The Monarques Project has allowed me to enter a world that was totally foreign to me. No one in my family or in my close circle has ever been part of the army. On the web, I was able to get accustomed with the vocabulary, the structure, and the operating system of this organization, as well as reading a few testimonials.
Beyond my ignorance, I have some deep-rooted perceptions about the military world and, intuitively, I have little attraction towards it.
For me, it is an austere environment, a man’s world where the value of a person is relative to how they obey and execute orders.
I feel that this world is quite remote from mine, and it was with apprehension that I entered my first contact with Christian. I was wondering what type of relationship would be possible, what would be the foundation and the meaning of it.
At first, our conversations were based around facts, but they quickly became more personal, and we were able to share our views, values, and emotions. It is through understanding Christian’s life in the army and as a veteran, understanding his motivation in joining the forces as well as the life choices that he has made since, that I have realised how important the building and rebuilding process has been for the shaping of his identity.
Joining the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) at 17 was, for Christian, an opportunity to take on new challenges, to travel and see the world. It was also the opportunity to make a name for himself, to impress his friends and to finally be recognized for who he was. He found a way of life and a living environment where he felt like he belonged and where his skills were valued. On the field in Afghanistan his leadership qualities were spotted quickly, as well as his ability to make quick decisions. As a result, he was promoted as an officer. With a clear status, a well-defined mandate and a proven recognition in hand, the CAF were offering him a new family - his brothers-in-arms - as well as the opportunity to challenge himself. His identity was now clear: he is a soldier, a combatant, a recognized leader, and a member of the brotherhood.
Then, came the catastrophe that would put everything in jeopardy. A remotely controlled bomb would injure him severely and kill two of his colleagues who were under his command. He was brought back to life twice, spent a long time in hospital, went under the knife several times and then went through a long rehabilitation process. Many of his organs had been injured and, as far as recovering his full capacities or even walking again, the prognosis wasn’t good.
He was separated from his colleagues, suffering from his injuries, coping with intense guilt, feeling the loss of his status and the role that defined him when he was then hit with a new hurdle - being released from the army due to not being fit for combat anymore. It wasn’t his choice. In addition to everything else, he now felt rejected and abandoned while grieving his identity, his purpose, and his new family.
After this traumatic period, he spent a long time searching for new bearings, trying to find a new identity through which to rebuild himself. He admits that his experiences have made him see life under a brand-new light. He claims that the explosion “was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me a better person. It allowed me to see who I am and know what I want in life.’’ I was puzzled by this statement at first. How can such a tragic event become an opportunity? What I understand from it, is that it forced him to choose what is essential to him.
Christian is now searching, looking for a new role in life, with new challenges. He wants to show that, besides his physical condition, he can still be useful on “the field’’. During his readaptation period he starts training intensely, trying to beat the odds. He takes on a sporting challenge, and, in the same way he climbed the ranking ladder in the army, he’s able to integrate the Canadian Paralympic kayak team. He participates in several international competitions, wins two gold medals in the Canadian Championships, takes part in the World Championship and earns a bronze medal in the World Cup. He is known as the fastest Paralympic kayaker in North America from 2012 to 2015.
But for him, “real life happens on the field’’. Despite his new status as an athlete (as well as all the multiple hats he’s wearing: worker, husband, volunteer and father), he is still defining himself as a veteran first. The rebuilding process is long and demanding. It’s hard for him to be heard and understood, to share experiences and feelings about what happened on the field with anyone other than his former brothers-in-arms. Even his sporting achievements are barely shared with his friends and family. It’s as if a big chunk of his life remains in the dark.
There’s a big age gap between us and we’ve had different professional and personal experiences. Nevertheless, we have a lot in common. I see myself in his attraction for new challenges, his will to exceed expectations, his need for recognition and to belong to a family. We share a lot of worries about balancing our different roles in our personal and professional lives. We question how to reconcile the learning and training models promoted in the military with the need to adjust, to adapt and to compromise.
Through my conversations with Christian, my perceptions of the military world have slowly been dissipated. I’ve discovered in Christian someone of great humanity, a thoughtful and emotional being. Someone with a strong desire to help, to be useful, who is committed to the cause, a person of duty who wanted to contribute to changing the world, the way I wanted to also, but in a different way. Those conversations have enabled me to understand why someone would be attracted by the prospect of joining the army and have given me a completely different picture to the one I had at the beginning.
Don’t give up! Those are the words that Christian puts at the end of all his exchanges. It is a message of solidarity and aims to encourage but also, it represents his determination, his courage and the resilience that he has shown throughout his military career and as a veteran.
Don’t give up Christian.