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Do You Know What Defines a Veteran? It's Not Just Combat

10/28/2013 05:14 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Canada has a whole lot of veterans; a lot more than you might think. According to the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman in 2012:

There are nearly 750,000 Canadian Forces and RCMP Veterans; 100,000 Canadian Forces members (Regular and Reserve Forces) and 23,000 members of the RCMP.

Doing the math, you get approximately 900,000 and growing. Call it a million for the sake of convenience and you find that 1 in 35 Canadians is a veteran.

If that number seems high, think about how you define a veteran. To many people, a veteran is someone from WWII or Korea. Yes, those men are veterans. But they are not the ONLY veterans. In fact, WWII and Korea service personnel only account for 11 per cent of the total veteran population.

Some argue that combat is what defines a veteran. Think about that for a minute and you'll realize that such a definition overlooks all the logistics, support, medical, and other personnel. Think about all the aircraft mechanics required in WWII -- are they not veterans? Of course they are.

There are all the peacekeeping missions -- 33 so far. Let's not forget that peacekeeping doesn't mean picket duty; some of those missions were so close to war that only legal definitions can make the distinction. On top of that is the witnessing of genocide in Rwanda, the Balkans, and other places, usually with the inability to respond and defend the victims. Peacekeepers are some of the most scarred of all veterans, but the wounds are often mental.

Don't forget all the Cold War veterans either: those men and women who trained constantly for Iron Curtain to be overrun, for Soviets pouring over the pole, for full-scale invasion of North America. Remember the Atomic Veterans; those who participated in A-bomb tests and cleaning up nuclear spills. There are all the veterans who never went outside of Canada, but nonetheless served us: doing search and rescue, disaster relief, defending our boarders at sea and in the arctic -- countless missions within Canadian territory yet far from the troop's homes. And -- last but not least -- there are the Afghanistan veterans.

Don't overlook the RCMP either. Many Canadians forget that the Mounted is a paramilitary organization. They aren't so much a police force as a home guard. While they handle policing and security, they serve under almost identical rules to the Forces. They also get sent all over the world: South Sudan, the West Bank, Haiti, the DRC, and yes, Afghanistan as well. Remember when there was a big fuss made about the end of combat operations and the transition to training Afghan police? Guess who got that job? Plus the Mounted also does a lot of high-risk, death-defying work at home in search and rescue, border patrol, maintaining a presence in the remotes corners of our nation.

Of course, part of the problem with understanding that figure has to do with semantics. How do you define "veteran"? We can all give examples of veterans, but even the Minister of Veterans Affairs seems to have trouble figuring out what constitutes a veteran. Even veterans sometimes have trouble figuring it out. I frequently get questions like 'I served for 10 years but was never sent overseas. Am I a veteran?' Yes, yes you are.

It has taken Our Duty a long time to distill down the different kinds of service, find the common ground, and render this clear, concise definition:

"A veteran is anyone who took an oath to be ordered to die for Canada -- generally in the Forces or RCMP. Becoming a veteran takes place at the time of the oath."

The common ground of national service and the thing which differentiates the Forces and Mounted from civilian organizations is that: the commitment to sacrifice or be jailed. (In fact, until 1998, Forces troops who disobeyed commands could be executed.) It is that sacrifice -- the sacrifice of free will -- which sets veterans apart from everyone else. Length of service, deployment locations, number of injuries -- these are all by-products of the service, not the determining factor of what is a veteran. "They also serve who only stand and wait." (Milton)

Where are all these veterans? If 1 in 35 Canadians served, and the average age of the majority is 56, then surely everyone knows at least 1 veteran. More likely, we all know several and don't knot it.

There are several reasons for this. One is that the Forces and RCMP are taught not to discuss internal matter with outsiders; a behaviour which carries over to civilian life. Another reason is humility: bragging about one's accomplishments is a social faux pas. You discover this when you ask a veteran about his medals, especially if one is a bravery award: 'Oh, not much. I kept a guy from drowning. It was my job as a SAR tech.' Later, you discover the veteran jumped out of a helicopter into a raging North Atlantic sea and kept the victim afloat in the frigid waters for hours.

There's also a very shameful reason why veterans keep quiet: the 1990's.

The Decade of Darkness. There were massive budget cuts. The Canadian Forces were so under equipped that combat training often resembled a kids' game, with soldiers literally shouting 'BANG!' at each other. But two major scandals in the Forces caused Canadians -- wrongly -- to turn their back on the troops: the Somalia Affair and subsequent investigation and disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. There were some incidents of civilians spitting on soldiers or shouting at them, which resulted in Forces personnel being ordered not to wear their uniforms except on base. That perception -- that displaying your service might provoke a fight with civilians -- is still prevalent amongst a sector of the veterans' community.

The end result is this: veterans hide and citizens don't learn about them.

Which is why Our Duty launched Veterans Among Us three years ago. We wanted to give veterans the chance to stand proud of their service, no matter what that was. We also wanted to give civilians a chance to ask veterans about what they did, what the medals are for, to learn about what it means to sacrifice for a nation, and to say thanks.

We arrived at a very simple program. TV was already branding November 'The Month of Remembrance'; we decided to use the beginning and end days for our campaign. The concept is simple: all we ask veterans to do to wear their medals -- or insignia or badges -- as they go about their day. That's it. Put on your tin as you head out the door to work, or play, or coffee, or groceries, or wherever you usually go.

For the rest of us non-veterans, the campaign is also simple: look around. See how many veterans you know. Pay attention to the veterans walking among us every day. If you want, ask your friend about their service. Ask what a medal is for. Take a few minutes to say thanks. Heck, buy them lunch if you wish! The point is for us citizens to pay attention.

1 in 35 Canadians sacrificed their free will and committed to die, if ordered.

We should all know about the Veterans Among Us.

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