Military life in Canada is a family affair, and the spouses and children of service people face unique challenges. They must cope with repeated moves and long absences, an age-old problem heightened by a profound shift: Military families include more single parents and dual-service couples than ever before. As the 30,000 Afghanistan veterans return home, many are grappling with mental-health issues. More than two-thirds live off-base, sometimes isolated among civilian neighbours who may falsely believe they get free housing, jump the queue for a new doctor and don’t pay taxes. As research shows, military families are remarkably resilient, but the strains are evident. “Part of the culture of military life is that you don’t whine, you don’t complain, you don’t ask – you figure it out yourself,” says Nora Spinks, the executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family. The institute is starting a public-awareness campaign to educate the public about military life and remind Canadians, as they honour their veterans and soldiers this Remembrance Day, that there is family standing – and sometimes struggling – behind every uniform.
‘We’re both mom and dad’
Master Warrant Officer Paul Watkins proudly lists his fatherhood milestones: baking homemade bread; finding a bargain price on a package of diapers, shopping with his daughter for her first bra. He remembers designing sets for a Christmas concert and cooking pancake breakfasts at school. Sometimes, he’d be the only dad in the room. “You are very proud of yourself then – especially when your child looks out and sees you there.”
But it’s not all Mr. Mom moments: The white towels that emerged from the laundry pink are a family joke, and MWO Watkins, an aviation maintenance superintendent who often works the night shift, also recalls the hockey games and band practice and homework help his kids missed because no one was home. That’s the cost of having two military parents, both serving in positions that can send them on search-and-rescue missions with an hour’s notice, or see them deployed to Afghanistan for months at a time. Occasionally, their absences would overlap. In 2008, Master Corporal Shae Watkins, an administrative clerk, was deployed to Kandahar; last year, it was Paul’s turn – he was away from home for 234 days, training time included. For now, Paul and Shae are home together, based at CFB Comox in British Columbia.
“The kids grew up knowing at any one moment one or two of us could be gone,” Paul says. “We’re both mom and dad.” While military families work together, carpooling and filling in on short notice, “you are really on your own. You make the best of it.”
When Hurricane Juan struck the East Coast in 2003, Shae was stationed on the HMCS Charlottetown. Their house had lost power and running water; before he left for work to assist with the search-and-rescue operations, Paul organized a generator, a sitter, and drove his four kids to the gas station so they could each fill up their rationed jerrycans. The family had bought a house about half an hour outside Halifax to save on housing – moving around on short notice can make a large mortgage risky, even if you can afford it – so there wasn’t support from the base. That’s also a new reality for military families: Living “on civvy street” means their kids didn’t have peers who also track storms on satellite when they worry about mom out at sea, or who consult maps when a bomb explodes in Afghanistan. “They are acutely aware of what’s going on,” Paul says. “You have to toughen them up a little bit.”
And while Shae was accustomed to Paul’s long absences, since he had been away more often earlier in their marriage, she says, “you realize how alone you are during extended deployments when the chores are done, the kids have gone to bed and you do not have anyone to talk to or discuss family issues. There is no replacing your other half.”
The bra story is classic Watkins lore, says Chelsea, 17, the only girl in the family: “My dad will probably tell that story at my wedding.” But being the kids in a dual-service family can also be lonely – she once stormed out of class in tears when the students started criticizing the mission in Afghanistan. During dangerous deployments, missing a phone call home would be devastating. And although Chelsea visited the school counsellor once a week, she rarely felt understood. “It was hard to find someone to talk to,” she says.
Despite the upheaval of her childhood, Chelsea says she also saw the positives of military life: the service to your country, the adventure, the ability to provide for your family. She is planning to enlist when she graduates. Her eldest brother, Scott, left for basic training in Quebec this week.
Through all the confounding logistics, the shift-juggling and the moments of isolation, Paul insists, “it does grow your family bond. If you stay together and help yourself, you become a lot stronger than you normally would.”
- Erin Anderssen
‘It’s the life I have chosen’
That night before Peggy Murphy was leaving for her deployment to Afghanistan, she lay in bed with her then seven-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was trying to stay awake all night. “She said, ‘if I fall asleep, I know when I open my eyes, you will be gone,’ ” recalls Sergeant Murphy, a single mother of two, who was deployed for 10 months to Kandahar in 2007 as a resource management clerk.
Her son, Christopher, a year older, was more stoic, masking his worry in jokes about how he was going to dodge homework while mom was away. But Ashley took her mom’s departure into a war zone hard. That Christmas, while Sgt. Murphy was home on leave between training and deployment, she pulled her mom aside and started to sob. “I don’t want you to die,” she said, “I am so afraid you are going to be killed.” Don’t worry, her mom told her, “I just take care of the good guys who fight the bad guys.” That conversation, Sgt. Murphy says, “was the hardest part of my whole trip to Afghanistan.”
Sgt. Murphy isn’t a complainer – she is quick to clarify that she joined the military because it was her dream career, not because she needed a secure job. Of course, she didn’t expect to be juggling long absences without a partner, relying instead on her 60-year-old dad, Kenneth, a retired fish-plant worker in Newfoundland, to travel halfway across the country at a moment’s notice when she has to be away for weeks at a time. “It’s the life I have chosen,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t come without its share of hardships. But if I’ve got it crappy in one department, someone else has always got it worse.”
