Proud to Serve, Hesitant to Speak

Three students at Western speak about their careers, transitioning to a student lifestyle, and the misconceptions about the military

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Melanie Vokey and Kat Kavanaugh

Melanie Vokey is not your average Western student.

In her lifelong learners club, the fact she was employed for over a dozen years before she came to Western does not make her unusual; having spent that time sailing around the world with the Canadian Navy does.

Kat Kavanaugh stands out when she offers experiences from her six months serving in Afghanistan to class discussions on the subject.

Vokey and Kavanaugh are two of only a handful of students attending Western as part of their training to become officers in the Canadian Armed Forces.

“My uncle was in 101st Airborne in the [United] States,” Kavanaugh explains. “I always wanted to do it, so I joined up when I was 16.

“I’m now trying to work my way up to JAG officer, a lawyer in the military.”

Kavanaugh came to Western as a step towards that goal. She is currently a third-year social justice and peace studies and Catholic theology student at King’s University College.

Vokey was in the navy for 14 years. She was a radar specialist on the first Canadian ship to sail to the Persian Gulf post-9/11. Her patrol frigate spent 79 straight days at sea in the gulf, a Canadian record.

Attending Western will allow Vokey to upgrade her education so she can be a logistics officer.

A second-year managerial and organizational studies student, Vokey discussed some of the challenges she faced adjusting from life in the military to life as a student.

“The biggest change for me is age and responsibility.

“I’m used to heavy action, heavy stress and a lot of responsibility. When you are used to that high pace and you go to nothing and just: ‘Okay you have to go to class,’ it was a huge adjustment.”

Kavanaugh also had to make adjustments. She was in the reserves for six years, working as an instructor and recruiter, as well as serving a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

“When I first started last year I was in school with a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds who had no life experience. It’s hard to relate to the other students.”

Kavanaugh also discussed the difference in lifestyle.

“I’m bored a lot of the time. In the military you wake up at 4 a.m., it’s very regimented.

“Here I don’t have to report to anyone. It’s weird going from being structured to on my own.”

The differences between military and civilian life are obvious even for officers training at Western who have not served yet.

Jan Kool, a third-year international relations student, spends his summers training in locations across Canada.

“There is definitely an adjustment that needs to be made,” he says about re-entering the civilian world. “You are put under a lot of stress in training and then you come back and you are free from all that stress and it’s hard to adjust.

Third-year Jan Kool dons full combat gear

“It gets easier every year. This year the transition wasn’t bad at all, I just slid back into my role as a student.”

For all three, making the transition successfully is important, because they see attending university as a job.

“I’m not really considered a student. This is my job,” Kavanaugh says. “Other students can go and party all the time, I don’t really have that option because I’m already in my career, and if I screw up, I screw up my career.

“I’ve already served so much time; to have my education subsidized I had to sign a 25 year contract. This is my career,” Vokey explains.

“If I fail one course, I lose my career.”

Vokey said an officer candidate struggling in their studies has an action plan drafted by a superior. If the failure is bad enough they are removed from the program.

“You think in the back of your head you are here for a specific purpose. That reason is to go to school and get an education so you can serve in the Forces. That kind of drives everything you do,” Kool says.

For these officers-in-training, an added challenge is the way their fellow students regard them.

“There are a lot of people out there who maybe don’t understand why I do it, and why a lot of us do it. There are a lot of stigmas placed on the armed forces,” Kool says.

“You hear people putting down the military and they are ill-informed,” says Vokey.

All three discussed the difficulties faced in announcing their career choice when issues about the military arise.

“Whenever debates like that arise I often keep my mouth shut. I don’t often volunteer that I am in the army,” Kool says.

“A lot of people don’t agree with [what I’m doing] and I don’t want to offend anyone. But at the same time, I don’t want to have to defend myself for my choices that I’ve thought out and I’ve done for what I think are all the right reasons.”

“Just because I’m in the military doesn’t mean I don’t have other opinions,” Vokey states.

“I would rather be known for who I am as a person, than just all of a sudden be stereotyped as someone in the military.”

In exchange for the Canadian Forces paying for his education, Kool is under contract to serve five years after he graduates. He is likely to command a mechanized infantry platoon.

He discussed the prospect of serving in Afghanistan in a couple of years.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a little scary.

“That being said, if I had a choice to go over there and make a difference and bear witness to that situation, or stay here and talk about it, I’d rather go over there,” he explains.

Kavanaugh decided she wanted to further her education while serving in Afghanistan.

“It’s a very big culture shock. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do or see, but I don’t think you can imagine what it’s like until you’re there.”

Like her education at Western, Vokey sees a potential tour in Afghanistan as her job.

“If I have to go, that’s my job. Sure it’s scary, but I’ve been trained to do it.”

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