Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Military forgets flexibility

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Canadian military doctrine emphasizes flexibility and the ability to adapt to new circumstances, but when it comes to integrating wounded soldiers into the regular force, the generals and admirals at the National Defence Headquarters seem trapped in the past.

The story of Cpl. Ryan Elrick is a case in point. Mr. Elrick was a combat soldier who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan five years ago. His combat days were over, but Mr. Elrick refused to throw in the towel and terminate his military career. Instead, he soldiered on, learned to walk with two prosthetic devices, and eventually found success in a new career as an air force intelligence analyst in Winnipeg. His superiors recommended him for promotion, but the brass in Ottawa sacked him instead. The case is now before the courts.

The military says its 65,000 regular force personnel are "soldiers first," regardless of whether they are trained as computer technicians, mechanics or pharmacists. Under the doctrine known as universality of service, they must all be capable of performing to a minimum standard of physical fitness because it's never known where or under what circumstances they might be deployed on Canada's behalf.

Under this policy, even a cook could be called on to carry a stretcher, evacuate a building or defend himself from an armed attack. Every soldier and rank in the military must pass an annual physical test to ensure they are prepared for hard duty.

As a broad principle, it makes sense, particularly since Canada has a small military force that is sometimes required to perform enormous tasks. As well, roughly one-third of the military is engaged in administrative, personnel or support tasks. If they were excluded from being soldiers first, the effectiveness of the entire force would be weakened.

The total force would be further damaged if the military allowed every soldier whose injuries reduced their combat potential to remain in uniform. About 2,000 soldiers were injured in Afghanistan alone but thousands more are injured in non-combat situations at home and around the world. In fact, about 1,000 military personnel are released for medical reasons every year, according to the Department of National Defence.

Obviously, therefore, a policy of routine reintegration would be bad military policy. The military's job is to prepare for the worst and its soldiers are trained to survive under harsh conditions with little food and no medical attention.

The soldier-first policy doesn't mean that seriously maimed soldiers cannot serve. Capt. Simon Mailloux lost a leg in Afghanistan but learned to run and carry heavy loads with his new prosthetic leg. As a result, he was redeployed as a brigade staff officer in Kandahar Airfield, basically an office job, albeit in a war zone.

The Americans are even more aggressive in reintegrating maimed soldiers, including one who lost both legs and his eyesight. He was given a job working with other injured soldiers.

Technological advances in prosthetic devices means many amputees achieve equivalent functionality, but losing two legs, like Mr. Elrick, still imposes some limitations.

He is not so restricted, however, that he could not perform with excellence as an intelligence analyst, a job that will always be needed in Canada. His superiors said he had "outstanding leadership potential" and was "an invaluable team player."

Mr. Elrick clearly was not a charity case, but a soldier who was making a valuable contribution to the air force. Not every soldier can make the transition from one occupation to another -- most don't want to -- but Mr. Elrick could and did. Having proved his value, the military should have invoked the flexibility doctrine and made an exception.

Mr. Elrick is not a threat to the military or to its valid concerns about maintaining an effective fighting force, but the Armed Forces' rigid attachment to doctrine could undermine the broad support it has received from Canadians.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2011 A14

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