Confessions of a solider 10 years later | My experience in the Canadian military

Canadian Army Photo.  I'm third from the left on the top row

There comes a time in life, when enough time has passed, that you can look back on certain challenging situations with a sense of detachment and humour:  “Someday you´ll be able to look back at this situation and laugh about it.”

The time has come for me to share the jocular but oddly enough ‘true story’ of how I was part of the Canadian military reserves for a brief period of time during my late teenage years while attending the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.  For those who have met me in recent years it may come as a shock for you to hear I was once a part of the military.  It doesn´t really conform well to the image of the independent backpacker type who enjoys culture, food and languages in far off corners of the world.  It´s not something I mention proudly or talk about openly nor have I included it on my resume in the last six to seven years.  I was only part of the Canadian reserves for a very brief period of time (2000 to 2001) but I did collect a rather large database of vivid memories.

Basic training was an absolute exercise in futility.  In hindsight, it´s become rather apparent what the entire purpose of its procedure and psychology was meant to accomplish.  When you can tear back the layers of propaganda and mind control you´re left with a very basic recipe.  The entire point of basic training was to instil within the lowly level soldier the very specific point that you´re nothing more than a stimulus response creature.  Your entire existence within the military chain of command is to obey orders at whatever cost.  To have even the slightest inkling of creativity, objectivity or spontaneity was ENTIRELY frowned upon and in fact punishable by a wide array of various forms of discipline.

The entire existence or essence of basic training is to prepare the soldier for the most unbearable of conditions.  Your partner has been fatally wounded in the heat of battle and your Sergeant is raging on at you to charge. The natural flight or fight instincts of an intelligent human being is to retreat and take shelter.  After-all, basic human instincts prepare you for survival in most cases;  however, in the military, the rational and obedient solider charges on without the slightest delay.  If they´ve been properly trained (also know as brainwashed) they´ve become conditioned much like a laboratory rat by stimulus/response habituating.  The punishments aren´t rational.  They´re designed to be this way.  In order to strip somebody down to the most robotic of creatures serious conditioning needs to take place.

The key factor in all of this is that in order to instil the rigid chain of command the conditioning process takes place daily, hourly, even by the minute.  Instances of impossible deadlines and inspections were more often than not the weapons of choice.  Having to make your bed to the accordance of precise measurements was a requirement of every soldier.  Tape measures would come out each morning to check how it was done.  If you were off even a mere millimetre it was cause for grave concern.  Your bed would be ripped to shreds and you´d have several minutes to have it made back to the same configurations.  The impossible deadline was not met and consequently you were marshalled to do physical punishments and gruelling exercise for an extended period of time.

The instructors would also eagerly look for imperfections while you were marching.  If your arms did not swing a certain degree or you were slightly out of cadence you might be yelled at and referred to as the following:  “A soggy shit sandwich.”  If your room was impeccably clean the instructors would hunt for things to point out that were wrong.  They´d lift up garbage cans searching for what they referred to as ´dust bunnies´ for an excuse to repeat the process of brainwashing and physical punishment.  The process was repeated EVERY single day of training.  I couldn´t believe how many fellow trainees just didn´t get it that NO MATTER how well you DID OR DIDN¨T make your bed or clean the rest of your supplies the results would be the same.  You´d get yelled at for constructive or non-constructive reasons and forced to do a series of humiliating tasks all in the process of establishing the hierarchy  (what they referred to as the chain of command) while ensuring that the soldier knew without a doubt they were nothing more than a lemming (a lowly lackey) that would perform tasks at the drop of a hat.  It was purely about conditioning and establishing the rigid SENIOR/JUNIOR relationship.

The ideal soldier is one who does not asks questions.  It´s the soldier who jumps half a second before you give the command and who does not ever think twice about what is going on.  The entire psychology of the military is to encourage group-think mentality.  As a sociology major, I´ve studied about the mentality of what goes on in a mob scene.  The underlying concept is that when social norms are stripped down you´re left with nobody willing to accept responsibility.  Thus, individuals within a mob feel far more willingly and likely to do behaviours they would not do as a single individual.  This kind of mentality is very much a part of the military.  Discouraging individuality and intelligent thought is at the forefront of most disciplinary measures.

