Sunday, January 9, 2011

I was a soldier once - Jock Williams


I liked standing on a hillside in freezing rain just before dawn and realizing that I and the other soldiers in my unit were doing something very special for our country, undergoing physical and mental strains that many would not and could not face to keep our country safe and ready. Watching my fellow soldiers preparing their tanks and trucks for a move, taking down the cam nets, bringing the guns out of action, loading fuel and ammunition for this new long day, hearing the rough laughter and frequent unmeant bitching, feeling truly exhausted and knowing it was going to get a lot worse before it got any better actually added value to the experience. We were soldiers -and this was what it was like. We were the sheepdogs on watch against the wolves.

In those days some said there were no wolves. We knew better.

I liked the smell of the quartermaster stores -an odd admixture of gun oil, canvas preservative, leather, hemp rope and cigarette smoke. I liked the racks of rifles and submachine guns and I loved the gun sheds and tank hangars where the vehicles and weapons of war gleamed dully but exuded strength and capability and the power required to "get 'er done" if need be.

I loved the names of the equipment when I started off, Sherman, Lee Enfield, Sten and Bren because they spoke to me of the proud days when our fathers used them successfully in WW2. Our #36 grenade was the same as our grandfathers used in WW1 for God's sake! I also loved when these morphed into the Centurion, C1 rifle, Stirling submachine gun. The immortal 25 Pounder gun/howitzer gave way to the 105mm C2 and eventually the M109 gave way to the M777 and the guns could shoot accurately over 30 kilometres. The Centurion gave way to the Leopard and within weeks our tankers showed all of NATO that they were the best! Even we fighter pilots, which I had become by this time, were exceedingly proud of "our Dragoons" on that wondrous day!

We were growing stronger!

I liked the idea that as the commercial said; we did more by 0700 than most people did all day. I loved as range officer getting shots downrange by 0800 and I loved working for more than 24 hrs straight even though it pained. I loved the brutality of route marches because they set us apart from our civilian friends, most of whom I knew could never have hacked the pace. I loved climbing up cargo nets in full battle order and rappelling down cliffs, I loved running the assault course. I loved the early morning runs and the late night polishing before a parade. I loved the horseplay, the contests of strength, the intense feeling of truly being alive. I knew we were fit, fitter than most anyone on earth and ready for anything that came along. I confess that sometimes I almost wished it would...although in my heart I knew better.

I liked the soldiers, officers and enlisted men, from all parts of the land, from cities of Upper Canada, small towns of Nova Scotia, somehow especially those from Newfoundland, from the mountains and the prairies, from all walks of life. I trusted and depended on them as they trusted and depended on me for professional competence, for comradeship, for strength and courage. In a word, we were "soldiers"; then and forever.

I liked the surge of adventure in my heart, when word was passed that a unit was deploying, and I loved the infectious thrill riding homeward in a convoy waving at the cars we passed and at the pedestrians who I was sure looked at us with envy as we rolled through their villages on the way back to base. I love watching from the back of a truck while the towed howitzer without any form of cushioned suspension bounced along behind. I loved waving at the kids in cars that would trail us for a while before finally passing -and I knew in my heart that the drivers and their wives yearned for the joy and excitement that we were experiencing as opposed to their lives of quiet desperation. OK, sometimes maybe I deluded myself.

The work was hard and dangerous; the going rough at times; the parting from loved ones painful, but the companionship of robust Army laughter, the "all for one and one for all" philosophy of the military was ever present. I once had the best two hour sleep of my life sprawled across the hood of a ¾ ton troop carrier. The warmth of the engine created a zone of comfort that was perfect for one exhausted infantryman. Another five or six hours would have been nice, but there was work to be done.

I liked the fierce and dangerous activity on the gun line, in an APC or recce vehicle in the advance to contact. I loved commanding a tank and firing the best sniper rifle a guy ever had when we turned loose first that '76 on the Sherman and finally the '105 in the Centurion and Leopard. I loved loading the rounds and pulling the lanyard, I loved doing the recce for a night occupation and then seeing the guns roll into place and into action seamlessly

I loved the names and the history of the regiments I served in and with as had my father before me, and as do my sons after me! The Royal Canadian Regiment, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, the First Hussars, 30 Field Regiment, The Scots Fusiliers. There is a richness to the names and an unparalleled history just waiting to be read. I loved the parades, the colours and guidon presentations, the march pasts and roll pasts, the advances in review order and the sound of the slap of gloves against the rifle sling on the Present Arms. I loved the sword drill when I was honour guard commander and take pride in the often legendary people I got to walk up to and invite to inspect the troops. I could feel the national anthem inside me while the band played it. Some may argue as to whether it should be "The Queen" or "O Canada" and some even favour "The Maple Leaf Forever". I could care less. I love them all and they can sometimes be topped in the memory of my heart by "Land of Hope and Glory". My God that song will move a man!

I loved walking about the position at night without the aid of a flashlight and somehow (usually) not falling into a slit trench or worse. I loved the weight of a steel helmet on my head and the embrace of my webbing. It made you feel like a superman, though in your heart you surely knew you were not. I loved the slap of a pistol holster on my hip and the weight of a rifle in my arms. I loved knowing that I could outshoot my soldiers most of the time and was incredibly proud when and if they outshot me, because it was an ongoing competition that added to our warrior skills and made us all the better for it. I shoot still today, sadly more than most of our soldiers. I can buy my own ammunition and am more generous than the government

I remember fondly the high quality of instruction that we received. There wasn't a single corporal/instructor I ever had who wasn't head and shoulders above most of my university professors when it came to instructional technique." Aim, Motivation, Outline, Link" what a magical and obvious way to teach! Too bad most universities still have no school of instructional technique!

I had one instructor who wore an unusual khaki ribbon with an oak leaf among his other ribbons. I asked him what it represented. He told me it was a Queen's Commendation which was the peacetime equivalent of the "Mentioned in Dispatches" in wartime. He had, having discovered a tank hangar fire, driven a tank through the closed hangar door to save it. Initially he was due to be court martialled for destroying the door! Eventually wiser heads prevailed. Fourteen other tanks were destroyed. The Canadian Forces eventually, slowly, got smarter! This same instructor could cook a prime rib roast of beef to perfection on the exhaust manifold of his pickup. He knew the exact time and mileage required and arrived with a prepared meal ready to serve.

Eventually a bunch of politicians, most of whom had never actually worn the uniform decided how to fix us!

I transferred to the Air Force and became a fighter pilot, and loved it! I wouldn't trade it for a thousand years!

Nonetheless...I will never forget that I was once a soldier. There is no higher calling. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I liked the traditions of the Army and those who made them. I liked the proud names of army heroes whom I came to know myself, Radley-Walters, Leo Gariepy, Bill Little, Joe McNeil, Brandy Conron, all comrades-in-arms. There was pride in self and country, and a growing mastery of the soldier’s trade. An adolescent could find adulthood. A man could find fulfillment. An old man now finds great joy.

When all soldiers are finally all home from the field, we will still remember with fondness and respect the regiments in which we served, the wretched conditions that brought us together in adversity, the high level of skills that we proudly developed against all odds. We will also hope that our country, having sorely neglected us for half a century will now continue to respect and support our contribution to its longevity.

Remembering this, we will stand tall and proud and say "I was a soldier once!"

1 comment:

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