Kelly S. Thompson is a former captain in the Canadian Armed Forces and the North Bay, Ont.-based author of Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes From the Forces.
A trip to an insurance agent is often tedious, but rarely a matter of existential anxiety. Yet, there I was, in 2012, sitting sheepishly in one of Vancouver’s provincial insurance offices, the walls sporting posters urging us to drive safely and the staff appearing typically disengaged – and my nerves were showing in my tense face, mottled from crying all morning.
My purpose there was simple – applying for a veteran’s licence plate, which allowed for free parking in the city suburbs. I have always been a sucker for free parking. But the reason for my stress was much more complicated: I had been a civilian for all of nine months, and even after eight years of being Captain Thompson, I was convinced I hadn’t earned the designation.
I wasn’t yet 30 years old; I hadn’t seen war. I didn’t even feel entitled to the depression that led to my medical military release; my colleagues had been forced to hurt other people and seen friends torn apart on battlefields, so who was I to feel this way? An overwhelming feeling of inadequacy clawed at my throat whenever anyone called me a veteran. My dad, on the other hand, was a real veteran, in my eyes: silvery hair, wrinkled skin and a chest full of war medals from his peacekeeping service in the Golan. So when he encouraged me to obtain the form to have my military service validated for the licence plate, I decided to gird myself and make the drive down to this office.
It didn’t quite go as planned.
The insurance lady looked down at the form, her neon fingernails glowing under the office’s fluorescent lights. She snapped her gum. “You don’t look like a veteran,” she said.
“Oh no?” I tried to keep my voice even, pretending I hadn’t had my former officer status questioned a million times before. “And what does a veteran look like?”
“You know, old. Like, Second World War kind of old. And you’re a girl.” That last bit was said with sass, as though my gender and military service could not square with what she was reading on the paper in her hand.
Emboldened, I raised an eyebrow while I signed here and there on the paperwork she handed back to me, my loopy cursive signature apparently unbecoming of soldierness. “I’m a woman, actually. Not a girl.”
The agent pounded her date stamp with a thwack, dug through her filing cabinet of poppy-painted metal plates and handed me one, shrugging, as I held its weight in my hand.
She didn’t need to tell me that I don’t fit the military mould: I knew it from the day I enrolled as an 18-year-old, just after 9/11. Among my friends, my passion for magenta lipstick is renowned, as are my funky haircuts, my dedication to art and my love of story. Artsy-fartsy was the term my dad used to describe me, as did many of my male military colleagues. And even though I come from a place of privilege, with my white skin and cisgender expression, even I struggle with the veteran label when I stare back at the mirror. What I see doesn’t compute with what society expects me to be.
Just a month before the fiasco at the insurance office, I’d felt impossibly out of place while paying respects during my first civilian Remembrance Day. My beret slipped awkwardly on my new civilian hairstyle, and I could see firsthand, compared with my former comrades on the other side, how much I didn’t belong. I wondered about the other veterans who stood next to me at the cenotaph, sporting their own medals and military headwear. We spanned all ages, races, gender expressions and other experiences.
We, the invisible veterans.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the stereotype of the elderly, male, war-hardened veteran exists. Throughout the World Wars and in many of the years following, wartime propaganda stoked fears about the enemy, and our heroic soldiers were portrayed through physically strong, white, muscle-bound men (and later, some women, also white). Television, movies and even former Canadian Armed Forces recruitment videos have also defined military service using hypermasculinized characters. That image has been honed by media, but it has also in turn driven the predominantly white and male demographic of our military.
But there’s a new veteran in town. In fact, there has been for quite some time.
