How Photography Changed My Views on the Military

My name is Andrew Wesley and I have been an active full-time member of the Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force since 2007.  I initially joined the Infantry, and in time re-mustered and became an Imagery Technician.  Throughout my career I've been fortunate to be exposed to many aspects of our organization that others may not see.  I love my job and am proud to serve, but I haven't always viewed the military in the same light and it took some time for me to come to the place I am at now.  To that end, I very much view it as my responsibility to share my experiences so that others can make a more informed decision about the Canadian Armed Forces - about the value of recognizing our military's contributions to national interests past and present, and the ongoing sacrifices that make our national security possible. Please recognize that the following reflects only my own experiences on the road to becoming the proud serving member that I am today.  This is my story.

When I was a teenager, and well into my mid-to-late twenties, I didn't much like the military.  I didn't come from a military family, I had no strong connections to the service, and it wasn't of what I thought defined or constituted a modern Canada.  Sure, I understood the critical role the military played in our history, and the history of other nations, but I wasn't sure that we still needed a military to be relevant.  Certainly I recognized and respected the need for peacekeeping contributions, but the idea of a modern conflict-prepared force, one trained to kill with efficiency, didn't harmonize with my views of our Canadian national identity.

Admittedly, when I joined the Canadian Armed Forces, I hadn't really changed my opinion on the matter.  After taking Firefighting courses and graduation as a business major, I had started the application process partly as motivation to get off my butt and find work in my ideal occupation. When I stepped into the recruiting center in 2007, and applied for a position in the infantry, I used it as my primary encouragement to get a job in firefighting before my first day of basic training.  This was right in the middle of our commitments in Afghanistan, and I was not particularly thrilled at the idea of deploying.

Time passed and despite moderate success in pursuing employment, I was still in the early stages of a very long hiring process. With the lack of better pursuits, I drove to Toronto and hopped on a plane to Basic Training; I was trained and posted to 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, and sent to Petawawa, Ontario.  It was almost a surreal process, seeing how many of my preconceived notions proved true. The military had put me through some of the hardest trials of my life, physically and mentally, and I had developed bonds with other men and women which I very much viewed as family.  Yet through it all, I still hadn't been convinced that this organization was any different to the stereotypes I'd viewed of every war movie I'd ever watched.  From my perspective, most of what I had been exposed to was infantry-related, all of the drills were tailored to teach me to, "close with and destroy the enemy."

Then, something happened; something that slowly changed everything for me.  Afghanistan was winding down, and the CAF apparently had too many troops in the infantry, so they had open offers for an expedited transfer process to other trades in the military.  Having developed a background in photography, I learned about the Imagery Technician trade.  I was ready for a change, and at least this one would be aligned with something I had a passion in.  Due to my experience with photography, I performed well and was selected to serve in one of the busiest and most high-profile imagery sections in Ottawa.  I went from rarely seeing anyone higher than a captain, to regularly working with generals, prime ministers, visiting dignitaries, and even our own royal family.

Through this occupational transfer, I was introduced to elements of our military that I had never witnessed before.  Instead of sitting in a trench, I was now sitting in on closed-door political and strategic discussions with decision makers as I quietly waiting in the background to take a group photo or capture an image of people signing agreements, and I was seeing the extent that the Canadian Armed Forces caters to the interests of encouraging and maintaining global peace. There were countless times that I would travel with foreign dignitaries and their entourages where they would regale me with stories of our military and our government's non-conflict related contributions to their countries.  This was new to me as I had only experienced a combat-arms related view of the military.

My position as an Image Technician was sending me abroad fairly often, and I was exposed to ceremonies in places like Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, where the names of our fallen are inscribed high upon its walls.  I met and spent time with veterans whose parents watched Canadians gassed with chlorine die defending them.  I had the opportunity to walk the trenches of Vimy Ridge, in France, and speak to the locals of Elst, Wijchen, Groesbeek, and Cuijk in the Netherlands.  I watched German soldiers lay wreaths at Canadian graves as a testament to how far our relations have come.  I honestly struggled with how to view these things, but it was hardly something I hadn't read before in school. Sure, this made it more real for me, but what were we doing now that made it all worthwhile?  That too, in time, was answered.