The more passive, obedient, conforming and lemming like you become the more you´re appreciated in the military as a private.  In basic training, there is no shortage of double digit IQ goon squad instructors who are well versed in popping down sore thumbs that were sticking out.  It´s very easy for them to detect because the individuals they´re after are the ones who are questioning the absurdity of certain operations or suggesting a method of getting something done that would reduce a project from 45 minutes into a simple 15 minutes of labour.

I found myself gravitating towards these types of people.  I respected them immensely because deep down I knew they were above the conditioning that was taking place.  I felt a sense of kinship and affinity towards these types because I myself was becoming passively resistant.  I´m not naturally an aggressive type and especially during my teenage years I didn´t have the physical or mental resources at the time to go head to head with the system in a head on collision.

What I might do today would be an entirely different story! :P  Instead, I became a dust bunny collector and a soggy shit sandwich parade-r.  I brought myself down to the lowest common denominator and tried my best to do the LEAST I possibly could.  It was my way of passively resisting.  I quickly got labelled as an underachiever and I wore my title proudly.

Once in a while I would selectively choose to excel at something such as floor hockey or physical fitness tests during our jogs.  Only the most discerning eye caught on to the cognitive dissonance taking place and it was a way of showing that I MIGHT just in fact NOT be putting in my best effort.  I did this to stick out my tongue directly at the system without actively fighting it.  I met several of those who did actively fight the system and I have immense respect for them even to this day.  I think they knew all along they would not gain any kinds of concessions or benefits from the entire ordeal.  In fact, they willingly knew they´d face harsher circumstances; however, what they did prove was that were not going to be a brainwashed lemming.

Lemmings by flickr user comedy_nose

I still remember my final grade to this day.  I was placed in the lower third of the class.  Little did they realize at the time that I´d go on to finish a university degree, work overseas & travel while having numerous offers to study abroad on scholarship for a Masters degree.  I can honestly look back ten years later and count my blessings that I didn´t excel in the military and continue on in that direction.  I can´t imagine how different my life would be now had I really put in my best effort and tried to play along with the system.

Army push ups by flickr user jim.greenhill

I didn´t know it back then but I know it now, I´m very much a free spirit and I´m now living the life of travels and adventures that I’ve always dreamed of.

Samuel enjoying backpacking experiences in Peru

This is an article I wrote back in 2010 while backpacking in South America.  It was my 10 year anniversary of basic training at the time and at the age of 28, I reflected on my experiences in the military and how different a person I had become over the years by following a path that deviated strongly from basic training.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzzane from Travel Universally January 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm

It makes me feel surprised when I read about your days in the military forces. I can imagine , how much rough and tough routine it would be of yours in those days!

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 3:01 am

Thanks Suzzane, it was a challenging time but in many ways I think it made me a stronger person :)

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Shalu Sharma January 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Interesting story. I also did not know that you were in the military. Its not easy and I do not think I can be in the military. Thanks for sharing it.

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 3:02 am

Thanks Shalu, it’s certainly not for everyone and (as I found it quickly) it’s certainly not for me.

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Shaun January 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm

The Canadian Military is often overlooked when it comes to how difficult the training and lifestyle is. Even for a reservist. Atleast now you know it’s not for you. I had a brief time in the reserves as well and I loved it. Not much room for it in my life anymore but I would go back in the future.

Just remember that initially, the training and your rank determines what is required of you and that’s what the military needs a private to do. Depending on your trade and rank in the future. Your thoughts, creativity and ambition is nurtured and encouraged. I’ve seen it.

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 3:04 am

That’s an interesting perspective Shaun. I think you’re right though that I didn’t stick around long enough (just did the challenging training courses) to potentially see that. In a lot of ways, when I look back in hindsight, I was really young and immature and I found things overwhelming at the time.

