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Rick Hillier reconnected Canadians with the Canadian Forces

OTTAWA - Rick Hillier brought a refreshing bluntness to the country's top military job, but his true legacy may be that he re-introduced Canadians to their soldiers and instilled a pride in both.


OTTAWA - Rick Hillier brought a refreshing bluntness to the country's top military job, but his true legacy may be that he re-introduced Canadians to their soldiers and instilled a pride in both.

The general retires on Canada Day after three turbulent years as chief of the defence staff during which he presided over a hard-fought war in Afghanistan, wrangled new money and equipment for his troops and attended more memorial services than perhaps any of his predecessors.

But Brian MacDonald, a retired artillery colonel and a senior analyst for the Conference of Defence Associations, said Hillier's crowning achievement was to raise the military from the shame of the Somalia affair of the 1990s into the new world of the 21st century.

"He reconnected the Defence Department to the Canadian public and that is a critically important thing, and it's turned the prospects of the Defence Department right around," MacDonald said.

"The public support is there in spades."

Hillier was appointed chief of the defence staff by then-prime minister Paul Martin and his defence minister, Bill Graham. He came to the job as the Liberals prepared to start spending again on the defence budget after a money drought which Hillier later called "the decade of darkness."

Hillier found himself simultaneously rebuilding and reorganizing the Forces.

"He had the intellectual capacity to see what the problems were ... and the need for changing the way in which the Canadian Forces trained themselves, equipped themselves and organized themselves," said Graham.

"And then he implemented that at the same time keeping the loyalty of his troops. Change is always bloody in big institutions."

Hillier was a shock to some.

He was a brash, boisterous Newfoundlander striding into a job long given to officers who toed the party line and shunned the limelight.

Hillier was born in 1955 in Campbellton, N.L., a small community (population now about 565) which lies on Route 340 between Loon Bay and South Side on the coast of Notre Dame Bay, north of Gander.

He enlisted in the army as an armour officer with the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's) in Petawawa, Ont. Later he served in, and eventually commanded, the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

He rose steadily. He served with NATO in Germany, filled staff jobs in Ottawa and commanded a brigade group. He led the military relief efforts when the 1998 ice storm lashed eastern Ontario and western Quebec in 1998.

He also served as deputy commanding general of American armoured corps and became commander of Canada's army. He led multinational forces in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Along the way, he kept the distinctive Newfoundland lilt in his speech and cultivated the quirky sense of humour instinctive in so many of those bred on The Rock.

Comedian Rick Mercer, himself a Newfoundlander, once wrote of Hillier:

"He is funny as hell and inspiring as anyone I have ever seen speak. He makes soldiers laugh and then he makes them cry. He thanks them all in a way that makes everyone grow inches."

The stocky armour officer with close-cropped ginger hair, a brush moustache and an infectious grin, was also a straight-talker, a rarity in Ottawa's politically correct environs.

"There was this air of earthy realism about him," said MacDonald. "There was no attempt to sugar coat an unattractive world."

When he was appointed head of the army in 2003, he made no bones about the situation: "Any commander who would stand up here and say that we didn't need more soldiers should be tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail."

He wasn't one to play on the myth that Canadians are primarily peacekeepers, not war fighters. In one of his first speeches as chief, he offered an unvarnished view of the military: "We are not the public service of Canada. We are not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people."

He also was brutal about Osama bin Laden and his cohort: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags."

Hillier soon became the chief salesman for the war in Afghanistan, but he also sold the Forces.

He travelled the country speaking to service clubs and community groups, conferences, seminars and coffee clubs.

He cultivated a folksy, self-deprecating style and would often bring along a couple of recently decorated corporals or sergeants and point to their heroics as the true measure of the military. He told his audience that his soldiers were their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

"If we can't market Canada's sons and daughters back to Canada's moms and dads, we need to find somebody to replace us to do the job," he said at one point. "Because that's what needs to be done."

His speeches paid dividends. There were rallies across the country in support of the troops. The practice of sporting red clothing on Fridays as a symbol of support caught on in communities large and small. Hockey and football clubs sponsored Support the Troops nights.

Soldiers who in the mid-1990s were discouraged from wearing their uniforms because of the dark fallout from the Somalia affair were now the country's darlings. Soldiers' funerals were broadcast live across the country.

To this day, people living along Ontario's Highway 401 - the Highway of Heroes - line the overpasses between Trenton and Toronto as the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are driven by.

When he wasn't prying more money out of the treasury or stumping the country promoting the Forces, he was with his troops. He spoke to them on the training grounds, in their barracks and, more and more often, on the ground in Afghanistan.

Every chance he got, he threw on his camouflage, loaded a plane with hockey players, comedians and rockers and headed east.

On one trip, he brought the Stanley Cup.

When his troops told him they missed some of their familiar haunts, he cajoled Tim Hortons into opening a branch in Kandahar, where soldiers could order a double, double, just like home.

His loyalty to his soldiers was repaid with fierce support from the rank-and-file.

Historian Jack Granatstein said the last chief who won the undying support of the troops was probably Jacques Dextraze in the 1970s. Jadex, as he was known, was a legendary soldier who enlisted as a private, fought through Northwest Europe and Korea and rose to full general.

"Hillier had that personality that the troops loved," said Granatstein. "I don't think we've had a CDS that the troops loved since Dextraze."

When he could, Hillier spent time with his family, wife, Joyce, sons, Chris and Steven, daughter-in-law Caroline and grandson, Jack. He joked he'd taught Jack to salute him.

He said he enjoyed most recreational pursuits but "runs slowly, plays hockey poorly and golfs not well at all." He was forever mourning the dismal prospects of his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, although he joked, on retirement, that he could add the "general" to the title of general manager if the team would have him.

While he could deck himself out in formal mess dress, with decorations on the breast and around his neck, he preferred to work in an open-neck shirt and government-issue green pullover, with the four gold maple leafs of his rank pinned to the shoulders.

He read when he could find the time, mixing military history with George MacDonald Fraser's rollicking novels about Harry Flashman, a 19th-century British soldier who managed to be simultaneously a coward, a bully, a cad, a lady's man and a military hero.

Hillier leaves office on Tuesday. For most, it's Canada Day and the country's 141st birthday. But for a Newfoundlander, especially a Newfoundland soldier, it's also Memorial Day. It marks the 92nd anniversary of the opening day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, a day of tragedy for Newfoundland.

On that Saturday morning, 801 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment climbed out of their trenches as part of a huge British assault against the Germans. The next morning, 68 men answered the regimental roll call.

Hillier is ending his 35 years as a soldier on his province's most mournful military anniversary.

 
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