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Military exit wounds

by Archives February 12, 2008

After 19 years of serving in the Canadian Forces, independent Concordia student Mary Beaulieu is happy to be leaving it all behind. The 38 year-old is hoping to become a social worker so she can help people understand their feelings and what motivates their actions, something she is only now coming to terms with herself, as she makes the transition from military life to the civilian world.
“I am technically still in the military,” she said. “I am just not working at the moment. I am on sick leave and waiting to be medically released, so I am in transition. I am still on a contract, but the doctor told me that I am not physically fit to stay in.”
Beaulieu says that in the 19 years she served she lost her individualism, expression, and compassion, and is now suffering from mental exhaustion. “The name of the game there is to break you down and build you back up so you would follow their rules,” declared Beaulieu. “You can’t be an individual in this organization; you have to take on their identity.”
She didn’t always think like that. Her motivation to sign up for the military was not for patriotic reasons, but for personal reasons. “It was not a hard decision to join the military; it was like a natural progression,” she said.
At the age of 13 she joined the 315 Air Cadets Squadron in Newcastle, New Brunswick. She quickly adapted and enjoyed participating in various events with the swim and drill teams and playing and instructing in a band. Her first exposure to military life was when she had participated in an excursion with some military fire fighters from the Canadian Armed Forces.
The idea to join was appealing to her because it guaranteed employment, education and some traveling. She was managing a full time job at Tim Horton’s when she got the acceptance call.
Beaulieu originally signed two three-year contracts when she joined in 1988. Years later, she renewed her contract for another 14 years, in what she describes as “signing my life away to the military.” But despite the feeling, she still found a reason to stay. “When you hit the 9-10 year mark of being in the military, you ask yourself “what am I doing here?” but you still stay in because you are half way to a pension.”
During her career, she had the opportunity to push boundaries, successfully being promoted to Corporal, then to Master Corporal, and eventually to Sergeant. Beaulieu also underwent many trades and operational work. Just to name a few, she was a Performance Orientated Electronics Technician (POET), a Section Commander in Petawawa, Ontario where she was required to practice for war in order to be prepared for an overseas mission. She was a dental assistant and worked her way up to a dental coordinator in 2001. She was also an Environmental Safety Officer, and she taught junior officers field operations such as putting up a tent and how to use compasses and maps. Beaulieu sums up the military work experience as “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
She says over the years, the Canadian Armed Forces imposed unrealistic expectations on her, such as having to perform every task perfectly, as well as to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that began to affect her psychologically. Failing to do so would call Beaulieu’s dedication into question. She describes the CF as a lifestyle of its own; one where screwing up and saying “no” is not an option. However difficult she found basic training — marching 10 kilometres while carrying 50 pounds on her back and porting a rifle, then having to perform a fireman’s carry, shouldering a fellow soldier for 10 metres. The psychological workout was much harder.
Beaulieu never went on an overseas mission because recruitment was based on the qualifications of a soldier. Despite being eligible in terms of ranking and qualification, she was not in an operational position, and was never mustered to go to Afghanistan.
The mental exhaustion of her knowing that she might one day be called for combat became difficult to handle.
“I used to feel embarrassed that I never went overseas, but now I feel I am so blessed that I never went on a mission,” said Beaulieu. So many of her friends had gone on tours and had earned medals. She felt she was not participating as much as her fellow colleagues on the world front. But now, as she looks back at the rough and traumatic times they went through, she considers herself lucky that she never had to go.
Beaulieu is still dealing with her military issues. “When you have worked for an organization for 19 and a half years, it is very scary and challenging to do something different,” said Beaulieu.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions for me. I feel a sense of isolation, a loss of identity, I feel angry, I feel lost. I feel like I lost a sense of belonging, acceptance, credibility, authority, position.”
“I don’t feel heard, I feel blame, guilt, sadness, unsure about myself, I feel people don’t understand when I talk about my military experience because they have not lived it and think it is all fun and games.”
She also felt that being female was also a factor in not being noticed. Despite the struggle of dealing with abuse and harassment, she had to put up with being belittled on the field, just to fit in she says.
Today she volunteers her time at the Operational Stress Injuries Social Support Organization (OSISS), an organization that offers social support to military and ex-military personnel with operational stress injuries.
Beaulieu is proud and grateful for her experience, but says she did not really know what she was getting into. “Make sure you do your homework to find out how this culture works and then you decide if you want to buy into the organization’s image.”

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