I swore an oath to serve my country 26 years ago today, at the young age of 17. A few days later I crossed the country from one coast to the country to the other to begin my Basic Officer Training. I have such a distinct memory of sitting on the plane listening to music, with my two fellow Newfie recruits, and it was Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” The song is about something entirely different, but that line specifically resonated, and we all looked at each other and chuckled. It was about to hit us, about 24hrs later when we arrived at Canadian Forces Officer Candidate School in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
While it wasn’t a stretch for me to end up in the military, it wasn’t something I had a dream of doing. I knew about the Regular Officer Training Program (ROTP), and the Royal Military College, because my brother had signed up five years ahead of me. But to me, all it really represented was a free education. It was a way to get my degree paid for, with a guaranteed job at the end of it, I would be bilingual, and I would only have a minimum five year commitment upon graduation. There was also an escape clause; up until the first day of classes in your second year, you could opt out and owe nothing. Seemed to me that it was a great way to avoid a massive amount of student debt.
I picked up the application, but never followed through with submission. In fact, I had already accepted my offer from ST FX in Antigonish, Nova Scotia when the recruiter called me to follow up on my application. I had assumed I was too late by then. He told me to bring it with him when I came for an interview. So off I went. I recall the interview ended up being a lengthy discussion on my involvement with sports, and he asked me if I knew where any of the bases were located in Canada. To this day, that job interview is my one and only successful job interview, because when the offer came, the free education trumped the small entrance scholarship I had to St FX. And here we are still, 26 years later, all because I didn’t want to have student loans.
By a free education, I was simply referring to my Bachelor’s degree. That’s all I was really looking to get out of it. I can tell you though, that “free” education felt anything but free during my summer training in Gagetown, New Brunswick. I think on our week long defensive exercise in the summer of 1996 us ROTP Officer Cadets calculated what our salary equated to for an hourly wage, and it was less than $2/hour! When I look back on it now however, that Bachelors degree I was in search of for free was just a small drop in the bucket of lifelong learning that my career afforded me. My work anniversary has given me cause to reflect upon the lifelong education my career has provided.
I may not have a degree in sociology, but I have had 26 years of learning about people – their interactions, how they react when challenged, and conversely how they behave when they have idle time on their hands. I have seen team dynamics in play in a variety of settings – large group, small group, homogeneous, and diverse. I have bore witness to a multitude of different leadership styles, and been challenged by a wide range of followers or subordinates – the overachiever, the self-doubter, the cocky, to just the average soldier who wants to do their job well. I have seen them celebrate successes, and I have seen them grieve in times of loss. I have shared in some of those moments.
I have learned to be flexible and adaptable. While the military has taught me formal planning processes, the expressions “plan early, plan twice,” or “why plan when you can react” are used frequently enough in a somewhat joking manner, but based in reality because the situation often changes. Plans rarely survive contact, meaning all bets are off once you cross the line of departure. If you cannot react to change in the military, you are destined for failure.
Je suis capable de parler dans les deux langues officielles du Canada, not perfectly, but I can get by. Moreso, I have learned about communication in the broader context. I have learned the importance of timely and appropriate feedback on performance, whether it be positive or negative. I have had to deliver tough messages, bad news, and had to have uncomfortable conversations. I have had to rely on written communication to advocate for my soldiers (or myself), or to administer them out of the Canadian Armed Forces when it was necessary.
I have learned about accountability, authority, and responsibility, and how there must be an appropriate correlation between the three to be effective in your position. I have sometimes learned lessons about responsibility the hard way, where it was difficult for my perfectionist self to accept. Things will happen that are beyond your control, or direct influence, but as the leader you are ultimately responsible, and yes, sometimes that sucks.
I have had to undergo formal training throughout my entire career, with my most recent course having just been completed last week, the Unit Command Team Course. While my basic officer training, and my specific occupational training, all served to introduce and teach new skill sets that were necessary for me to do my job, the benefit of some of my other training was not in the new material being taught. In fact, I would be hard pressed to put my finger on new information or skills that either the Army Operations Course, the gateway to promotion to major that all Army captains take, or my Joint Command and Staff Programme, the gateway to Lieutenant-Colonel, taught me. By the time you arrive on those courses, depending on your background, what is being presented isn’t necessarily new or unfamiliar, but the value is in the opportunity to practise and exercise certain things in a learning environment with a cross section of officers from the Army or the Canadian Armed Forces. It is in the informal discussions and debates that arise in the conduct or in the margins of the course. The value is the connections that you make that will carry on throughout your career. From my perspective, the greater value of those courses are in the people with whom you attend and the professional relationships that are borne from it.
A career in the Canadian Armed Forces is a dynamic one that revolves around people. And being around people is always going to teach you something, whether you realize it or not. What I mention above is only a small snippet of the things I have learned in the past 26 years. The free education I signed up for turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. It has given me a lifelong education.