07/02/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 09/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper's Military Jacket Is Irritating and Offensive


Harper's military-jacket tribute story rings like a cracked bell -- discordant and irritating.

The PMO says that Stephen Harper wore the Canadian Forces flight jacket "as a tribute to the military assisting the people in difficult times." Really? Someone explain to the PM that a CF jacket is not like a Calgary Flames jersey. Rather than boosting morale, he likely just boosted activity as the troops tried to burn off anger.

If there's one thing I've learned during three years of working with veterans, it's this: Troops hate seeing military gear on civilians. Not dislike. Not have distaste for. HATE.

They concede the benefits of the garments, and acknowledge that -- owing to surplus stores -- civilians purchase them for use as purposed, or just for fashion. But civvies in stripped gear (all insignia removed) annoy them. Dare to equip the gear with insignia and expect to get confronted, sooner or later, about one's military service or lack thereof.

Even veterans get grief for wearing military gear. Royal Canadian Navy Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison recently issued a directive, advising that veterans may not wear their old uniforms without his express permission.

The issue came to a head after a Battle of the Atlantic commemoration. Retired Admirals attended in "mess uniforms" -- specially-designed military tuxedos. Serving Admirals took offence. Arguments ensued via email, with serving officers complaining that veterans had no right to the uniforms, and veterans insisting they had earned the right through their service. Maddison's directive, which one assumes was intended to pour oil on the waters, has turned out to be the environmental disaster that metaphor implies: Canada's veterans are greatly offended and screaming defiance on Facebook and Twitter. The Vice-Admiral later clarified that his order did not apply to old uniform patterns, no longer in use. That may satisfy the World War II and Korean War vets, but is cold-comfort to those injured in Afghanistan.

So the wearing of military dress is clearly a controversial issue, even among those who are qualified. The PM, if he is the huge supporter of the troops that he claims to be over and over in the Commons, should have known that.

But barely a week after the veterans-uniforms issue hit the press, here comes Harper, surveying flood-damaged Alberta, in pictures reminiscent of George W. Bush over New Orleans, complete with military jacket. However, George W. was a National Guard pilot. He'd earned his wings. Harper has never served and especially never qualified as a Canadian Forces pilot.

Yet what is that on his chest? Pilot wings.

Veterans consider that a slap in the face to every CF pilot who struggled long and worked hard to earn the right to wear those wings. Don't believe me? Pop on a pair of CF wings and head down to the Legion; see what kind of reaction you get.

For that matter, the PM not only offered insult to the million veterans and serving members, he also broke the law, namely theCriminal Code of Canada section 419 -- the same law that prevents survivors and children from wearing fallen veterans' medals to Remembrance Ceremonies (another hotly debated topic in the veterans communities).

In Canada, it is illegal to wear a Forces uniform or marks or decorations related to service if you did not earn them. It is a summary offence, punishable by a $5,000 fine or six months in prison. Similar summary offences include joyriding, soliciting a prostitute, possession of marijuana, and causing a disturbance. S. 419, as with many summary offences, does not allow excuses as defense -- if you violated the law, you are guilty, and it doesn't matter why you did it. So the bottom line for the bereaved? Pin on those medals in tribute on Remembrance Day and you could get six months.

Yet Stephen Harper is seen in many photos and videos wearing Canadian Forces pilot's wings, on a Canadian Forces jacket, having never served in the Forces.

Not that the law cares about his excuse, but the PMO says Harper was wearing the jacket in tribute to the military risking life and limb in rescue and cleanup in Alberta. But if Harper really supported the troops, he would have known the insult he was delivering. I doubt many of those troops saw that picture and thought, "Hey! The PM's honouring us!" More likely, they thought, or said, some of those nouns Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi avoids. Certainly, social media lit up with that reaction, from veteran and civilian alike.

I would like to suggest to the PM that if he reallywants to pay tribute to the troops who are labouring in muck and water, then wearing a jacket that offends them is the wrong way to go about it. There are other things he could do. First, he could send a clear message -- without giving offence or breaking the law -- by wearing official Support Our Troops gear. Next, he could stop fighting veterans in court and actually fix the issues with their benefits. The third thing, which should be obvious, would be to guarantee them the tools and support they need to continue functioning, instead of allowing DND Headquarters to continue bloated with staff while cuts fall on the bases.

Stephen, if you do that... well, they may never forget you in those wings, but maybe -- just maybe -- they will forgive you for being another dumb civvie.

Memorable Stephen Harper Pictures