When she learned she was being deployed to Afghanistan, it was the realization of her military ambitions. But, including training, she would be gone for nearly a year and a half. She decided to send her two children back to Paradise, Nfld., a town next to St. John’s, so they could live among family.
On the base in Kandahar, Sgt. Murphy’s job involved finding the emergency notification for a lost soldier so a padre could break the news to his family. “Those are the days when you think about your family at home and how much they must be worrying and you feel guilty.” At least, living off short, crackling phone calls home and regular Web chats, she knew her children were safe. Says her father, in a voice thick with pride, “I used to tell her, ‘keep your head about you.’ But I guess she knows that anyway.”
Even with a strong support network, worry leaves a shadow. Not long after Sgt. Murphy returned home, Ashley’s teacher phoned to say her normally outgoing daughter was crying over minor mishaps and refusing to participate in group activities. Sgt. Murphy took her to counselling. Ashley had trouble letting go of the “what-ifs”: What if her mom hadn’t come home? What if she’d been injured? “I had to promise the kids I wouldn’t go away for three years,” Sgt. Murphy says. “It’s a promise you can’t always keep, but I got lucky.”
Today, the Murphys live in the small community of Masson-Angers, Que.; Sgt. Murphy is posted to the Canadian Forces Language School in Gatineau. One night while she was working late, her son, Christopher, left the bathtub faucet running and didn’t notice until water dripped down through the kitchen ceiling light. Sgt. Murphy arrived home to four neighbours mopping her floor. “I don’t know what it is about the uniform, but my luck has been that my community is always ready to help.”
Eventually, she will be posted again – handling the logistics of finding a new house, a good school, and a doctor for the children. She knows it will get harder now that her kids are teenagers, and no longer “at the age when they don’t care whose Play-Doh they eat.” But the family is resilient, she says. Laughter helps. “Now when I am on them about their homework, they’ll say to me, ‘Mom, don’t you have a tour to go or something?’ ”
- Erin Anderssen
‘I wasn’t just one person injured that day’
Mark Campbell is angry. Not just because he lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan, or because he’s felt abandoned by the military since then, or even because he’s now suing the Canadian Forces, his employer.
All that pales beside another factor: his family, who are suffering the fallout of his injury as much as he is. His wife slid into a deep depression after trying to navigate the bureaucracy of a military system Major Campbell says was entirely unprepared to handle casualties. His kids’ performance in school has sunk. The family was forced to move, burning through an inheritance, and is guaranteed less income than if he hadn’t been injured – he and his wife Donna, a Warrant Officer, expect to be discharged by the military.
All told, the family’s home has become a powder keg.
“I wasn’t just one person injured that day,” Major Campbell says, sitting at the kitchen table of a home they built, north of Edmonton, to accommodate a wheelchair. “There were three other immediate members of my family who might as well have been in that blast with me, because it affected them just as much as it affected me.”
Major Campbell was injured by a roadside bomb in Zhari district of Kandahar province in 2008. His recovery took its toll from early on. At first, the family of four could spend time together only in hotels or in the garage, as their old home couldn’t accommodate a wheelchair.
Since the injury, Major Campbell says the old cliché held true – his biggest battles awaited him at home. He says they’ve been forced to claw for every benefit, and that the military has fought them along the way. In particular, he’s waged a battle against Canada’s New Veterans’ Charter, which – despite its rosy name – he says dramatically clawed back benefits for injured soldiers in the midst of the Afghan mission.
The injuries put a stress on the marriage, too, whether from Major Campbell’s nightmares (he still gets them nightly, thrashing and punching in his sleep) or his physical injuries, including a missing testicle and genital scarring (“which had impacts later on down the road with the family dynamic, as you can well imagine,” he says).
WO Campbell, a full-time reservist who, like her husband, is taking medication for her mental health, recalls watching a TV show shortly after his injury, featuring an injured soldier whose wife had left him.
“I said how could she leave him at the time he really needs help?” she says. “You know what? Then, over the years, I lived it and I can understand why, right now, somebody would bail. There are a lot of soldiers whose wives have left. Because Mark’s not the same guy he used to be.”
In some ways, they say, their marriage is stronger. But WO Campbell says she feels betrayed by the military. He’s quickly stirred to anger and profanity – calmed only by his wife gently touching his arm – over the treatment he has received since coming home.
“That’s just the basic idea,” he says. “If I’m going to give you a signed blank cheque up to and including my life, then you better have my family’s back when I come home in a box or chair. That’s the deal. Well, I went. I held up my end of the bargain. Then you get hurt and you find out that the institution that you’ve devoted your entire life and your loyalty to has turned around and stabbed you in the back.”
- Josh Wingrove
Military families by the numbers
Number of military families in the Canadian Forces
Number of children under 18 with a parent in the military
Percentage of military families who live off-base
Percentage of military members who are either married or living common-law
Percentage of military personnel who are divorced or separated
Percentage who are single
Percentage of military spouses who work full-time
Percentage of military spouses who are male
Percentage of military couples who have children
Percentage of military families who have one or more children with special needs
Percentage of military spouses who have experienced at least one deployment of their family
Percentage who have experienced at least five deployments
Percentage who have relocated at least once for a military posting
Statistics compiled by the Vanier Institute of the Family, as part of the Canadian Military Family Initiative