Life

You Might Be Surprised Who Is a Veteran

We are a diverse lot after serving, but on Remembrance Day we share a sense of belonging.

By Kelly Thompson 11 Nov 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Kelly Thompson is a former officer in the Canadian Forces. She is now an award-winning writer and editor based out of Vancouver, B.C.

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Writer Kelly Thompson in uniform.

As Remembrance Day approaches, we are encouraged to think of the soldiers and veterans who put their lives on the line for the sake of Canada. I come from a long line of soldiers myself, four generations on both sides of my family, and I enlisted just a few months after the attack on the Twin Towers.

Basic training was like something out of a Platoon clip -- marching everywhere, people yelling and pushups... so many damn pushups. But I also forged friendships with fellow troops, revelling in a sense we were united in striving towards a greater good. Unfortunately, during our final week in the field, I severely broke my leg. That moment, as it turned out, would be the start of the end of my military career.

I eventually became a Logistics Officer. While my peers were deploying to Afghanistan, sometimes two or three times, I was chained to my desk. After several surgeries and procedures, I came to feel like a human pincushion. Eventually, it was determined that my leg would never heal. I was told I would be medically released from the military and to prepare for my new civilian life.

For my last year in the Forces, I requested a posting to the Integrated Personnel Support Centre, a unit dedicated to assisting injured and ill soldiers and veterans. There I learned that although I was in pain, I was extremely lucky to have my limbs intact. I was also grateful that my wounds were not mental, leaving behind a shell of my former self. In that job, I watched hundreds of soldiers deploy and return hardened and changed, unable to forget all the things they witnessed overseas.

I saw so much of my father and grandfather in those troops, a quiet pain behind their eyes. It was both the hardest and yet most amazing year of my career. I left the Forces feeling as though I had contributed something meaningful, even from behind my desk. I moved to Vancouver to start my new civilian life as a writer and 27-year-old veteran.

Adjusting to civilian life

It was an adjustment coming from soldier-supporting Ontario to British Columbia. I wasn't used to a place where being a soldier or veteran could mean anything other than a willingness to serve my country and protect others. While at a farmers' market, a woman selling white poppies for peace discovered I had been in the military. "So you enjoy killing people for a living?" she asked accusatorially, hand on hip. I quietly shuffled away, not stopping to get the in-season squash I had come for.

Later, while applying for a veteran's license plate, the representative asked if I was even old enough to have done anything. I retorted that many soldiers, even 10 years younger than me, lost their lives in a number of wars. One thing I learned during my service is that we're never too young to die. The insurance rep hardly blinked and reluctantly signed my form.

Two weeks later, I needed to refill a prescription. "No veteran I've ever seen carries a faggy owl purse and wears pink lipstick," a homeless man said to me from his perch outside the drugstore. He had noticed my new license plate, which I nervously screwed onto the car earlier that morning, somehow feeling I wasn't quite entitled to it. And that feeling is everywhere. My grandpa, who was in the navy during the Second World War, often says he "didn't really do anything," since he didn't see action during his service. I insisted that he offered his life if the nation had asked it of him. That was a sacrifice in and of itself.

I've also been on the receiving end of some amazing acts of kindness, upon discovery that I served. People have asked to shake my hand, touch my uniform and thank me in earnest. One couple silently paid my dinner bill, which I only discovered when I placed my credit card on the table.

Once a soldier

After all, I don't fit the image of what most consider a veteran. I haven't served in combat or overseas. I'm only 29 years old. I'm artsy. I'm a woman. But once upon a time, in what feels like a land far, far away, I was a soldier.

I deal with the same problems faced by a million other vets: battles with Veterans Affairs over accessing the benefits I'm entitled to, rallying against a government that requests service to our country and then slashes veteran support budgets, filling out endless forms, and dealing with so many bands of bureaucratic red tape that I'll never be able to cut through them all.

While in the Forces, I learned that it takes all kinds of people to create a cohesive team willing to die for one another. I met privates with master's degrees, which could have qualified them to be officers. Instead, they chose to serve on the front lines. I met a doctor, who after caring for a soldier in her private clinic, chose to enlist, even though it meant a 75 per cent decrease in pay. There were men and women who enrolled at 50 years old, slogging their way through the physical demands of basic training and war because at the end of their careers they wanted to "do something meaningful."

Most commonly, I met people hungry to see the world and effect positive change wherever they went. Soldiers and veterans come from every walk of life and every social class. I remain honoured to have served with every one of them.

Despite leaving the Forces two years ago, there are parts of my military self I just can't seem to shed. I still iron shirts with sharp creases. I have a hard time walking past a Canadian flag without saluting it. I can't bear to part with my uniform, which still hangs dutifully in my closet. I imagine that 20 years from now I'll be just like my grandfather, slipping into the basement to see if it still fits.

November 11 is a tough day for anyone who has been in the military or lost a loved one to war. My first Remembrance Day as a young veteran was full of mixed emotions, nervous jitters and repeated readjustment of my hat that kept slipping in the rain. But down at Vancouver's Victory Square, lined up with others just like me, I felt that sense of belonging all over again. No matter how small our role, each of us played a part in something bigger than ourselves. I'm proud to be a veteran, owl purse and all.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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