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Jarmo January 21, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I do understand what you’re saying. Over ten years ago, I also did spent 6 months in the Finnish military, as it is mandatory in Finland. An Oh My God I hated every moment of it. Even after so long, I still do! :) I still think it was the most useless 6 months I’ve ever had. Yes, you are not supposed to be creative there, you’re supposed to follow orders, no matter what how stupid, and that’s it!

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:00 am

Hey Jarmo, I had no idea you had to serve mandatory service. I totally agree with you! I found it awfully annoying/stressful to constantly be following orders.

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Cheryl January 21, 2013 at 10:32 pm

And this is why I could have never served in the military. I spent 5+ years in Navy League and Sea Cadets and I’m so glad I made the decision NOT to join the military when I finished high school and went on to college instead.

I have a friend who served in the German military and made many of these exact same observations.

At least you had a character building, not to mention interesting experience.

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:02 am

Thanks Cheryl, that’s fascinating to hear about your background. It definitely was an ‘interesting’ experience and one in which has made me appreciate my current lifestyle more.

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Matthew Karsten January 22, 2013 at 8:30 am

I’ve heard similar stories from ex-military. They try to sell the travel & adventure aspect, when in reality the whole experience actually sucks. :)

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:04 am

Yeah, the commercials (for the military in just about any country) really sell an experience that is far from reality.

I’m enjoying a life of travel and adventure on my own terms now. In many ways, I’m glad I was such a lousy solider…LOL

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Laura @Travelocafe January 23, 2013 at 7:50 pm

The military world is a totally different world.

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:14 am

It really is!

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glasses frames uk January 25, 2013 at 3:00 am

Great experience! Congratulation!

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:15 am

Well, thank you! I’m happy to be travelling now ;)

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Arti January 27, 2013 at 4:24 am

Wow! You were in military! Never knew or imagined that! A great read Sam, experiences of a soldier! Have a good day :)

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:16 am

Thanks Arti, a lot of people (even close friends) would be surprised to know that I was at one time in the military. I guess I rarely bring it up in conversation.

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Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home January 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm

You depicted the military system so well. I totally agree with what you wrote. I’m always amazed when I meet people who don’t question things or don’t give at least a proper thought to what is happening

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Samuel January 28, 2013 at 4:17 am

Thanks Izy, it’s really a challenging system for anyone who has a creative mind or likes to do things independently. I found it totally stifling.

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Nico January 28, 2013 at 5:09 am

Not the first person I’ve met who had a change of heart about the army after an early experience doing training as a teenager. My friend joined the French Army so that they would pay for him to study to be a Doctor. He didn’t last lng being an army recruit at University.

Nico recently posted top 150 Travel Blogs Using Comment Luv

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Jonny Blair January 31, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Excellent article Samuel. In one instant our lives can change forever – your destiny was in travelling the world (but without a gun) ;-)

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Samuel March 8, 2013 at 3:53 am

Indeed Jonny, my backpack is my weapon of choice ;)

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Just One Boomer February 2, 2013 at 2:00 am

I think part of basic training is so that if/when confronted with a life or death situation, your training kicks in and you can operate on auto pilot as part of the team. At least that seems to be what most U.S. soldiers say when asked how they held out against a large force. It also seems to be true that the higher you go, the more autonomy you are given. I have to say, I’m impressed by the educational resumes of generals in the U.S. Most seem to have advanced degrees from our top universities that were earned while they were in the military. This is in no way to disparage what I’m sure was your honest perception of basic training at age 18 nor the clarity of thought when deciding that a military career was not something you were interested in pursuing.

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Samuel February 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

You bring up some very valid points. My perception is certainly skewed by the fact I was a teenager while in the army. I think that had I done the training in my mid to late 20′s I may have a different opinion.

