Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College.
This November marks my 13th Remembrance Day as a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
It also marks a significant evolution in the way that I understand what it means to remember.
As a civilian who joined the college without any previous military background, I have learned a lot about military culture over the last 13 years, and particularly about the overwhelming idealism that is necessary to assume a job that requires you to put yourself in a position of unlimited liability on a daily basis. I now understand viscerally why Canadians who see members of their armed forces on the street, or at Tim Hortons, are prone to thank them for their service (or buy them a coffee).
Even if we don’t always agree with our government’s decisions when it comes to defence and foreign policy, most of us are proud of the individuals who make up our military, and awed by the sacrifices they make in support of their country. We care just as deeply for our veterans, too many of whom still struggle upon their release.
But I’ve also learned that when we say, “thank you for your service” to a veteran, an officer or a non-commissioned member, we aren’t quite getting it right. Because when members of the Canadian Armed Forces deploy, they aren’t the only ones putting service before self. Their families are, too.
I guess I had always understood this distinction in theory, but it was only this past year that I came to fully grasp its implications. Last spring, I asked my students about the sacrifices that their families had made to support their careers. They responded, unanimously, that their parents, spouses, partners and children had it much harder than they did, especially whenever they were abroad.
One officer was deployed to Afghanistan just after her son turned five. When the little boy’s teacher asked him what it was like not to have his mother around for an extended period, he answered, “It was hard. All that time, I didn’t know if she was going to come home.”
Living with such fear can be unbearable, especially for a young child, yet it’s a normal part of life for military families (not to mention for their close friends).
Another highly decorated officer recalled his nine-year-old daughter’s experience while he was in Kandahar. “She was just old enough to fully get what was happening every time a fallen soldier was repatriated,” he said. “That stressful experience left deep emotional scars. She should be the one wearing a medal.”
These stories don’t always end well. Families break up. Children act out in school. Lives are constantly uprooted. Parents are scared to check their phones or watch the news. Partners and spouses cover for loved ones who miss one milestone after the next. Those who stay behind experience pain that is just as real as that which is felt by those serving far away.
Remembrance Day asks us to recall the sacrifices that military members have made for our country during the World Wars and other violent conflicts. We wear poppies to honour those who gave up their lives or came back no longer the same. At 11 o’clock, we stop what we are doing and observe a moment of silence to be thankful for the freedoms they defended, and continue to defend.
Rarely, however, it seems to me, do we take the time to think about the difficulties that military families face daily?
This Remembrance Day, if you happen to see a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, rather than just thanking them for their service, please offer your best wishes to their families as well.
The most important lesson that I have taken away from my time at the Canadian Forces College is that no one goes to war alone.