06/25/2011 12:02 EDT | Updated 08/25/2011 05:12 EDT

War In Afghanistan Caused Surge In Canadian Forces Applications


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- TORONTO - War may be hell, but that didn't seem to deter tens of thousands of would-be soldiers who applied to join the ranks of the Canadian Forces over the course of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan.

Military statistics compiled over the past 10 years show that while regular and reserve forces were not always able to meet their enrolment targets for a given year, it was never because of a shortage of interested applicants.

As the death toll in Afghanistan mounted and the political rhetoric surrounding the mission grew more heated, the number of Canadian Forces applicants rose steadily, sometimes reaching levels twice those at the beginning of the mission.

In 2009-10, the Canadian Forces received 25,738 applications, up dramatically from the 2001-02 fiscal year, when applications numbered 13,504 — a figure that included existing soldiers seeking transfers to other units.

With the mission winding down, the Forces received 18,881 applications in 2010-11.

The extensive media coverage of military life in Afghanistan was a key factor in the surge, said Richard Langlois of the Canadian Forces Recruiting Group.

Infantry positions, which have historically been difficult to fill, got the biggest boost, Langlois said. Rather than act as a deterrent, the well-documented perils of life in theatre seemed to highlight the urgency and importance of the work being done.

"I think it certainly had an influence on people to see this is not a game, this is reality," Langlois said.

"Our soldiers are trained, they're prepared to do that. It's risky, yes it is, but people are proud to call themselves soldiers."

Although the military stopped tracking applicant numbers for a four-year stretch from fiscal 2005 through 2008, Langlois said the increase in applicants has been continuous for at least the past five or six years.

Of course, some of what the mission gave the Canadian Forces, it likely took away as well: the annual rate of attrition bulged to 6,217 in 2008-09, up from 4,265 in 2004-05, before dwindling to just shy of 4,700 in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The mission's high profile also had its downside, Langlois said: a large number of applicants does not always guarantee a wide selection of quality candidates.

"You will always have people who are very gung-ho — they go to the recruiting centre because they like weapons or because they want to kill terrorists," he said.

"We're not looking (for) a candidate who just wants to kill what they consider bad guys. We want soldiers who can actually think for themselves, who can make a lifelong career in the military and can be successful as a leader and representative of Canada."

New recruits who do make the cut these days will find their training experience dramatically influenced by Canada's time in Afghanistan, a mission that has forced the military to deepen its understanding of counter-insurgency training, said Army Maj. Martell Thompson.

Afghanistan drove home the importance of civilian-military co-operation (CIMIC) training, a principle based on sound cultural awareness, intelligence and the ability to focus on the population and its needs, Thompson said.

"When you look at core competencies in civil-military co-operation, those are really assets that have been largely developed in the Afghan theatre," Thompson said.

The military said it is continually enhancing pre-deployment training in areas such as cultural awareness, language training and the use of language assistants.

New generations of soldiers will also receive more intensive training in dealing with improvised explosive devices, the deadly roadside bombs that accounted for the majority of Canadian deaths in Afghanistan, Thompson added.

Working with IEDs was considered a specialist skill at the beginning of the mission, but it now forms a part of every soldier's preparation, he said.

Langlois said it's too early to say whether recruitment will suffer from Canada's withdrawal from combat in Afghanistan.

Lower-profile missions, such as the training effort Canadian soldiers will undertake in Afghanistan in the coming months, don't generate the same level of public interest. But Canada's traditional peacekeeping role is likely to keep public enthusiasm high.

"I don't think it's a question of combat or the amount of danger," Langlois said. "The more people see about it, the more they're interested."