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Ash Clark February 3, 2013 at 2:11 am

Interesting take Sam. The thing I find most interesting in what you described here is that I now live a life that is very similar to yours except that I pushed through basic and ended up serving in the Australian military for over 7 years (including 2 overseas deployments and probably gives reason as to why I know that the monument in the picture behind your platoon photo is Vimy Ridge ;) ). I have absolute respect for you and what you have achieved in your life, but I think that this post has been written through the perspective of an individual. The whole purpose of basic is to strip you of yourself and to start living for others around you. Grasping that concept has completely impacted and changed every facet of my life for the better. I have made some of my closest friends from my time in the military and just as Shaun said in the comments above, once you progress through basic and remove that selfish mindset, your leadership, initiative and strengths are really nurtured and encouraged. Everything you said you hate and thought the army was setting out to destroy in you while you were at basic are the exact characteristics the military looks for in their special forces soldiers. Life is a brilliant learning curve and its without a doubt you learnt a lot about yourself during this time, if we ever meet be prepared for the JOOB jokes though! ;) (JOOB= Just Out Of Basic)

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Samuel February 15, 2013 at 11:14 am

Hey Ash,

It sounds like you really gained a lot of valuable life experience from your time in the military. I’ll get ready for plenty of JOOB jokes ;)

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Ellen Keith February 3, 2013 at 3:41 am

As an Edmontonian, I’ve always been curious what our military training was like. Somehow, none of this really surprises me! Thanks for the insight though; I’m sure you’re extremely happy about the choice you made in leaving!

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Samuel March 8, 2013 at 3:51 am

Thanks Ellen, I made the right choice to leave when I did. I love what I’m doing now!

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Steve February 3, 2013 at 4:34 pm

The rules and regulations of the military do not suit everyone. If a person is forced to go into the military and eventually finds out they just can’t make the grade, they end up with a dishonorable discharge that is an embarrassment for the rest of their lives.

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Samuel March 8, 2013 at 3:50 am

That’s very true Steve! I hate that they put that kind of a black mark on a person.

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Traveling Ted February 7, 2013 at 2:53 am

When I was younger I was always curious about what it was like in the military, but not anymore. This post reinforces that thought. The traveling lifestyle could not be anymore of a polar opposite.

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Samuel March 8, 2013 at 3:48 am

Most definitely Ted. When I look back it feels like a lifetime ago.

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Deb February 10, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Glad you are following your dreams, the military definitely isn’t for everyone. I could never do it. I would be exactly like you and could never make it through basic training. I also would look at it as absurd. However, my sister was in the Canadian Armed Forces and now works for NATO. She learned French in the military, she was educated in the military (I remember she was always on course somewhere, learning something new) She ran for them (she was on the cross country team and travelled around the world competing for them) she was then stationed in Germany and when I visited her there, she seemed to have an amazing life. They seemed to encourage her to always try new things. She and her husband are now retired and collecting a full pension from the Armed Forces, while working for NATO overseas. It turned out very well for her.

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Samuel February 15, 2013 at 11:40 am

That’s great to hear the story of your sister Deb. I’m glad that there are success stories like these, and I must admit, I wasn’t part of the system long enough to receive any potential benefits.

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Jeremy February 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I once considered joining the military, but I think I didn’t for the exact reasons you mentioned. Having my spirit quelled was not something I think I would have been able to deal with, and I’m glad you got the hell out of there while you could!

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Samuel March 8, 2013 at 3:46 am

Thanks Jeremy, I did leave at the right time. Couldn’t imagine my life not travelling!

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Sam @ Travellingking.com May 6, 2013 at 7:53 am

Great article Sam!
The military always advertise was something fun to do and get great experience but usually its get yelled at , get broken down and become a “robot”. It was something i really wanted to get into for a few years then realised that I wouldn’t make the cut because like you, I’m a free spirit and I have a “bad attitude”oh and I enjoy arguing.. So probably not the best type of person to head into the armed forces..

Good on your for giving it a go!

