Student / Soldier The experience of students in the military

Elie Waitzer

(Elli Slavitch / The McGill Tribune)

At McGill, Remembrance Day usually creates a tense atmosphere. Social media wars are waged on whether disrespect is justified in combating revisionism and oppression. Campus conversations discuss the glorification of war, selective memory, profiteering, and imperialism. It’s a politicized holiday on campus: There is a group of decorated old men on Lower Field with their hands clasped behind their backs, there’s a helicopter or two chopping above, and there’s a silent Demilitarize McGill protest crowded around the Redpath Museum steps. 

It’s a controversial time for a reason. The Canadian Armed Forces have a well-documented track record of colonialist violence, sexual assault, and xenophobia. Demilitarize McGill touched on this in a statement issued in advance of last year’s ceremony:

“Remembrance Day […] is an exercise in selective memory, organized to enforce the forgetting of any element of war that conflicts with the story the Canadian state wants to tell about itself,” the statement reads.

But while it is human nature to reduce debates down to ideals—and to view an issue as the sum of its parts—it gets dicey when the concept at the core becomes divorced from reality. And that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years. The military is seen as an amorphous entity that diminishes the individuality of soldiers within it. In some ways, it’s like pointing fingers at Goldman Sachs employees for the Great Recession—the fundamental outrage is often so great that it can obscure the fact that at its base, a corporation is made of up thousands of complex people to whom the pitfalls of deregulation and Western capitalist society only make up a tiny sliver what they think about every day. 

People forget that for those in the military, being a soldier is just one aspect of their identity. The label is filled with assumptions and stereotypes, all of which overpower other essential aspects that make up an individual’s identity. 

The military might be seen as some amorphous entity that requires placing oneself on either end without stopping to take a look at the people inside.

Master Corporal Jonathan Carson graduated from McGill in 2014 with a B.A. in History and Political Science, and is currently attached to the third battalion of the Canadian Royal 22e Regiment while he waits to be deployed on a tour to the Ukraine to advise the Ukrainian Armed Forces on combined arms. He joined the reserves on a whim after his first year at McGill. 

“I just kind of decided it was something I might be interested [in],” Carson said. “I was overwhelmed with how much [of university] was theoretical—none of it struck me as being particularly grounded. I [...] wanted to do something that I thought was real and concrete.”

According to Carson, one of the biggest myths surrounding the military is that every soldier joins the forces out of some sense of patriotic duty. A big factor for Carson’s decision to join the military was simply that he needed a job. When he first signed on, he thought of it as a better alternative to working at the bookstore or in some café. 

“A lot of people seemed shocked that I got paid to be in the army,” he said. “We all get a salary.”

On the other hand, Adam Templer, U3 Political Science, remembers wanting to be in the military since high school. The Hamilton, Ontario native tried for four years to apply through the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP), which pays for tuition and living costs in exchange for service time. 

“Coming from a single-parent home, and not being very well off economically [...] I didn’t think I had that many options so I decided that the military would be a good way to do something with my life with limited prospects,” Templer said. 

After facing several roadblocks in his ROTP application, Templer ended up joining as a reserve following third year through the Black Watch Regiment on Rue de Bleury just south of Rue Sherbrooke. As a reservist, he trains every Tuesday night from 7 to 10 p.m., and boot camps are typically held in the summer, which leaves him plenty of time for his studies and other commitments. In his time at McGill, Templer has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, a university commentary journal on international politics, and he is currently an Arts Representative to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). 

(Templer's regiment base / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Templer wants to pursue law school at McGill after he graduates, and plans on remaining in the military with the hopes of becoming an officer in his regiment. While he has never been uncomfortable walking to his regiment in uniform, and all his friends know that he is on the reserves, he has at times felt hesitant to open up about that part of his identity. 

“I don’t really tell students that I’m in the military, partly because of the politics on campus,” Templer said. “In my capacity as an Arts representative, it’s always kind of been on my mind that if [...] it was more widely known, [...] would [I] still be as welcome in some of the circles that I have been?”

When Carson was a student at McGill, he also struggled with the assumptions people would make about his identity when they found out he was in the military. 

“I was in [a] Canadian foreign policy [class] one year and I brought up that I was in the army, and I found that any time anything military came up, I was the go-to person,” he said. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as ‘the military guy’ in classes or on campus.”

Master Corporal Eric Washburn stopped attending Vanier College in 2008 to join the Royal Canadian Regiment as an infantryman, and was deployed overseas in Afghanistan two years later as a machine gunner. After four years of service, having to revert to being a student to finish up his CEGEP degree was an unsettling experience. 

