Matthew Scheepers is a well-spoken 28-year-old with dark hair and an understated charisma. He finished a carpentry apprenticeship last spring and frames houses for a living.
Eric Jenkinson, 45, has enjoyed a long career at an information technology company and raised three children in the Toronto suburbs.
Wayne Johnston, an extroverted man with a handlebar moustache, is a former salesman for Toyota.
All three have been to war.
They are members of the Ontario Regiment, a reserve unit based in Oshawa, the industrial city of 150,000 east of Toronto. Its soldiers represent a cross-section of modern Canadian veterans, a group whose identity is shifting with the turnover of the generations.
Captain Johnston, 54, did a tour of duty in Bosnia and later handled the repatriation of fallen soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.
Sergeant Jenkinson and Master Corporal Scheepers served in the deserts there. So did Corporal David Easson, 39, a tall man with a deep, booming voice and a dry sense of humour, and Corporal Mitchell Allems, a boyish 24-year-old with aspirations of becoming a police officer.
Master Corporal Steve Burnett, 44, an amiable supervisor at the local auto plant, was a United Nations peacekeeper in Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1990s.
On a recent Saturday, they sat down with The Globe and Mail at regimental headquarters to talk about reintegrating into civilian life after returning from war, the mental toll of the conflict, and how Afghanistan reshaped the military’s relationship with Canadians.
Joining up and shipping out
A passion for history motivated Cpl. Allems to sign up for the army at age 16. He volunteered for the Afghan mission in part because of national pride – “I wanted to do the big thing” – and in part to broaden his horizons. Save for a holiday in Hawaii, he had never been out of Canada before.
Once deployed to Afghanistan, where he worked as a driver and gunner, Cpl. Allems found an additional motivation as well.
“When I got over there, I realized that my reasons [for going] could be a little bit selfish, but the realities on the ground were, these people do need help,” he says. “That’s really what helped me motivate to push through, and be even more supportive of the mission. Looking first-hand, seeing what we were doing.”
MCpl. Scheepers, for his part, joined somewhat inadvertently when he signed up for a militia co-op to earn high-school credits (it wasn’t until he swore allegiance to the Queen that he realized the program entailed joining the army).
In 2006, he volunteered for the first of two rotations to Afghanistan, and quickly received a baptism by fire. On his first day outside the wire, he was in an armoured personnel carrier, travelling with a convoy. When they approached a police checkpoint, a Toyota Corolla packed with homemade explosives blew up, killing civilians in nearby cars and disabling his vehicle.
While his crew stayed behind with their damaged carrier, the rest of the convoy continued on and drove into an ambush, where insurgents pounded them with mortar fire.
“We had radios and everything, and we could hear what was going on. And I knew it was the rest of my friends out on the convoy that was getting hit,” he says. “I guess it’s easier to leave than to be left behind.”
Later, at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, he came face-to-face with another reality of modern war: The attack was already being reported on CTV.
On one of his last days at Kandahar Air Field in the spring of 2009, Cpl. Easson approached a group of newly arrived troops to ask for a light. Among them was Karine Blais, a raven-haired 21-year-old from the Gaspesie.
The soldiers in the group, on their first tour, asked Cpl. Easson what to expect outside the wire. He left them with a word of advice.
“Don’t worry about anything happening to you,” he said. “Concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing. If anything happens, react, but don’t lose sleep.”