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Scott August 7, 2013 at 10:32 pm

What an entirely misconstrued tainted view of the military you are attempting to project. I have been in the Canadian Forces for more than 8 years now, and have instructed on MANY basic courses which your writing about. Oh and I too have a University degree (B.Comm (Hons) majoring in Accounting) but that doesn’t fit well with the “double digit IQ instructor” image your perpetuating does it? I have also traveled the world and seen and done many things a “free spirit” like yourself would value. The problem is the military was simply not for you. You were clearly a terrible soldier and so now you want to shun the entire military for your poor experience. Who do you think you are with a total of 1 year in the military as an untrained private to even attempt to give an insider’s view of how the military operates? The military is not for everyone and that’s perfectly fine. However to have someone with such minuscule experience to attempt to review the military and its members in such a condescending smug manner because they simply completed a single course is just wrong. You should be ashamed for giving such a skewed vision of the military to the general public.

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k October 4, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I absolutely agree with the article. His view is spot on. I did basic myself and promptly got my ass out of there. Is that a degree in Accounting or arguing using ambiguous statements? To the poster above you have said nothing factual only ridiculed on how he was wrong yet never explained why. Which is exactly my experience when I was in. I went in to the Army in my 30′s. I scored 100% on my all my forms for recruitment and 92 percentile on the aptitude test. I scored way higher than most Officers. One of my choices was a combat role. The Captain showed me the test results and I scored 240% higher than the requirements for the combat role.

I was a CEO for 7 years, I have a education in computers and networking plus I’m a journeyman in a red seal trade. The recruitment centre couldn’t of stamped my accepted paperwork fast enough.

I get to basic training and wow. Nothing like advertised. Everyone was slaves. Stress, aggressiveness and strict obedience is encouraged. Any signs of questioning or intelligent thought was strictly punished. We would sit in classroom nearly daily for up to 1 to 2 hours after the courses were done and the instructors would waste everyone time by letting people who are self admitted mentally retarded ask stupid questions instead of doing something useful like going back to your room call home and get prepared for the next day. We spent a whole hour one night standing at attention on how to lace a boot. WTF. It took me a whole 1 minute to learn that. Then we get told to use our brains and stop wasting time.

We had one class where the civilian instructor showed a power point and also vocally confirmed at this phase in our training you will only remember 1 – 3% of the what is told here. This was due to the sleep deprivation. I know from study’s a healthy person will retain on average 20% of what is communicated.

Intelligence and Morale was never encouraged. I been reading psychology on sleep deprivation, stress and the affects it has on the mind. Interestingly it makes you more susceptible to uphold other people values/rules if you agree with them or not and the instructors love making you sleep deprived. Then once you finally accomplish the outrageous demands of your instructors you do get that sense of pride.

Let me paint a different picture. The abusive husband, hits his wife several times a year. She lives in constant misery. She finally sees her husband is in a good mood and she feels good, but it won’t last next day he will verbally or physically abuse her again. No one will say that is a good environment. Now back to the Military.

I have to ask. What’s the difference between the two?

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Leisha February 5, 2014 at 1:14 am

Great memoir. I have always imagined that army training is designed to weed out those who have the mentality for armed combat and those who don’t. In so doing they can also weed out those whose skills match non-combatant service. Some people join the army for adventure (usually those who excel at basic training), and the thinkers (strategists). They don’t want strategists to be empty headed followers but they kind of need the adventurers to be exactly that.

I imagine what they do need from the thinkers is mental toughness though. The ability to just ‘get the job done’ no matter how absurd or crappy the scenario may be. My guess is that is why they make everyone do the same training no matter what their mental capacities are.

I’m Australian and the current head of the Australian Army has a BA and Masters, so he is quite clearly a ‘thinker’. He has been very much involved in strategic decision making over the years and has not seen much active combat (he served on a peace keeping mission in East Timor in the late 90′s). However, he has a huge amount of respect from within the ranks and he is currently committed to overhauling cultural issues within the military. His main priority area is to weed out misogyny (and any other form of bigotry) and get rid of them and to encourage female participation in the armed forces…and he’s doing an amazing job.

I guess they call it ‘basic training’ for a reason; everyone get’s lumped in together so they can see who is good at what and what the different mentalities are among the group. I imagine they would then encourage people to ‘play to their strengths’, and that is probably where the creativity comes into it.

I guess they figure if you can withstand basic training, you can withstand any aspect of the armed forces.

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