Last month, I joined a group of journalists for a visit to Camp Aldershot in the Annapolis Valley, where Canadian Forces reserve recruits do basic training. Before we arrive, I think of my grandfather, who did his basic training there in 1939. I wrote in my June 2018 editorial (“The people inside the uniform”) about how he signed up to support his family. 

His memory makes me ponder why people join up. Some just want steady work. For many, the allure is subsidized education. Others want to see the world. A few like the idea of wearing a uniform, carrying a gun, and blowing stuff up.

On the day we visit, a group of air-force reservists are graduating from the six-week program, even as other candidates at various stages of training teem around the camp. They run obstacle courses, learn to shoot and maintain their weapons, throw grenades on the range, and spend hours in classrooms.

We join them on the shooting range, where they blaze away with light machine guns at targets that look miles away. The candidates are hot and tired but happy and focused, attentive to the instructors, who repeat their lessons in flat, patient voices. 

The man in charge of the range is a barrel-chested non-commissioned officer with arms like tree trunks and a voice like a shovelful of gravel. He calls the public-affairs officer guiding us “Sir,” but he’s clearly in charge. 

I ask who he is. “Warrant,” a candidate whispers out of the side of his mouth. “Warren? Warren who?” The candidate answers without eye contact, in a tone suggesting I’m not the brightest person he’s met today: “Warrant Officer. That’s a rank.” 

Warren yells at the candidates to not run on the range and I chortle, earning a frigid look. Journalistic duty outpaces self-preservation and I ask a public-affairs officer if I can interview him. “He’s very busy,” is the brisk reply. I suppress a relieved sigh.

We get to shoot. It takes longer to get into the flak vest, helmet, gloves, and safety glasses than it does to squeeze off the five rounds. Even at point-blank range, aiming is ridiculously hard. I winged one of my target-attackers in the knee. 

Next we head into the woods where a group of candidates are learning to encamp and soldier in the wilderness. There I meet Sean McSween from Dartmouth, a 40-year-old completing his fourth week of basic training. He comes from a military family and always wanted to be a soldier. 

But life took him in other directions: he had a university scholarship, built a successful career as a pharmacist, got married, bought a house. But the army was still on his mind. “People said ‘why don’t you be a pharmacy officer?’ but if I’m in the army I want to be a soldier,” he says. “I discovered last year I could still join, so I did.”

McSween describes basic training as one of the most demanding experiences of his life.  “I’m used to civilian life,” he says. “I was a supervisor and a professional: I’ve had a hard time being subordinate to people who are younger than me… especially in a basic-training context when it’s quite forceful.”

The question of why a middle-aged man with a good career would put himself through this is so obvious he answers unasked. “I love what the Western ethos stands for and I wanted to do my bit in defending it,” he says. “I like what Canadian soldiers do at home and abroad and I wanted to be part of that.”

McSween is soft spoken and earnest. We shake hands and he trots off into the sun-dappled woods to catch up with the rest of his group. I watch him for a minute, but soon lose him amongst the multitude of uniforms.

When I was thinking about why people join the Forces, I considered many types. I never considered McSween: some people just believe it’s the right thing to do.    

See more photos from the day here.

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