Royal Military College welcomes 350 officer cadets, Aug. 2017
“THERE’S NO LIFE LIKE IT”—THANK GOODNESS. That’s not the reaction the Canadian military got to their recruitment slogan back in the 1980s. They often do now.
No one expects life for military recruits to be a walk in the park. But the truth is that in Canada these days it is far too often a danger to their mental health.
The suicide rate at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario is 35 times higher than the national average.
The problem often begins before RMC, in basic training, where recruits are essentially held hostage by the military. Their cell phones are confiscated. They are denied all contact with family during the five weeks of basic training. They are left to deal with any emotional or psychological distress all on their own.
The mental distress suffered by some recruits often results in an inability to “think straight.” They come to believe the military owns them, and that they have “no right” to simply get up and walk away.
Once recruits are free to contact parents, it is often to plead for help. Recruits will call their parents and breakdown in tears to tell of how isolated and out of control they feel, close to the edge of complete emotional and mental breakdown.
The parents are left in anguish, with no established way to move the military to act to save their children from seeing suicide as “the only way out.”
Suicide casts a long, dark shadow over all our military. It does not respect age, rank or gender. It's victims include:
- Cpl. Stuart Langridge who killed himself in March 2008 in the barracks at CFB Edmonton, ending months of addiction and mental health problems his family says is linked to his military service in Bosnia and Kabul.
- Major Michelle Mendes, an intelligence officer, who died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds at Kandahar Airfield on April 24 2009.
- , a Winnipeg reservist, who stepped away from other soldiers on a training exercise in November 2017 and killed himself — a year after telling his superiors he was being bullied and harassed.
It is a hard, cold truth that suicide kills more of our military than combat.
The grim fact is that more Canadian vets died by their own hand than died in combat during our 12 years fighting in Afghanistan: 158 Canadian soldiers died fighting in Afghanistan; 492 Canadian military veterans killed themselves in the same time period.
The truth is we are careless with the mental well being of all the people in our armed forces.
Dignity and respect not what cadets ever get
Hope Strong* began her studies at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario in September 2017. She quit in December. It was too dangerous to her mental health to continue. What follows is her story, in her own words.
“‘Respect the Dignity of All Persons’, is the number one principle in the Canadian Armed Forces. I experienced a lot in my six months as an Intelligence Officer-Cadet in the Air Force—dignity and respect weren’t one of them.
“In 2017, I enrolled as an Intelligence Officer through the Regular Officer Training Program. After enrolling, every new recruit has to do the Basic Military Training before pursuing to their specific job training. The goal of this course is to provide you with all the knowledge needed for all trades and elements and to help future officers build leadership skills.
“For my part, I completed it in Saint-Jean Sur Richelieu Quebec, in summer 2017. At that point, it was the hardest thing I had ever done, but the feeling of accomplishment was worth every step in the mud.
“After basic, Officer-cadets as young as 17 are sent to the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, to complete a university degree. I arrived in Kingston, happy to be finished basic training and excited to start my degree. I had no clue what was waiting for me there.
“As soon as I stepped inside the college, I started feeling lonely, stressed, as if I knew something bad was going to happen. I could see the hatred in the eyes of the fourth-year students, who were in charge of what they call FYOP, RMC’s First Year Orientation Program.
“FYOP is not part of the mandatory military training, but is meant to help the new students get used to the life at the college, it is only mandatory for students who attend RMC Kingston. As weird as it sounds, it’s because of FYOP that I left the forces.
Nothing like friendly ‘hazing’
“At RMC, all 'first years' are sorted into semi-self-governed squadrons where older students are in charge of younger students. During FYOP, fourth year students are given total control over the first year students in this brutal, mandatory, five-week hazing period. Their mission? Break you. These students take their role too seriously, and forget how to treat others with respect, empathy and dignity.
“For five weeks, we were isolated from the rest of the college, our friends and our family. We would get less than an hour in a week to talk on the phone with our family and friends.
“A typical day would start by waking up to the song Bodies by Drowning Pool blasting over the campus. You would have until the song stopped to get dressed and ready for physical training outside—giving you no time to rush to the bathroom.
“Therefore, boys would urinate in their bedroom sink. Girls would either go to the bathroom and so arrive outside late and then get yelled at, or hold it in. After everybody had arrived, we would rush to our station and start our personal training (PT).
“One common exercise was to run up and down hills sprint for 30 minutes and then run back to our dorm. After that, we would get around 5 to 8 minutes to run upstairs, shower, get dressed in our combat uniforms and make our rooms ready for an inspection. For those of us who were new to the army, there was simply not enough time to complete everything. This gave an advantage to cadets who had served in the reserves, or as non-commission members before enrolling at RMC.
