I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.
You know how it is with cab rides — sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.
Somehow it came up that he only drove a cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work, how he could have had a full pension at such an early age.
I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.
When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said, "You must have joined up when you were eighteen," and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no, seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.
He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. "Shit," I think I must have said. "Is that why you're out, medical discharge?"
He shook his head. "I did another tour after that."
Being curious, I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosovo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when, aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers, the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peacekeeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.
He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight-year-old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a land mine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.
When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston, Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.
Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.
Our cab driver had been infantry, entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.)
We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out-ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself. "I guess I should say marksperson," he said with a smile.
"What about just calling them snipers?" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.
Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines alongside men. He confirmed that; the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.
The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semi-detached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.
I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are overseas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle do they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorce.
We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh, I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane. But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de-mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.
We only learn their names when they come back in their flag-draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either made "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on who's doing the talking.
It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.
We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight years despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve, how would you feel?
If you know they tease each other because some of them outrank the others (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant), and you know their father's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?
I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go overseas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.
Isn't it the least we all can do?