It’s time for Canada to step up for our soldiers

Canadian Soldiers
Photo by: Sergeant Matthew McGregor, Canadian Forces Combat Camera © 2011 DND-MDN Canada

Canada is one of the greatest countries on Earth – In my biased view,
But, when it comes to fighting for what’s right, defending democracy and freedom, standing up for our values and taking care of our soldiers… Canada is – all too often – willing to shirk its responsibilities.  Canada is that friend who reaches last for the cheque at dinner, who fumbles with his wallet while someone else hands over her credit card to pick up the tab.

When it comes to taking care of our soldiers, Canada too often is disgraceful.

Canada has a tiny military.  Out of a population of 35 million, we have just 68,000 full-time men and women in our military – that’s army, navy and air forces combined.  Add another 47,000 reservists and our total military strength is still one of the smallest in NATO.

According to the World Bank, Canada’s defence spending in 2012 – when we had operations in Afghanistan – was just 1.2% of our GDP.  That’s less than the 4.4 % of the United States – much to be expected.  But it’s also less than other “warmongering” nations like the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Brazil and Australia.  It’s less than vacation paradise Fiji.  It’s less than Singapore – which is a city, for crying out loud. And, it’s less than Guineau-Bissau which is a country so small, I had to ask the first person I met from there where it was.

Canada’s soldiers are few in number – but they’re the best Canadians we have.  And yet, when they come home, we forsake them.

Some will be proud of the fact Canada spends so little on its military.  But, they’re also proud of the fact Canada’s soldiers punch well above their weight in places like Afghanistan.  That we helped provide air cover for a democratic revolution in Libya.  That we helped bring peace to Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.

They’re proud we can send troops to Haiti and the Philippines in the wake of disaster.  And even to Manitoba when it floods or – yes, Toronto when it snows.

But, that doesn’t mean they won’t slip away to the bathroom when it’s time to pay the bill.

Well, our soldiers are suffering for our disgraceful and ungrateful attitude.

We chose to have a small army, because we’re cheap.  We’re happy to rely on the good graces of our southern neighbor and the fact they were a friendly super power.  Well, they’re less powerful now and we are – supposedly, more mature now.  It’s time we grew up.

One of the byproducts of having a small army is the fact it’s the same soldiers being sent in harms way time and time again.  Guys I know have served three, four, five tours in Afghanistan – on top of multiple tours in the Balkans and elsewhere.  Even when we don’t call them wars, our soldiers die, get wounded and witness horrific, soul-destroying atrocities on missions around the world every day.  They always have.  They always will.

But, they don’t complain.  They never do.  Soldiers are like professional athletes.  They don’t want to watch the SuperBowl or the Grey Cup, or the Stanley Cup from the bleachers.  They want to be in the game, on the ground.

Every one of my friends in uniform volunteered for their multiple tours to Afghanistan – and they’d chomp at the bit to go back again too.  Or into the next hell-hole we want to send them.  That’s what they do.

When soldiers leave the military – they leave a family they’ve been part of since they were 17 or 18 years old.  They lose the only identity they’ve ever known as an adult.

When they leave the military, our soldiers move away from the bases they were stationed at to go back to cities and towns that are strange to them.  Where they have few familiy and fewer friends.  No connections.  No support network.

If those soldiers have also been damaged by their service – physically or mentally – starting over, for many, becomes impossible.

They have been trained to be heroes – not to ask for help.  They’ve been trained to watch each other’s backs and work as a team.  But then, they’re alone.  It’s no wonder so many of them can’t cope.  While they went to hell and back for us, we failed them.

They’re a small group – but they are, hands down, the best Canadians we have.  And yet, when they come home, we forsake them.

It’s time to say no more.  Our government, our ministers are always handy when it’s time to stand with our soldiers for a photo opp on a tank or a sexy fighter plane.  But, too often our government – whether Conservative or Liberal – disappears when our troops come home broken.

It’s going to take more than a video from the Chief of Defence Staff.  It’s going to take more than a new program or benefit, or the continuation of some Veterans Affairs offices across the country.  What’s needed is a top to bottom, inside-out review and redesign of our military moving forward.  As we leave Afghanistan and before we enter into a major new international commitment, the time is right.

It’s time to demand better from our government.  It’s time for Canada to step up to the plate and build a new military for the 21st Century.  It will be bigger.  It will be more expensive.  But it will not rely on chewing up young lives and spitting them out in the garbage.

A new military must be more resilient.  It must rely less on fulltime career soldiers – though there must be more of those – and balance the load with a robust measure of part-time specialist soldiers doing real time work.  It must provide more jobs for young Canadians looking for training in leadership, management & strategy.  And, yes – this training comes in battle schools and on future battlefields.

By bringing more soldiers in, training them, deploying them on operations, then transferring them from fulltime to part-time reserve service, we will build stronger connections between the army and our communities.  We will provide the transitional support that soldiers need to reintegrate into civilian life and we will build a strong new generation of leaders to lead Canada into a bright future.

We must stop shunning our military by hiding them away in bases far from our cities and the rest of the population.  We must station our troops where our people are, so we can share our lives with them and see what wonderful contributors they are in our communities.

By sharing the load, we can build a military that will continue to make our nation strong and proud.  And we can treat our soldiers the way they deserve to be treated.  With respect.  With care.  With dignity.

Originally broadcast as “Towhey’s Take” on Newstalk1010 at 2:46 pm Dec. 8, 2013

Photo by: Sgt. Matthew McGregor, Canadian Forces Combat Camera © 2011 DND-MDN Canada