“If you failed your inspection, your room would be destroyed one by one and tell us to remake them. This would repeat over and over until we were either perfect, or almost late for class.
“At breakfast, we had to form up in ranks at the front of the cafeteria, where chosen student for the day would present the platoon. The Forth-year in charge of the platoon would scream at him and ask him to start over talking louder.
“After this happening around 10 times, we would line up in the cafeteria and if by any chance we would look to our sides we would get punished. When we all had our plates, we stood up besaide our seat and had to do as they told us before sitting.
“For example, they would make us sing stupid songs just to humiliate us. When they were done making fun of us, we would have about five minutes to eat in complete silence.
‘35 days of verbal and emotional abuse, isolation and humiliation’
“When classes started, everyone would go to their specific classes. During the whole day, we would have to say hello to every Forth-year in charge of one of the 12 squadrons, and if you forgot their name, you were punished at night.
“At the end of the day, we would go play sports for an hour with every squadron and then shower and rush to dinner. After that, we had a three-hour mandatory study time, but we were forced to stay in our “combats” [uniforms] even when it was 30-degree Celsius in the dorms.
“Finally, our day would finish with more repeated inspections and corrective measures. We would then re-shower and go to sleep to Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel with older students banging on our doors and screaming in the hall.
“Almost every night, I would wake up with someone standing in my room with food. Even if it was meant to be kind, this is a severe security issue because anybody could enter our room without our permission, as a woman, this made me nervous every night.
“FYOP is more than just hazing. It’s five weeks—35 days—of verbal and emotional abuse, isolation and humiliation. No one example, taken by itself, can make you feel even 1% of the distress we were in during those weeks.
RMC suicide rate 35 times the Canadian average
“According to Statistics Canada, the national suicide rate is 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people. For 2016, the suicide rate at RMC was over 35 times higher, at 400 suicides per 100,000 of population.
“After just one week, we started feeling lonely, anxious and desperate. I remember looking through the window of my dorm and asking myself if it was high enough to kill me if I jumped.
“I would go sit by the water surrounding the college and reassure myself that I could always escape the pain by letting myself drown.
“As dark as it sounds, these were the only moments when I would feel free of stress.
“One of my classmates did commit suicide during FYOP. Instead of looking deeper into the problem, and offering psychological help to every student, the only help offered was to talk with the Padre, a religious member whose job is to listen to cadets’ problems.
Faith-based counselling has its limits
“However, as kind as they are, Padres are not required to have an education in psychology and their faith-based counseling excludes those of us who are not religious, or do not belong to a mainstream religion.
“After that I was done. I could not believe that an organization meant to protect Canadian values could make their members go through such a useless and painful “program”.
“I was discharged in December 2017 and left on a five-months-long trip, trying to figure out if my life was worth living. I attempted suicide on March 2018 in Bolivia That’s when I realized that I wasn’t right, and I needed real help.
“When I came back to Canada, I was finally treated for an Anxiety Disorder and was diagnosed with PTSD from my time there.
“I am now studying in another, beautiful university in Montreal and I do what I believe is good for me and the people around me. I am still dealing with my mental issues, but every day is a better day.”
What happened to Hope Strong, and still happens to all the other fresh recruits in our military, needs to stop. The military claims it is ready to make changes. It even has a Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy program, approved by the Canadian Mental Health Association. But, sources in the military say action to protect mental health still remains the exception—not the rule.
Advocates for greater care and attention to the mental health and well being of our military point to simple changes that could be made immediately, without any need for more study and deliberation. Such changes would include:
- completely eliminate the five-week requirement before allowing voluntary release, or at least reduce it to three weeks
- if Padres are going to be the only source for support and counselling assure that they are always on hand and close by
- appreciate there is a fine line between abusing and encouraging, and rather than single out the weakest link for ridicule, promote teamwork and the duty to stand by and stand up for one another.
Obvious need for change
The recruiting numbers tell all there is to know about the need for change in our military. Even though 2017 marked the first growth in the number of people in uniform in several years, the addition of 450 recruits was hardly something to write home about.
The military is still about 2,000 regular-force members short of the 68,000 needed to reach full strength. It will take an additional 5,300 reservists to reach the 27,000 needed for full strength.
This reality makes the Trudeau government’s promise to grow both forces unlikely at best.
It may be true that there is “no life like it.” But, without deep change, a life in our military is likely to remain a life few Canadians will rush to experience.
* not her real name
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