July 10, 2020

G.I. Johanne Levesque: Joining the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve

Prior to October 19, 1995, I had been a stay-at-home parent, raising my two children.  But on that date, at age 33, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve as an Infantry Soldier for the Grey and Simcoe Foresters.

In those times, I have to say that I was in great shape.  I ran regularly, could do chin-ups, and could do a ton of push-ups.  This level of fitness came in handy as anytime we did something wrong individually or as a group during basic training, we were punished with push-ups.  The Master Corporal also made all of us remain in the push-up position as a punishment, and if one of us fell out of that position, we would have to start all over again.  In that regard, I am proud to say that I never let down the others by falling; from a fitness standpoint, I was not the weak link.

As a wife of a military man, I had inside information.  I knew for a fact that no one could hurt me physically in basic training.  Now, don’t get me wrong: They did try to intimidate me.  A scream saying, “Private Levesque, get over here!” was never good news.  In fact, those words got screamed at me so often that I hated hearing my last name.  My crime could simply have been that my hair was sticking out of my beret.  But, in that case, I rectified the problem by taking clippers to my head.  The next time the Master Corporal saw me, while we were standing at attention during an inspection, he said, “Private Levesque, you got your hair cut!”  “Yes, Master Corporal,” I replied.  “Turn around when you’re talking to me, Private Levesque!” he screamed back at me.  As you can see, no matter what I did, I was always in trouble.

During basic training, I knew that the Master Corporals knew my husband was an officer in the military.  I think they resented that.  Sometimes, when I struggled, the Master Corporal would say, “What’s the matter Private Levesque?  Your husband isn’t here to help you!”

I was one of 60 Infantry Soldier recruits attempting to join the Grey and Simcoe Foresters at that time.  Only three of us were female, and of course I was the eldest.  If you’re not familiar with the military, Canadian Forces Infantry Soldiers are described as follows:

“Infantry Soldiers are the Army’s primary combat fighters and are responsible for closing with and engaging the enemy.  They are the core members of the Combat Arms team, which includes Artillery and Armoured Soldiers.”  [Infantry soldiers] “expertly operate and maintain a wide range of weapons, including rifle, hand-grenades, light, medium, and heavy machine-guns, and anti-tank weapons.”

Talking about grenades, when we were trained on how to throw them, we started with fake ones. When it was my turn to throw one, I pulled the pin with my right hand and threw with the left hand.  Big mistake because I am right-handed; the fake grenade landed at the foot of one of the instructors.  Simply put, that was not cool.

When I had to throw a live grenade, I bet the Master Corporals drew straws for who would have to take Private Levesque over the wall in a jiffy.  Thankfully, I did everything correctly and no one was injured in the making that video.

During basic training, my nickname was “mom” because I was much older and whenever someone needed anything, I had it in my rucksack.  For example, after leaving the gas hut where we practiced using our gas masks, the male soldiers came to me for face cream as the gas made freshly shaven faces feel like they were on fire.

I was there for them.  They came to me before inspection so I could burn any thread sticking out of their uniforms. I would help them make their beds.  You see, I am a nervous person and I did not sleep much during basic training so I was ready for inspection way before anyone else.  Instead, I busied myself helping anyone who needed it.

Another sign of my nervousness was my lack of appetite.  It didn’t help that when the Master Corporal served me my breakfast, he would spread the beans over everything.  I hated beans.  As a result, I didn’t eat much during training, but I always had Gatorade in my canteen and chocolate covered almonds in my pocket; I always had something to give me energy throughout the day.

Pretty quickly, I found out that the other recruits trusted me.  For example, one night, when we were doing night navigation, one of the recruits came to me saying that he had left his rifle at the last destination.  This is one of the cardinal sins of an Infantry Soldier; you absolutely, positively, cannot lose your rifle or leave it somewhere.  I told him to go get it and told the Master Corporal that he had left his gloves behind.  Thankfully, no one was the wiser.

My fellow recruits used to say, “You are so nice, Private Levesque.”  Some of the recruits even asked for dating advice.  And in return, if I ever needed help, they would be there…like when I was trying to climb into a truck with a 70 lb rucksack and got stuck.  With one husky man on one of my shoulder straps and another on the other strap, they picked me up into the truck like it was nothing.

When we marched, I always stayed at the rear as I was not the fastest.  But, this lack of speed became a positive because it gave me another way to do my part.  For example, one soldier who was carrying two large jugs of water had slipped on ice and dropped one.  Instead of them having to stop and go get it, I picked it up for them and we never lost pace.

While I was definitely a capable soldier and made important contributions to the team, knowing these things didn’t stop me from doubting myself.  One evening in particular comes to mind, after we had finished performing night navigation using a map and compass.  When we were back at camp, one of the Master Corporals asked me, in front of everyone, if I could find my way with a compass.  My answer was not very military-like. I said, “I think so, Master Corporal.”  He asked me twice and I know he wanted me to say, “Yes, Master Corporal!”  But instead, I said, “I think so, Master Corporal.”

The next day, while we were digging trenches, the same Master Corporal came to me with a compass and a map.  He told me that I had to navigate everyone to a specific location by a certain time and without help.  At that destination, we would find our lunch.  If I could get us to our destination on time, we would eat, and if I couldn’t get us to our destination on time, we wouldn’t eat.  While I wasn’t absolutely certain that I could do it, I did know for sure that I absolutely could not get in the way of a soldier’s lunch…

So, the pressure was on.  I took the compass and map and told all of the soldiers to follow me.  Some complained that I was going too fast, but I couldn’t slow down because the deadline was tight.  While my navigation skills were not perfect, eventually, we got to a fork in the road and I felt like we were really close.  I asked one soldier to go down the trail on the right and another to go down the one on the left.  I can’t remember which of them was right, but one of them was and we got to lunch on time.

Another part of the training was to learn to shoot various rifles.  In the beginning, I didn’t do very well and thought I was going to fail.  In fact, my aim was so poor that I often shot the other soldiers’ targets.  Thankfully, however, I discovered that although I was right-handed, I was left eye dominant.  What that meant was that I had to learn to put my rifle on my left shoulder and look out of my left eye rather than have my rifle on my right shoulder and look out of my right eye.  After making this change, I did fantastic if I do say so myself!

Fast-forwarding to the day before graduation, everyone could finally relax.  Before the military, I had been in martial arts for years (I was a brown belt in Karate) and one of the recruits knew this.  As a result, throughout basic training, I would show him some Hapkido during breaks.  If you’re not familiar with the martial art, it’s a form of self-defence that employs joint locks, grappling, and throwing techniques.  Anyway, on this day, things were no different; I was showing him some moves and had put him in an arm lock.  However, this time, everyone had come in, saw what we were doing, and started egging him on.  They said, “Come on you wimp, get out of it!”  While he was 6’2” and I was 5’7”, I advised him not to try, but his pride got in the way.  He tried his best to get out of the arm lock, but the harder he tried, the more he hurt himself.  While he did tap out eventually, on the day that we graduated, he told me he had a hard time holding his rifle.  I felt bad about it, but I definitely didn’t mean to hurt him!

In the end, I was one of the 20 recruits who graduated.  Yes, you read this right: Only one third of us made it to graduation.  And two of the three females made it, might I add.  I am definitely pretty proud of the accomplishment.

Like many other experiences I have had, looking back on joining the military now, there is no way I could go through it again, both physically and mentally.  But, when I think about my experience with the Canadian Forces Reserves and what I had accomplished, it puts a smile on my face.  Against all odds, I made it!

- Johanne Levesque

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