“As a 24-year-old veteran of the combat in Afghanistan sitting in a classroom full of 17-year-olds—it was quite intense to say the least,” Washburn said. “I was not ready for that.”

Washburn, who joined the Canadian Grenadier Guards—located in Montreal—as a reservist after returning from Afghanistan, is now in his second year at Concordia, where he founded the Concordia Veterans Association (CVA) along with two other students with military experience. In addition to offering support to the estimated 200 to 400 current or ex-military members at Concordia, the CVA’s goal is to make the transition from military life to student life easier. Many universities in the United States grant up to a full year of transfer credits to soldiers who have completed courses offered in the military. In Canada, most universities will not recognize these as credits, making the application process daunting for soldiers trying to move on to the next stage in their lives. 

(Washburn's regiment base. / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

At the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Naval Cadet Kyle English has had a different student-soldier experience. Set to graduate this year with a Political Science degree, he will remain in the military for at least five more years to serve out the rest of his ROTP contract. Every student at RMC is also a soldier going through more or less the same experience, which creates a tight-knit environment that has allowed English to form close relationships. 

Templer and Washburn both agreed that the most rewarding aspect of being in the military was the incomparable sense of community. During his first year in Afghanistan, Washburn remembers working with six fellow soldiers to apply emergency tourniquets to a local man who had become a triple amputee after accidentally triggering an improvised explosive device (IED).

“You suffer through a lot of hardships,” Washburn said. “You’re spending hours, days, months with somebody who’s going through the same thing as you are [...] so you develop a bond—it’s unbreakable—and that really is the most striking thing about the military.”

The inevitable flipside of that unique closeness, however, is that it can create a false image of insularity and homogeneity that informs many people’s stereotypes of the military.

“[People think] it’s just a big heartless institution—just another cog in the government wheel,” English explained. “When [they] see everyone walking around the same uniform [...] it’s really easy just to assume that everyone does the same job and has the same mindset, but there are so many different trades within every branch, and everyone brings something to the table.”

Templer, Carson, English, and Washburn all joined the Canadian Armed Forces for different reasons, and while their experience is collective, it is important to remember that every soldier’s viewpoint is individual. Still, as a soldier in the granular moments of training or combat, their role is to execute the assigned task, not to hold the military accountable. And as a student, it can be challenging to step outside of that experience and criticize the military as an institution. 

“It’s very interesting to try and compartmentalize those two things,” Carson said. “Obviously, working in the military is going to [impact the opinions] you form [...] about the military.”

English echoed Carson’s sentiments and explained that one of his motivations in pursuing an education in politics was to be able to zoom out and gain perspective on the larger implications of his involvement in the military. 

“It’s always valuable to be able to look at anything critically, and I think that policy decisions are no different,” he said. “It gives me a different outlook on [the military] as a whole.”

Every November, he thinks about the fact that it wasn't until after World War I that Remembrance Day became a tradition; that such a bloody catalyst was needed to prompt Canada to set aside this time

Remembrance Day is a time that captures the struggle to reconcile these two identities.  While Templer recognizes the dangers of accepting the prevailing narratives of the past without thinking critically for yourself, he sees Remembrance Day is a rare and valuable day to mourn the victims of war and violence. 

“I don’t think that people are going to argue that a life lost in war is not a tragedy,” he said. “At the same time, it’s important to remember why we fight these wars.”

Carson agreed, saying that Remembrance Day shouldn’t be interpreted as a statement on civil-military relations.

“For me, the whole idea of Remembrance Day is to remember those who can’t be there,” he said. “Regardless of what your opinions are on the [...] justification of various wars, the fact that remains is that there are people who can’t be present [...] so it should be about them. There are plenty of other days in the calendar to discuss the merits of various political decisions—I think Remembrance Day should be reserved for focusing on those people.”

In the two minutes of silence, the faces of his five friends who were killed in Afghanistan flash through Washburn’s mind. Every November, he thinks about the fact that it wasn’t until after the First World War that Remembrance Day became a tradition; that such a bloody catalyst was needed to prompt Canada to set aside this time. For Washburn, it’s a time to remember the fallen as much as it is a time to reflect on why they fell. 

“Hopefully that’s what everybody’s thinking about, and hopefully […] that collective memory is enough for us [to] never want this to happen again,” he said. “We’re not here to glorify war—we’re doing the exact opposite.”