Canadian Veterans Advocacy

Saturday, December 27, 2014

New announcement: A Canadian soldier re-learns how to be a civilian

A Canadian soldier re-learns how to be a civilian

Jennifer Scott found returning to non-military life almost as challenging as two tours in Afghanistan

By Yvonne Zacharias, Vancouver Sun December 26, 2014

Jennifer Scott has transitioned from the Canadian military to civilian life as a student at BCIT, which offers a military skills conversion program, giving credit for the skills she learned as a soldier.
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider , Vancouver Sun

At age 18, Jennifer Scott drove, rifle in hand, in an armoured truck through the war-torn streets of Kabul, transporting soldiers from one place to another.

Three years later, she went back for her second tour of duty as a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan.

Now, soldiers like Scott have come home to build a new life. The transition to civilian life can be difficult. Gone are the structure, the discipline, the chain of command and the close circle of soldier friends.

Scott, who is studying for a marketing communications diploma at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, doesn't seem the type to cry easily.

Yet she chokes up when she describes the return home from her first mission, on a military plane that also carried the bodies of three Canadian soldiers killed in the war.

The plane stopped at Canadian Forces Base Trenton. One by one, the caskets of the three young soldiers were carried to waiting hearses. Scott will never forget the grief on the faces of the families.

Scott said she was sad, and angry. Angry with the Afghans for having taken these young men's lives.

But people change when they go to war. Scott said she developed a closer relationship with Afghans on her second mission. She realized they had lost soldiers, too, and her anger dissipated.

Despite the loss of colleagues in Afghanistan, Scott doesn't regret the near decade she spent in the Canadian military. She seemed destined for it.

Born in Edmonton, she spent 12 years in Las Vegas where her mother worked as a dancer while raising her two daughters as a single parent. Then, deciding it was time for a career change, her mother packed up her family and moved them back to Canada where she became a truck driver.

Unorthodox career paths for women seem to run in Scott's family.

As a 16-year-old high school student in Edmonton, Scott heard from a friend about the military reserves. She went to the recruiting centre, liked what she saw and signed up.

It changed her life.

While completing high school, she spent most weekends learning military skills — how to read maps, how to use a compass, how to use a rifle, how to wear a gas mask. There were drills. There were gruelling pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups.

She loved it all.

While girls her age were off to the beach and parties during the summer break from school, she was taking artillery training.

After she graduated from high school, her path again diverged sharply from her peers. They went to post-secondary schools. She volunteered to go to Afghanistan.

She was sent to Kabul, an urban jungle with many traffic circles, few stop lights and few rules of the road. As a military driver, she learned to navigate this complex landscape quickly. You don't want to be sitting idle anywhere for too long.

Danger lurked everywhere. Suicide bombers regularly hit in the city. "You were watching vehicles, you were watching people, you never felt 100 per cent safe and that's good because once you feel one hundred per cent safe, that is known as complacency."

There were bright moments, too.

Scott was able to visit an orphanage for girls in Kabul that the Canadian Forces advisory team had adopted. It became one of the uniquely Canadian volunteer legacies of the war, with soldiers pitching in to provide some basics in the orphanage.

"They were just a lovely group of kids. They were just so friendly."

They borrowed her camera so they could take pictures of each other. "They were all dressed up with earrings and doing each other's hair like kids do here."

She celebrated her 19th birthday in Afghanistan.

When she started her first tour, she had attitude. She thought she knew everything.

By the end of it, she questioned everything. Her eyes had been opened to the plight of a country where schools had been bombed and where children, girls especially, wanted to learn but were denied a basic education.

At the end of her six-month tour came the rocky path back to civilian life in Edmonton.

She drove with her sister at her side to make sure she didn't run any red lights. "I ran a couple," she said with a laugh.

Whenever she heard a loud bang, she flinched. It reminded her of the frequent rocket attacks and car bombings outside her camp's perimeter. In camp, she dived for cover to avoid shrapnel.

She got a job working at a warehouse and got fired. "It was an awakening."

She didn't belong in a warehouse; she belonged in the military.

So she transferred from the reserves to the regular army.

Suddenly, she was happier.

