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Passing the torch: Gen. Tom Lawson, left, shakes hands with his predecessor, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, right, to he delight of Governor-General David Johnston during the change-of-command ceremony in Ottawa two weeks ago. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Passing the torch: Gen. Tom Lawson, left, shakes hands with his predecessor, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, right, to he delight of Governor-General David Johnston during the change-of-command ceremony in Ottawa two weeks ago. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Gen. Tom Lawson: From air base commander to Canada’s top soldier Add to ...

“It was just a crazy year,” Walt Natynczyk recalls. In 2006, after four years of Afghan duty, Canadian soldiers were assigned to Kandahar in the thick of the battle with the Taliban. The result was the nation’s biggest war effort in more than half a century and a massive logistical challenge, requiring thousands of flights to ferry personnel and equipment almost 11,000 kilometres from the military air base at Trenton, Ont.

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As well as crazy, it was a deadly year. Too many transport planes returned to present an entirely different challenge: “Repatriation” ceremonies were required to mark a dignified return for the 36 Canadians who lost their lives – more than four times the total number of previous casualties – with 180 others injured in battle.

On both counts, “we were blessed to have Tom commanding Trenton …,” Mr. Natynczyk adds. “There was no detail too small.”

This delicate balancing act put the late-blooming colonel in question on the military map, sparking a meteoric rise that, in just six years, has made him a four-star general and, at 55, Mr. Natynczyk’s successor as the country’s top soldier.

His ability as an administrator was a key factor in the federal government’s decision to make Gen. Tom Lawson chief of the defence staff. With Afghanistan behind them, the Canadian Forces are in reboot-and-rebuild mode. At his recent swearing-in ceremony, the new commander spoke of “a period of refocus,” which he has begun by declining to grant interviews so that he can concentrate on his new duties.

On one hand, the forces are tired and in need of healing as they prepare for the next combat mission. On the other hand, Gen. Lawson is expected to trim spending and cut back on massive acquisitions plans. Or, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it, he has to give the Forces “more teeth and less tail.”

To make a mark means raising his profile. He was a key pitch man for the government’s controversial purchase of the F-35 fighter jet and a media spokesman during last year’s Libya mission. Yet the public has no real sense of the Toronto native – it will be some time before he is as well known as his immediate predecessors, the back-slapping Mr. Natynczyk and “soldiers’ soldier” Rick Hillier.

As well, he could be better acquainted with the 65,000 regulars who serve under him because his career thus far has largely been about the air force.

In his younger days, he flew jet fighters in Germany and then moved to the non-combat Challenger and Airbus. More recently, he has been seen more as a booster of aircraft than a pilot, especially the costly replacement for the air force’s aging workhorse.

“There’s nothing that our CF-18s can do right now that wouldn’t be greatly enhanced by the introduction of the F-35, with the capabilities we expect that fighter to have,” he told a parliamentary committee last year. Now, in light of the Auditor-General’s recent criticism of the procurement process, he may have to walk a finer line.

And he, like his predecessors, will have to find out what the other branches of the armed forces are all about – a voyage of discovery that in the months ahead will take him to a succession of bases and see him do such things as go down in a submarine, pull the lanyard on a howitzer and, no doubt, fire off a few rounds.

Gen. Lawson’s rapid rise has overshadowed his first 30 years of service, during which he ascended more slowly than might be expected of a future commander.

He was 50 when he became a general in 2007 – which insiders estimate at five years behind schedule for someone who become’s Canada’s top soldier.

His pace was slow because of some of his career choices, such as earning master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Royal Military College and his decision to teach at RMC in the 1980s. As well, his restrained managerial style kept him from attracting as much attention as some of his more flamboyant peers.

“Some people appear to be good, while Tom is one of those guys who is simply good. He never takes an extra step to appear to be good,” says Ken Pennie, a former chief of the air staff and superior officer.

But then came Trenton, which led to a 2007 posting in nearby Kingston as commandant of the RMC, a clear sign that his star was on the rise. Not only did he become a brigadier-general, he was, because the college trains officers for all three branches of the service, for the first time in charge of a Forces-wide operation.

While at the college, he not only gave the odd lecture but strived to restore a sense of pride in an institution that, according to many in the military, had begun to lose its way, shedding traditions and becoming more like a civilian school.

In a sense, he was returning the institution to what it had been in the 1970s when, as he recalled at his swearing-in last month, he arrived as a teenager unsure that he would last more than a year – only to have the Forces grow on him. He was, after all, following in the footsteps of his father, a Second World War fighter pilot, as well as laying a path for two of his own sons, who have done the same.

He made it a mission to boost morale by bringing back RMC’s military focus and discipline. To foster a sense of unity, he had all cadets trade the colours of their respective services for a common uniform: white shirt and dark navy trousers with a red stripe down the side.

As well, he brought fourth-year students back to live the RMC dormitories; for years, they had been encouraged to be more a part of the community. Living on campus was designed to help them sharpen their leadership abilities by overseeing younger students.

Military historian Richard Gimblett, class secretary for 1979, the year Gen. Lawson graduated, says it’s no coincidence that in his final year, the future chief of defence staff was named cadet wing commander, first among the hundreds of future officers. In that role, he organized the parade ground, ensured that cadets’ rooms could pass muster and meted out discipline.

So, his career may seem to have got off to a slow start, when in fact, more than three decades before reaching the top of the chain of command, he was at the top of his class.

“It was clear right from the start,” Mr. Gimblett says, “that he was a leader.”

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