Canadian soldiers tell stories of what happens when they wear their uniforms in public these days – the free coffees at Tim Hortons, a handshake in the grocery store aisle, a "thanks for your service," from a stranger on the bus. It has not always been this way, but the Afghanistan war and all those grim processions making their way down the Highway of Heroes woke a nation to the danger its troops were braving, following orders into war. A uniform in a public place became a reminder of that sacrifice, a source of renewed pride. When Canada's military force was told, this week in a flurry of orders to wear their uniforms only on military property and not in public places, soldiers obeyed. But they did not like it.
"A uniform is everything to a soldier – it identifies us to other nations, to the people of our own country. Nobody wanted to take [it] off," Chief Warrant Officer Bradley Montgomery said at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick. "We are not hiding from anything. But at the same time, if the uniform has become a target, we probably shouldn't have it right there in the community, where civilians are present also."
Still, this is when soldiers most want to be visible, standing guard on home soil against a threat that has taken two of their own, and was targeted specifically at them. It is what Corporal Nathan Cirillo had volunteered to do – stand guard most conspicuously in his dark dress uniform, stiff-backed and still at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – and it is why a gunman shot and killed him on Tuesday morning at Ottawa's War Memorial. The same for Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who after 28 years of service was purposely run down by a car just because he happened to be wearing his uniform in a shopping mall parking lot in Quebec.
After these incidents, security tightened on bases, headquarters began considering a new uniform policy, and soldiers were warned to be "vigilant." Canadian troops are not supposed to have to watch their backs at home, yet now they must.
"How do you fight against someone in a parking lot?" asks CWO Montgomery, who compares the situation to what soldiers faced day after day in Afghanistan. "It was normal not to see your enemy. This is just readjusting back into that mind frame."
He used to tell his soldiers to know their battle space like their backyard. "When you walk out your backdoor, you know when someone stole your lawn chair, or your patio table has flipped over. And right now, that's what we're telling our soldiers. If something is out of place, you need to report it."
But in communities where soldiers are used to being approached by strangers, who will count as out of place? One veteran of the regular force, now a reservist, admitted this week that, when a stranger came up to shake his hand on Wednesday at a Halifax gas station, he tensed up for an instant, senses sharpened the way they were on his combat missions overseas. "You get home, you figure you're safe, and you turn that off," he said.
Finding the balance between vigilance and paranoia is tricky, suggested Master Warrant Officer Cindy Marche at CFB Edmonton. But her training has also kicked in – to be more alert to abandoned bags, the out-of-place person. "It's automatic. But now I am focused on it. It's not in the background." Still, she says, "I try not to be over-thoughtful, because I don't want to think in terms of stereotypes, looking at someone the wrong way."
Families of military personnel are also struggling with a new shift in thinking, in which attacks happen too close to home. "It shook something very deep inside of me to realize that he could be a target in his own country," said one military spouse in Ottawa, who asked not to be identified to protect her husband. "We have lost something that we will never be able to replace again. That sense of being safe at home. We all buckled a little when this happened, and then you get up and keep going."
Carrying on has meant extra precautions – at CFB Gagetown, for instance, since the attacks, the morning wait to enter the base sometimes extended for four hours, creating traffic jams in town. CWO Montgomery says he checks the locks on his doors at home more than ever, worried about his family's safety. And even while they chafed at limitations on wearing the uniform, several soldiers agreed the move was a smart one to protect civilians.
"I have been wearing it for so long, it's part of my skin," said MWO Marche. "It's part of me." On the other hand, she does not want to endanger families in public, she said. "It's hard on us. But it's not just for our protection, it's also protecting those who might be around us."
While he said he understands what is behind the new directive, Chief Warrant Officer Mike Davis at CFB Edmonton worries that changing behaviour too much will "empower whoever might be behind this."
But in the end, said retired Colonel Geordie Elms, the former commander of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Cpl. Cirillo's regiment, "soldiers are soldiers whether in uniform or not. It's not a costume. We are not going to run away from any threat."
On Wednesday, at the foot of the War Memorial, a group of young people stood in a cluster while the dignitaries paid respects, restless in civilian clothes, unidentifiable as the sentries who shared duties with Cpl. Cirillo. "We all want to be there in uniform," said 2nd-Lieutenant William McArthur of the Cameron Highlanders Regiment. "We all want to show that we are not afraid." As of Friday, the memorial guard was back on duty, standing guard, keeping vigilant.