She immediately signed up to be trained as a tank gunner. She studied distances to develop accuracy. She learned how to repair the tank.

As fate would have it, she never got to use these skills. In 2011, Canada withdrew its combat troops and changed its role to one of training the Afghan National Army. So for her second tour, she was dispatched with the rank of master corporal in a teaching role to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The minute she landed, her gender was an issue. The departing Americans from whom the Canadian team was taking over said they didn't think the Afghan trainees would accept a woman. But her sergeant backed her up.

"The commanders totally took to me. They were very interested in me.""

As for the rest of the soldiers in training, many from remote mountain villages, they couldn't stop staring at her. "It was a little uncomfortable at first."

Some of the Afghans thought she was there to sleep with the Canadian commanders. She learned to fire back with humorous but pointed retorts. She also told everyone she was married even though she wasn't. It saved her a whole lot of trouble.

She commanded respect for the simple reason that she knew her stuff.

When the Canadian male soldiers were trying to teach the Afghans how to do the leopard crawl, the Afghans did what they were told for maybe a minute, then reverted to their old, incorrect ways.

When she dropped to the ground, crawling in the dirt while holding her rifle, they paid attention. They weren't going to be outdone by a woman.

Saving face was really important for the Afghans. It was important for her, too.

At one point, when roughly 3,000 Afghan recruits seemed to be descending on her, their commanders started shouting at her to take cover in a building.

She refused, knowing that if she did, those men would never respect her. She boldly waded through the throng, pushing them aside, asserting her authority, letting them know there was work to be done and she planned to do it.

"I developed a thicker skin."

Then there was life inside the camps, which was its own special world. There were special dinners — Afghan food night, British food night, Canadian food night with, of course, poutine.

On the dark side, there were the racket of rocket attacks and car bombings and the massive protests outside the camp perimeter by Afghans whenever there was a flashpoint, like the infamous incident in early 2012 when American soldiers burned copies of the Qu'ran.

Through it all, she developed an appreciation of the Afghan people and for the intelligence of some of their soldiers.

"They are a very proud people."

Then she was home in Edmonton, again struggling to find her footing.

This time, she found her tolerance level was very low. Her family noticed she was easily irritated.

One day, she went to the counselling offices at CFB Edmonton and asked for help.

"That's the hardest thing to do, to ask for help. We in the military are very proud people."

It was also one of the best things she did.

She was basically in reverse culture shock. When she was working with the Afghans, she was used to pushing her way through crowds. There were times when the Afghan soldiers were constantly taking photos of her, sometimes two inches from her face. This meant that from the moment she left the camp, she was constantly on high alert.

In Afghanistan, the Canadian soldiers had a routine. It helped to keep them focused and mentally healthy. When she returned to Canada, it was very difficult to transition from having such a strict routine to little or no routine.

"I was on edge with my family because they wanted to spend time with me, but I needed time to adjust to my new surroundings."

"Crowds made me nervous and stressed. I always needed to sit facing the door in restaurants. I would double check people's hands as they walked by and I always felt like something was missing: my weapon."

Counselling on the base helped. So did her family.

A year ago, she decided to leave the military. She didn't want to wake up a soldier at the age of 50. Following in the footsteps of her mother, who had become a safety officer in the oilfields, she worked for a time for a First Nations company in that role near Cold Lake.

But through those nights in army barracks, she had long harboured a dream. She wanted to return to school. She found that the B.C. Institute of Technology was one of the few universities offering a military skills conversion program, in conjunction with the Legion, that would credit her for some of her military skills, and provide some support while she attended school.

She said the program has been a lifeline. She often feels she can't relate to the non-military students on campus, given what she went through. The program has given her a refuge and linked her with other ex-military students.

She's hoping for a future in public relations, perhaps with a paramilitary organization like the police. She is finally enjoying life. She commutes to campus from Squamish where she lives with her boyfriend, a commercial fisherman. The pair enjoys spending time on the water, fishing and scuba driving. They, along with her dog, will head back to Edmonton for the Christmas holidays.

She expects she will get together with some military friends, but it won't be the same. Once you leave, you have turned your back on that life forever.

She says she misses the military. But for her, it was time to move on.

on twitter:@yzacharias

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