Copyright Lee Lambert, Published by Babora Books, 2012. All rights reserved.
Publisher's Note: For readers unfamilliar with Canadian military terminology, here is a very brief glossary. (opens a new window)
In truth, I’m just a padre. Yeah, I know, a padre.
It’s the end of the world and I’m a freaking padre!
What good is a death notification when everyone you know is already dead and walking around?
I am busy—really busy—because about half the soldiers still on duty are bat-shit crazy, and the other half are privates, barely out of BMQ without even their basic trade courses.
I’m ok, so far. I’m down to my last four Imovanes, which means come mid-week I don’t know how I am going to fall asleep. Other than that …
Canadian Forces Base Gagetown is still up and running. So is Wainwright.
I’m at CFB Petawawa (Pet), two hours north-west of
I’m one of seventeen padres operating on the base along with a rash of civilians who are backing us up on pastoral care. In truth, the doctors and counsellors from Mental Health Services can’t deal with the demand, so we spend many hours a day counselling all but the most seriously disordered soldiers.
I don’t stop to think about how many guys on the end of our weapons systems meet the criteria for Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD or how many alcoholics are showing up drunk for work. Even when we were full-bore in
Drugs are still a huge problem, but it isn’t X or meth. It’s Xanax, Welbutrin and Effexor. Even frickin Nyquil is as valuable as any party drug now and there is a huge black market trade in them. Penalties for dealing are severe but largely unenforceable. In the spring there had been countless snatch and grab raids performed to rescue survivors. Now it was pharmacies. We needed to keep sane those who had made it.
Some of the more modern scholarship regarding the fall of
I had no family—at least none of my own. Many others who—because of luck, because of their jobs, because of more selfish reasons—did not share the same fate as their spouse or their children, found themselves across the line alone and ultimately unable to stare up at the ceiling of the drill floor or tent to which they had been assigned and see any future up there.
Initially, resources were put into patrols to prevent people going into the water, but when everything important started running scarce and people made that final choice, they were simply left to it.
A few went out over the walls and barricades, choosing, I suppose, to find some closure in joining their loved ones in their fates. Even some soldiers took this route. It was not unknown to find their kit lying in a neat little pile where they had gone over. It was actually called “Taking a radio check”, referencing the fact that immediately following a radio check afforded the best time to go without being quickly missed. Death by Infection was its most popular name.
We had mass graves—of course we did. But, to take the hex off it, we never called them that. Communal Memorial Sites (CMS) was the term we invented. And there was CMS duty—seven days on at a time for the base padres—when you got all the burials for that week. Thank God the suicides had spiked in the late spring and had been falling ever since. Those few who remained seemed to have grown more thankful to be where they were.
Everything had a cast of unreality to it.
We had the gold from the Bank of Canada stored on base in underground storage lockers. No one was supposed to know that, but we all did. The Prime Minister was at an undisclosed location “Out West”, but the former leader of the opposition—in her current incarnation as Deputy Prime Minister of the new coalition government—lived in one of two VIP buildings on the north side. We had a British Consulate, and embassies from
We actually had a few thousand Americans on base that’d been caught out on this side of the border when the airports and the land crossings had been closed. Some were here through work ties, but most had been on holidays. The luckiest of these had fled alongside their Canadian cousins away from the most densely populated centres, and that usually meant northwards. The majority on base had grouped themselves together in an area down off the old campgrounds called, for no discernible reason,
The Stars and Stripes flew bravely everywhere. In the middle of the summer, just when the enormity of the international situation was being fully realized,
I’m proud to say these were granted anyway. A number of our American cousins—most particularly the Marine Corps contingent from the embassy—helped augment our forces out on the line. In fact, a small minority of the tired and overworked recruits toiling away out on the Petawawa plains were displaced Americans. Unable to go home, they were throwing in their lot with us. They knew our intent. If and when we could get our own shit wired tight, we’d be going south.
Times were grim in
Of all the northern nations,
The effort was colossal and sustained, but the
This is horrible in a city of one million like
Our training during the Cold War had been for large set-piece, nation-on-nation battles. Later, it was focused on highly manoeuvrable, asymmetric warfare. Never had we been trained for, nor developed weapons and tactics specifically for, this. We had huge numbers of enemies that were impervious to psychological warfare. They could not be sanctioned or intimidated or reasoned with.
Our impotence showed up in the small things: the standard frag vests were designed to stop flying metal from driving into the torso, but offered little against teeth and nails on the extremities. Helmets were of no use at all except as platforms for night vision gear (NVG), which was now incredibly precious and rare. Kevlar guards were also very useful but, once again, not designed specifically to stop biting attacks.
To be truthful, a classic Greek phalanx, trained to fight in closed ranks with interlocked shields and to manoeuvre as one huge unit, would have had a better chance than we and our allies now often did.
Eventually, even the most substantiated and plausible news was greeted with a weary shrug.
No one seemed to know where the President was, but there were closely-watched weekly internet addresses delivered by him against the backdrop of the Great Seal that stopped the whole camp while we watched. The story I thought most likely was that he was onboard one of the naval task forces off the Pacific coast. My source was a specialist from
July 1st was Canada Day and we celebrated as well as we could. July 4th was Independence Day and, in an act of solidarity, a great many streamers and what fireworks and hoarded cans of ham we had left were all taken down to New Bedford.
Painted onto the side of one of the main admin buildings were two crossed Stars and Stripes and Maple Leaf flags with “United We Stand” written boldly beneath. It was a sentiment the military passionately shared. It was a sentiment embraced warily by the civilian population.
