Elizabeth Strange is in a long-distance relationship with a British soldier she met at CFB Suffield in Alberta. He will be there for the next two years. The third-year St Thomas University student and Private Andrew Thomson met over the summer while she was working as a base clerk in transport and maintenance. Strange struggles with the attitudes some people have about her relationship.
“It’s really annoying because a lot of people seem to think that they need to put their opinion into your relationship when you’re dating a soldier and they like to remind you that they could go to war and they could die.”
Strange knows all about that. Her boyfriend is a veteran of the Afghan war. She thinks part of the problem with people commenting is they don’t understand the structure of the military. It’s complicated.
Training bases like CFB Gagetown and CFB Suffield are used more for courses to prepare soldiers for deployments. But they may be sent to help with domestic emergencies like flooding or forest fires.
“If you’ve never dated someone in the military you can never quite understand it. You never come first because the job is always first. It’s really unpredictable. You don’t know what kind of hours they’re going to be working or what’s going to come up.”
Men in the military often get a bad reputation. Shona Newton remembers being warned about military men by professors and residence life in her first year. The message insulted her.
“Of course you let them loose downtown with drunk women and shit’s going to happen. But that could be any man, that’s not the military,” said the third-year STU student.
Part of the reason you hear about so many broken hearts when a group of soldiers leave is the mentality.
“When you’re single and in town for a course, it’s the transient mentality. I think it’s more a reflection of society,” said Andrew Holt, a soldier who has been posted in Quebec although his wife continues to live in Fredericton.
It’s not always the men who are looking to pick up women, either. Many women find a certain desirability in military men. Elizabeth Strange has dated two soldiers. She likes the way they look in their uniforms and the security they provide.
“They’re very proud people so there’s never a lack of self-confidence. They’re very stable in their career.”
Leading Seaman Matthew Watson’s voice is deep and gravelly. He walks with traces of the same confident swagger that marks so many military men and women, whether they are in uniform or not.
Watson has been in the Canadian Navy for six years. He’s been deployed overseas and spent a year posted in British Columbia. He knows firsthand how being in the military can hurt relationships.
“The longest [relationship] was off and on for three years,” said Watson. “The longest continuous one would be maybe a year.”
Part of Watson’s job is being sent on training courses for months at a time. It means planning for the regular rotation of long stretches away and always being on call in case of emergencies. It’s difficult to plan for the future.
“You can’t really have relationships,” he said. “You go out with someone for four months and then you’re away for six. A lot of relationships get ended that way.”
Most relationships end because of a lack of trust. Beyond struggling to stay faithful, the distance itself is tough.
“I’ve gone overseas and missed having the constant contact with a person at home. If someone is bugging your girl or there’s something going on, it makes you feel powerless because you’re so far away,” said Watson.
People can say they don’t want to leave a posting, and can request to be kept in the same place, but making a habit of saying “no” in the military is career damaging.
“If you say “no” too much you get a reputation. People lose their respect for you because they know when it comes time to go you won’t be there,” said Watson.
Many people outside the military don’t understand why military personnel would ask to be posted somewhere they could be deployed from.
Watson laughed when he answered. “Money and medals. I’d like some money and medals. It’s a good experience, you get to see the world.”
Shona Newton has been dating a military cook for two years and has to explain to people why she’s willing to stay with a man who’s frequently away.
The frustration is evident in her voice when she tells a story about a friend who thought nothing would change for her if she and her boyfriend, Danny, broke up.
“Nothing in my day-to day life would change. But I would change. I love my boyfriend. Just because he’s away that doesn’t stop,” said Newton.
Danny is in Borden, Ont. training. Newton is taking care of his cat like she does every time he leaves and looking forward to seeing him when he comes back in December. She says it’s been easier this time than it was when he went to Jamaica.
“I don’t think I was expecting how hard it was the first time he went. When he left, he left on the Tuesday and I didn’t actually know if he had made it there safe until the Friday because he didn’t have Internet and couldn’t call. That was a little bit nerve-wracking,” said Newton.
Six days before Andrew Holt was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan, his wife Erin found out she had a brain tumour.
“We knew this was a possibility when I was planning to ship out, so we [the military] had a contingency plan. The guy under me would go in my place for the takeover of command, and I might follow at a later date,” said Holt.
He probably won’t be following. Holt is being transferred to CFB Gagetown so he can be with his wife when she has surgery Nov. 22.
When Holt was posted to CFB Valcartier in 2010, Erin was working as a civil engineer in Fredericton. He said it was definitely hard for her, but they made time to drive out and see each other.
“Ultimately it’s the army’s decision where you get posted but you have some say,” said Holt.
The Holts have known each other for seven years. They spent two of those years making a long distance relationship work before getting married in September.
“It’s been difficult. It’s a lot of miles on the road, but a lot of people do that. They want to get posted somewhere for their career development but don’t want to move their family. So they drive home every weekend.”