular activities, or focused classes in school (e.g. language immersion), as it helps unite everyone to a common goal, while not getting lost in the crowd.
For all members of the family, and most profoundly, it is the people that make military life so special. A sense of community, unlike any other, in which people put the wellbeing and needs of others ahead of their own. My mother was left to deal with the challenges of raising her children on her own many times, as my father was deployed elsewhere. This was further complicated by the fact she was working full-time to build her own career. These events in turn lead to instances that were too much to handle alone; fortunately, there were those with enough compassion and understanding to help out when she needed it, not always directly within the military, but more often than not it was those associated with the military who would be first to help out. As my brother and I grew older, we felt a growing kinship towards those who also experienced military life, knowing that they too had undergone shared experiences. For us all, home is not a single specific place, as there was no one place, but it is rather a memory from being in proximity of loved ones, which can be anywhere.
To summarize all the vast experiences of all the millions of Canadians military families is a tall order, considering every individual’s experience within each reality will be vastly different. As the saying goes, to truly understand any individual’s military experience requires a mindset of walking in one’s shoes. That said, these broad realities may serve to better relate to these military members and their families. It may create greater empathy towards the military life, giving outsiders a glimpse on the inside, and encourage better inclusion among all Canadians. And while not the case for all families (ie. within or outside of the military), none of our family wish for a new deck of life cards, as we collectively feel blessed for these shared character building and worldly experiences. Fortunately, no events triggered any stressors beyond which we could not handle, either independently or as a family.