For years my office was located a block away from the National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. And during those years I've counselled members of the Canadian Armed Forces who were struggling to keep their marriages intact and their feelings in check while dealing with the emotional fallout of job-related stress.
Marriage breakdown is very much a casualty of a military career. Without exception, I was always moved by how dedicated those clients were to their jobs. Also without exception these same clients were terrified of what the stigma of seeing a counsellor would do to their service record if I couldn't guarantee complete anonymity. It appears that the military culture insists that personnel always appear in control whether working or not. Here were people willing to pay for private counselling for job-related post traumatic stress, or sexual dysfunction as a result of serving for extended time away from their partners. This is a service their employer provides for free but within the military doctrine it seems to be offered with repercussions. I'm very aware of an unseen epidemic of relationship fallout within service personnel returning from overseas.
I think most Canadians value the professionalism and compassion our peacekeepers seem to exemplify. Armed conflict is bad no matter what the situation, but the message of grace and humanity is what we as Canadians consistently market on the world stage. And yet we expect our servicemen to be robotic in their emotions. Last week, Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard, the former commanding officer of Canadian troops in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to a relationship with a subordinate. He had faced a maximum two-year jail term and dishonourable discharge for the liaison. He eventually was fined $7,000 and given a symbolic reprimand. The woman in question, Master Cpl. Bianka Langlois had previously been reprimanded and fined $700.
I've been pondering a Canadian institution that criminalizes intimate relationships. I don't know what the answer is. I understand the concerns of favouritism, jealousies and the challenges of deportment while on a military mission. And as one friend said after reading the article out loud, "We pay them to soldier, not fornicate." So now Daniel Menard has a criminal record, is unemployed and has had his personal life splashed in headlines across the country. As Menard said in his trial, "I didn't see a future anymore within the Canadian Forces and I felt ostracized."
So is it the business of Canadians and the military rank and file to be concerned about such a relationship? I think every Canadian would have an issue if the lower ranked participant of a liaison was coerced. By all accounts, this relationship was consensual. So did this relationship, done discreetly, affect the moral of the unit? In my opinion, the fact that he was married makes it an issue for him and his wife -- not the Canadian public. And why can't our personnel be allowed to fraternize and support each other in their off hours? Even if Brig.-Gen Menard and his partner were of equal rank, their relationship would still be restricted by the military. As it was pointed out to me, sex has been happening since the first time generals had secretaries. Or presidents had interns.
The rules about sexual conduct in theatre could stem from the second article of the Statement of Defence Ethics, which states that personnel must "serve Canada before self." This mandate forbids personnel from engaging in emotional, romantic, or sexual personal relationships while on active duty. Having never been to war, I may be missing the nuances, but if a situation happens between consenting adults who are doing their jobs, why is it of concern to the Canadian military? Apparently all relationships while in theatre impact the "security, cohesion, discipline and morale" of a given military unit. I firmly believe that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, even if those bedroom participants are representing the nation.
It strikes me again and again how hard it must be to live these lives. What I do know as a therapist is that you can't deny basic needs over a long term basis without it rising up and catching you off guard. No matter how regimented our troops are, we can't forget that these people are human and are looking for ways to cope in an incredibly difficult environment.
The issue is why relationships would not arise among the men and women of our armed forces, particularly if they're in hostile environments such as Afghanistan. You put adults together in any environment and relationships will arise. It's human nature. It is far, far more difficult to stamp out those relationships.
I think the military is missing the point. If there restrictions are imposed on relationships while on active duty because of potential problems, I would make the case that there are as many if not more potential problems from denying the Canadian Force's personnel the right to have these relationships. Secret trysts, deceptions, and the potential to destroy someone's career and giving them a criminal record for falling in love must make a near impossible job that much harder. And given that we are trying to teach the principals of fairness, and kindness -- the mantra of good leadership -- disallowing relationships with integrity seems to me the complete antithesis of these values.