BARRHEAD - Barrhead resident Dale Bernier has no regrets about the time she spent in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
Moreover, she would recommend that people consider enlisting, especially women who are looking for a potential career path, especially now that the CAF is facing personnel shortages. (It is estimated that about one in 10 of the military's 100,000 positions remains unfilled).
Bernier spent three years in the CAF as part of an artillery unit in the early 1990s.
"It was a great life. I enjoyed every minute of it," she said, adding, at times, she regrets leaving. "I only decided to retire from the armed forces because of my mother."
At the time, Bernier noted that Canada was gearing up for deployment overseas, in the former Yugoslavia.
"She was concerned that I would be deployed in a war zone and that there was a possibility that I could get seriously hurt or even killed," Bernier said. "That was really difficult on her. She cried a lot, and in the end, that was the biggest factor in me leaving."
Bernier noted that as an artillery gunner, she would be relatively safe at or near the rear of any conflict.
"We shoot over the heads of our infantry to help soften up the opposition forces so the foot soldiers will have an easier time," she said.
However, Bernier said anyone considering joining the CAF needs to realize that, at the discretion of the government, they could be sent to dangerous hotspots anywhere around the globe.
Bernier said when she was in high school in Sexsmith, it wasn't her plan to join the CAF.
"I wanted to be an RCMP officer," she said.
So after graduating, Bernier applied for the RCMP and she was a fair way into the process when she learned that she actually did not graduate.
"I was three credits short," she said.
So instead, Bernier became a dietitian, taking a job at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Grande Prairie, where she worked for about four years until she lost her job to a large round of layoffs at the hospital.
Wanting a clean slate, she moved to Sylvan Lake, where she took a job in nearby Red Deer at one of the meat packing plants. Unfortunately, she became the victim of another round of mass layoffs.
"So I joined the Canadian military, hoping to become a policewoman (MP)," she said.
After talking to a recruiter in Red Deer and telling him about her plans, she joined the Canadian Army and was assigned to the 78th Field Battery, a sub-unit of the 20th Field Artillery Regiment.
After completing her basic training in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, she went to the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Shilo in southwestern Manitoba to complete her gunnery training.
Bernier said her basic training was challenging, fun, and eclectic.
"They tried to teach us a bit of everything in our three weeks," she said, adding one of the most enjoyable and challenging tasks was a four-day survival course, where cadets had to create their own shelter in part by using a trench.
She also recalled her platoon learning to drive an MLVW (medium logistics vehicle wheeled) used for troop transport, which they once overturned. However, at the end of her basic training, she was confused when she learned that the additional training she would receive in Shilo was a gunners’ course and not specialized training to become an MP.
Her sergeant told her that after completing the gunners' course, she had the option of "re-mustering".
"I did have a hard time with that at first, as I had joined up to become an MP, but after going through the training on the big gun, a 101 Howitzer, I just loved it and did not look back," she said. "The projectiles were 105 millimetres around and weighed 33-and-a-third pounds, not including the up to six bags of gunpowder."
In addition to learning how to operate the Howitzer, she learned how to use her rifle, a semi-automatic C7, which she named "Joel" and a machine gun, an M-19, "Joel 2".
Bernier also noted that she was only one of three women in her platoon of 22, two of which successfully completed the gunner's course.
"You have to have a sense of humour about it if you are going to make it," she said, recalling how platoon members would tease their sergeant who tended to stutter.
He reciprocated by having them do up to 30 pushups, the maximum allowable. However, Bernier noted that the sergeant would extend that via his selective hearing.
"He would ask us how many we had done. Instead of 20, he heard two, and we would have to start again," Bernier said.
As it was peacetime, Bernier noted that she would also go on to train for avalanche control, most of which she completed at CFB Shilo before being assigned to an avalanche control team near Revelstoke, B.C.
The purpose of avalanche control is to release avalanches in a controlled manner before they become a threat to the transportation corridor. Bernier's team, worked in tandem with Parks Canada personnel to keep the TransCanada Highway and the rail line open.
"It is an important and potentially dangerous duty," she said, noting the risk of getting caught in an avalanche. "They had these snow houses that we could rush into if something gave away quicker or the avalanche was larger than we expected."
Bernier said that while her six-person team, not including Parks Canada members, always understood how important the duty was, they always managed to have fun.
As part of the team's regular routine, they would have to do daily PT (physical training), which often included a five-mile run, but one morning, it included an extended toboggan session.
"They took us up the mountain with this snowcat and we tobogganed down," she said. "It was really exciting as we went down the mountain at breakneck speeds trying to avoid, obstacles such as trees and tree wells, which we sometimes found ourselves stuck in."
Bernier noted that although she spent only a relatively short time in the CAF, she feels connected with those, past and present, who have served with the Canadian military.
She noted that she remains friends with those from the 20th Field Artillery Regiment that she served, some who served in some of the world's hotspots, such as the previously mentioned former Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, and often attends reunions and other military functions.
"Some of my friends have seen and experienced a lot, but Canada does a lot to help those who return from places like Afghanistan," she said.
Because Bernier knows current and past CAF servicepeople who have served as part of active combat missions, she does not feel like she is a veteran.
"The people who served in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cyprus and other places where there was real conflict, they are the veterans," she said, noting it is also the reason why she has not applied for her veteran's licence plate. "(Herman Barkemeyer, Barrhead Royal Canadian Legion's service) operator keeps telling me I should get one, but it doesn't feel right."
Bernier also said it is important for Canadians to honour in whatever way they can those CAF servicepeople who have and continue to sacrifice for the sake of the country and its residents.