Veterans Affairs Canada defines a veteran as “any former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who successfully underwent basic training and is honourably discharged." That’s a pretty broad view, but a necessary one, especially when it comes to challenging our soldier stereotype. And indeed, by that definition, Veterans Affairs Canada reports that we have just less than 650,000 living veterans in the country, with fewer than 50,000 of them having served during the Second World War and in Korea. So the “new” veteran is the predominant veteran these days – reflecting a force that has grown more diverse through the years. That diversity has not materialized overnight. Instead, it emerged through incremental shifts, both in terms of social advocacy and technology. Drones, tracking systems and weapons developments mean war is no longer a contest of sheer brute strength; it now requires a broader definition of a soldier who serves with a broader range of skills, knowledge and experiences. As a bonus, this effort to create a more capable force has led to a military that better reflects the country we have become.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms has also provided inclusivity gains in the Forces’ recruiting system by criminalizing discrimination based on a number of factors, including race, gender and sexuality, eliminating some barriers for marginalized people. Sandra Perron, the first female infantry officer in the Forces, challenged the Charter in 1990 to allow women into combat roles and since then, the Canadian military continues to evolve. While any military operates on the idea of unity, the Canadian Armed Forces are working to understand how that differs from assimilation, and how diversity is a boon to success, not a strike against it. Our soldiers, like the rest of the population, should be celebrated for our differences – age, health, gender expression, sexuality, racial group, length of service, combat or non-combat.
But stigma against those who are outside the “traditional” veteran ideal remains all too common. And sadly, that’s even the case within certain military circles, in which some gate-keeping veterans are of the belief that there’s a hierarchy of “real” veterans, like some kind of credibility test judged according to deployment time or combat seen. Channelling the spirit of this thinking, a city councillor in Hamilton, Ont., advocated revising a free veteran parking policy in 2015 so that the benefit was only extended to “true veterans” – former soldiers over 60 “who have served for this country and put themselves in harm’s way.” The amendment was soundly rejected, but it did prompt councillors to earnestly discuss the potential for “abuse” by “bad apples.”
There has been real-world impact when ideas around what a soldier does and doesn’t look like are limited. The Forces’ PTSD policies and care procedures, for instance, only recently encompassed military sexual trauma in part because of a growing recognition of women in the military. Countless LGBTQIA2+ members were released for homosexuality in the 1990s, and then were pressed into silence – robbing them of any public acknowledgement of their service. And that carries on after one’s military career, when any treatment and care needed becomes a matter of debate and evidence-gathering, rather than affirmations of gratitude. “There have been structures that have supported that kind of view, of ‘what is a veteran,’ and ‘what is legitimate PTSD,'” said Elaine Waddington Lamont, mental-health director at Women Warriors’ Healing Garden, an organization that provides peer support and art therapies to female identifying, LGBTQIA2+, Indigenous veterans and persons of colour. “We need to honour all of those people, whether they fit the stereotypes or not.”
For all its faults, social media has been a great tool for dispelling these stereotypes. Instant access to information lets curious Canadians to see a broader spectrum of soldiering, allowing a better understanding of the military’s contribution as well as the faces and stories of our troops. And the benefit is twofold, as newer members are able to see first-hand accounts of actual military life and the real-life impact on their own futures. Major Tanya Grodzinski, an associate professor at Royal Military College of Canada, sees this first-hand as she educates the next generation of soldier. “The public didn’t perceive [the military] as doing all that much,” said Maj. Grodzinski of the years following the Second World War. “Now, the public has a greater understanding of what the armed forces is about and what they’re doing.”
The technical definition of a Canadian veteran does not discriminate between certain kinds of soldiers with certain kinds of experience. It chooses instead to value commitment to a cause and sacrifice for a country, no matter what that commitment and sacrifice looks like.
Canadian civilians can expand their understanding of veterans, to help in this cause. Start conversations with that person in uniform sitting nearby. Reach out to Legions for military speakers to participate in classrooms or events. Ask questions of veterans who might not look or act the part, but still have plenty of experience and wisdom to share. And above all, remember that military service is more than war – there is humanity in there, too. It matters what we call people who serve, and that we reflect and respect their services equally. I thank all soldiers for their service to their country – even those who feel unseen.
Corporal, retired; served from 2001-12
Natalie Champagne had a strong motivation for succeeding in the Forces: her child. “I felt a desire and pride to serve my country, and I knew I could give my son some stability without incurring hefty student loans,” she said. “It gave me some much-needed self-esteem at a time when I really had none.”