Of huge symbolic significance to me was this one, little-circulated fact: the marine guard from the embassy may have rotated into our lines, but not those marines who occupied the ground floor of the house beside the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence. They never moved. This residence housed a man who was as unfamiliar to the average Canadian as was his cryptic title, President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate. He’d been on base for nearly two months before I learned that, right behind the Vice-President and Speaker of the House of Representatives, he was third in succession to the office of President of the
Yeah, it was that bad.
There was constant talk of a cure, and rumours of a new vaccine. Always they were “just going into human trials”. These became our new urban myths. And the scientists always seemed to be from somewhere else—
Usually, at night, soldiers in garrison would be in the shacks, or back at home with the kids watching the big screen in the PMQ patch. Now most of us were out in the field 24/7 or, in the case of techs, racked out beside whatever vehicle or system they were servicing. A few of the LAV and Coyote crews that I knew, even when they were in their bays with the doors rolled down, slept in their vehicles with the hatches dogged. These were in the small minority of course, but it showed where we were at.
The base padres used to call our time out amongst the troops “ministry-in-place”.
The inside joke for us now was that it was “ministry-in-place-of-actual-help”.
Padres are funny animals. They carry captain’s rank, but are afforded respect out of proportion even to that. They are also a bit like mascots. It’s a rare padre who knows the field with the same competency as the soldiers they serve so they are watched over by precisely those people they themselves are supposed to be looking out for.
Troops are proud of what they do and they usually like to show you what they know. Strict non-combatants on paper, I haven’t met a padre yet who hasn’t been taken aside by the RSM or an A Coy sergeant-major to be shown how to put thirty rounds downrange, or release a couple of grenades. And padres, despite all their BS to the contrary, love to be shown.
The instructors on my own course at the old Padre School in Borden would tell you in no uncertain terms that you were never, ever to touch a live weapon and then—almost in the same breath—passionately relate the oft-told story of the padre in Bosnia who brandished a nine-mil from under his seat when his driver was threatened at a roadblock.
Padres love being in the field, and love being around the combat arms. The ones who say different are shameless liars.
We have a large area of latitude; on paper, under several authorities at once—both civilian and military. In practice we enjoy unprecedented scope. Reporting directly and exclusively to the Commanding Officer (CO), we come and go as we please with our only mandate being the spiritual well-being of the men and women under our charge. There is no other job in the service like it. We aren’t micro-managed and, being half-civilians in uniform, we can and do beg off monumental breaches of the QR&Rs as sheer ignorance and can get away with all manner of shit—bar the truly criminal of course—with nothing more than verbals.
At least that’s what I always did.
“Dammit, Padre. You gotta remember to call ahead for this.”
“Padre, you just can’t do that, ok?”
“Next time, Padre, you gotta take this up the chain, understood?”
Now, this isn’t to say that I and every other chaplain hadn’t ever stood in front of the regimental 2IC with our heels together. I’m just saying it was very rare. I knew this game well. I like to think I played it well.
Of course, in the end, it was their men and women who mattered most to every master corporal, sergeant and warrant officer. And if you helped take care of them, they didn’t mind if you stood on your head for fifteen hours every day. But right now, it damn well felt as if we were standing on our head fifteen hours every day.
We were losing.
Every generation has had their own where-were-you-when:
What most didn’t know was that I was also fresh off six months “personal” leave. Less said about that the better. Not a blow-up. Just a slow grinding down until the crank case was empty and I couldn’t go in to work. I couldn’t talk. Or, more exactly, I couldn’t think of what to say to even the most basic questions.
I’d had a full time church and was working emergency on-call for the base at the same time. Bad formula; bad math on my part. I thought I was equal to any amount of vicarious trauma. I wasn’t. I don’t apologize for this weakness. It just is. But it made me … cautious. I also think it directly helped me to survive that terrible spring too, and that’s why I mention it. It made me come to believe that, given the right mix of ingredients and the right pressure, any perfect storm was possible.
So I was, I realize now, slightly paranoid and more than half primed for a catastrophic disaster. I made sure I kept the shelves stocked with pasta and rotated endless cans of yellow-labelled bargain tuna. I kept four gas cans in the garage, never converted my fireplace from wood to natural gas, and kept a crash-bag handy. I was ready for earthquakes, floods, ice storms. But …
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Out where I was—it started off slowly enough and never really spiked hard. Instead, everything, every single day, just seemed to slide a little bit more and more off centre. Just a little bit each and every day until, finally, I woke up one morning and realized that disaster had overtaken us and that the End was upon us.
I remember where I was the very moment I realized it; stopped out on the boundary road because a farmhouse was on fire not fifty feet from the highway. You could feel the heat of it coming right through the windows. There was another car that had stopped before me, but they roared off in a shower of gravel when I pulled up and got slowly out.
The house was fully involved. The second-floor windows—where they weren’t charred black—had begun to warp and shatter in the heat. Open flame licked out over the driveway and a burning Ford Focus that sat on liquefied tires.
Looking away over the fields to the right, towards the next nearest house, I saw two elderly people in house-clothes and slippers close by to a younger family with kids. Hand in hand, silent and stricken, the old couple simply stared.
I stood there myself for at least fifteen minutes watching as the fire consumed their home. Nobody came.
It was 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and there were no sirens, no fire department, no cops, no ambulance—nobody.
When the skeleton of the house finally began to collapse, I drove slowly off.
We weren’t in