I was sent to Hamilton in 2014, to support the funeral events surrounding Corporal Nathan Cirillo's death while standing at the Canadian National War Memorial.  Recognition of sacrifice is hardly something the military struggles with, but the whole ordeal exposed me to another aspect of our military: overarching empathy.  I saw such commitment and focus on supporting the family of the late corporal, and unparalleled concern for our nation. I followed along with Cpl Cirillo's family, watching as his son walked those longsteps and I couldn't help but think of my own sons.  I saw the CAF with renewed respect for its role in supporting our nation.  I very much felt the genuine understanding, pain, and love that permeated our actions; it was trumping any other focus.  It moved me to be a part of that response.

The perspective of conflict is very different when viewed through a camera lens instead of the scope of a rifle. In my role as a photographer, I was finally able to see things outside of orders, patrols and trenches.  I traveled again into the theatre of combat; this time not as a part of a force defending or assaulting a position but instead, we were training other nations.  I watched time and again as the skills that I once had viewed as offensively-oriented were adapted and used to instruct nations for the purposes of self-defense.  These were countries that were and are actively involved in conflicts where people are dying, and we were teaching them how to use their limited resources to defend themselves.  We weren't stepping in, putting Canadian lives on the line and fighting, we were respecting the decisions of the United Nations, and offering those in need a means by which to stand up for their basic human rights.  How could I disagree with that?  Fundamentally it's something I teach my own children when we talk about standing up to bullies.  It didn't take long for me to see the value of the conflict skill sets that had previously left me divided on the topic of the military, particularly when it was driven by an international body committed to upholding humanitarian interests beyond simply our own.

My travels through Asia showcased to me how we committed our resources to more than just conflict training. We extended ourselves to developing resources in struggling areas, committing teams of engineers and tradesmen to develop schools for students with special needs, and offering medical services to communities with limited resources and technology.  We would deploy response teams to rebuild areas struck by natural disasters and help with accommodating housing and protecting those who were displaced.  These things weren't just happening abroad, I was witnessing the outreach here at home as well.  We fought fires, built walls of sandbags, moved families, and provided medical assistance and shelter to people across Canada.  I flew to a number of indigenous communities up north where there were no roads, to watch as we shared knowledge of survival techniques, brought supplies, and sat with local elders to reassure them that though geographically we may be segregated from direct connection, we still were very much invested in them and their concerns.

What impacted me the most was how little we were going out of our way to make the public aware of these projects.  I came back from Mongolia fully expecting to see a slew of articles and stories on the good we were doing.  Yet there weren't any.  In fact, aside from my own photo essay, I don't recall the Canadian Army putting out a single thing featuring our work in Mongolia; and that was only one of so many diplomatic and humanitarian efforts that we'd been involved in.  It really went a long way in changing how I perceived the organization.  Behind the stories my photos told were actual people who had made decisions to commit to others through our military.  The seemingly countless times I met and worked with people in all of the services who connected with the differences they made so much so that they turned down more self-serving careers outside of the CAF for the chance to be a part of this.  They were, and are still, making positive differences in the world that too often go unnoticed, and certainly deserve more notice than I could possibly offer.  They saw what I couldn't see, or refused to see, for so long.

 
 

This reality wasn't the military I perceived it to be in my youth.  It sadly took me far too long to admit that. It also took a number of conversations with friends and family of those people like my buddies who were hurt in Afghanistan to better grasp their perspective on their sacrifices and who or what they believed it served.  Is the organization perfect?  No but I don't think that's a reasonable expectation for any organization, particularly given that it's comprised of people, and we're all fallible.  Do I think it should it be held to a higher standard?  Absolutely, we've got a long history of proud moments to prove worthy of.

I am proud to say that I'm a part of an organization that positively serves Canadian interests. It is an organization which very much resonates to my core in honouring, enabling and reflecting what I view to be the most important Canadian ideologies. I feel that the sacrifices that have been made are being honoured by the sacrifices that continue to be made, and through the support of our fellow countrymen. To that end, I do very much believe that this Remembrance Day we'd all be well-served to recognize and honour those sacrifices, regardless of what our individual political opinions may be; by viewing this not just as an opportunity to recognize those who fell in the past, but also those who continue to serve.  The Canada I proudly serve is one where we can forgo ourselves and let respect unify us for at least one day a year in recognition of what's been given, and what continues to be given on our behalf.

 
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-Wes.