And, just like with parenting, she quickly learned that being a soldier meant being constantly prepared, while also tolerating massive uncertainty. Just days after Ms. Champagne graduated from basic training and was posted to her first unit in North Bay, Ont., the World Trade Center came crumbling down on Sept. 11, 2001, and Canadian bases were suddenly set on high alert. That day put all that unpredictability in stark relief. “It helped me to understand quite quickly how soldiers feel when they might have to put their lives on the line for their country,” she said.
Having worked as an aerospace control operator, Ms. Champagne married a fellow soldier and had more children while they were posted to various bases across the country. But when she was medically released after 11 years owing to an injury, her role became that of military spouse – causing her to bristle when people make assumptions about her and her service.
Today, Ms. Champagne is a gold- and bronze-medal winning Warrior Games competitor. In her volunteer work, she helps injured and ill soldiers by showing the support she craved after she was released, while challenging the misconception that as a woman and mother, she is less a veteran than anyone else who wore the uniform. “I wish that people knew that today’s veterans come in all ages, genders, shapes and sizes; that a veteran doesn’t necessarily have to have served in Vietnam to be considered as such.”
Captain, retired; served from 1986-2014
Spend some time with Roger Guinan, and his affable, laid-back and funny personality might not scream “military.” But he’s a veteran who grew up in England, where his interest in life as a military pilot was first piqued as a boy. When his family immigrated to Canada, he decided – with a friend’s encouragement – to go to military college.
Pilot life wasn’t meant to be, but Mr. Guinan’s most cherished professional memories are full of caring colleagues and a few unique experiences, such as flying with the famous Snowbirds, meeting some hockey heroes and years working shifts as an air-traffic controller. “We’re on call 24/7 and we gave up a lot of rights when we signed up,” he said.
But the shifts took their toll, causing insomnia, stress and emotional exhaustion. Eventually, he was medically released for depression. “I had nothing left to give by that point,” he said. “Since my release, I’ve come to understand that my condition was something I’d lived with my entire life and I dealt with it in not the healthiest of ways – but not until much later in life, when masking or avoiding it stopped working.” By accessing treatment and being honest about his struggles – something that is sadly uncommon in military circles – Mr. Guinan’s epitomizing what it means to be a leader. It’s about understanding that seeking help is not weakness – but rather any person’s greatest sign of bravery.
To that end, he hopes that Canadians can understand that soldiers are just like them, to break some of the stigma that feels specific – and therefore isolating – to the highly male, hierarchical military. “We are just regular people, a cross-section of the general public with the same issues they have, be it mental health, financial, whatever."
Mr. Guinan and his wife decided to call their final posting of Comox, B.C., their permanent home base, and he now pursues his passion for cars with his auto-detailing business. And he doesn’t miss the military, per se. “It impacted everything,” Mr. Guinan said of his career. “Good or bad, it made me who I am today.”
Captain, retired; served from 2003-10
David Chen surprised his entire family when he, a first-generation Canadian, chose to enroll in the Canadian Armed Forces, especially since there was no military history in his family. “I felt there were great opportunities available and challenges to explore for a kid who had never really been outside of Toronto before,” he said.
His mother and father had hoped for a different life for their son – a doctor or a lawyer, perhaps. “Essentially, the opportunity my parents never had,” Mr. Chen said. Still, he entered through the Regular Officer Training Plan, meaning his university education was paid for, and he was accepted into the challenging occupation of air-traffic controller. Eventually, through their son, Mr. Chen’s family came to see soldiers as skilled and professional workers that any parent could be proud of.
Given the myriad postings that military life entails, soldiers are all too familiar with the difficult realities of long-distance romance. Mr. Chen is no exception: For five years, he tended to a relationship with his partner, Alexandra, whose career rooted her firmly in Toronto. Eventually, the couple had a choice to make, one that places soldiers between two loyalties: family versus one’s military family. Mr. Chen made a decision that he felt was a no-brainer: He voluntarily ended his contract with the Forces after seven years of service. He and Alexandra are now happily married with twin 18-month-old daughters; they live in Toronto, where Mr. Chen has a thriving career in the public sector.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.