Another Hillier?

Terry Roberts
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Some doubt there will ever again be a Newfoundlander serving as defence chief

It's been nearly two years since Gen. Rick Hillier - the most outspoken and colourful Canadian military leader in more than a generation - retired as this nation's top soldier.

The Newfoundland native was often described as bold and brassy during his three years as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and oversaw an unprecedented renewal of pride and investment in the Canadian Forces.

Retired chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier

It's been nearly two years since Gen. Rick Hillier - the most outspoken and colourful Canadian military leader in more than a generation - retired as this nation's top soldier.

The Newfoundland native was often described as bold and brassy during his three years as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and oversaw an unprecedented renewal of pride and investment in the Canadian Forces.

Many say he also instilled a collective pride among people from this province for staying true to his roots.

Hillier commanded at a time when Canada's image as a peacekeeping nation was eclipsed by heavy combat - and painful losses - in Afghanistan.

It was the first time since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 that one of its native sons reached such heights in the military.

That's despite the fact that, on a per capita basis, Newfoundland contributes more than its share to the ranks of the military.

So, the obvious question is, will we ever see another Newfoundlander at the top levels of the Canadian Forces?

Not anytime soon, say some military observers and active and retired officers contacted for this story.

Scott Taylor, publisher of Esprit de Corps, a military magazine, said there is a good crop of rising stars in the Canadian Forces, but he's hard-pressed to name one from this province.

"However, they are from the same mould as Ricky," Taylor said, jokingly referring to Hillier by the name he said is listed on his birth certificate.

There are a handful of high-ranking Newfoundlanders in the forces, but Taylor said another generation could pass before a Newfoundland native follows in Hillier's footsteps. He said that's unfortunate.

"It won't be beneficial to us if that's the case," said Taylor.

Taylor said Hillier remade the mould for a CDS, and said it's no longer a given that "ring knockers" from the Royal Military College will fill the post.

Hillier could not be reached for comment.

But the question of whether there's another Rick Hillier in the pipeline from this province is a tantalizing one for people like Lt.-Col. Alex Brennan, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Brennan said the Canadian Forces is an organization of roughly 60,000, and the chances of reaching the senior leadership levels are slim.

"I just don't know," said Brennan.

"I think it's only a matter of time, but how and when and who ... it's such a fluid environment."

Brig.-Gen. Tony Stack from St. John's is likely the highest ranking Newfoundlander in the military at present. Stack is commander of the army in Atlantic Canada, overseeing a force of some 7,000 regular and reserve forces.

He's highly educated, has operational experience in Afghanistan, and is considered a mentor to people like Brennan. But he's a reserve officer, and his age may be a factor.

It's generally felt that for anyone to have a shot at being the CDS, they need to reach the rank of general by their mid-40s.

"My chances of being CDS are nil. It will never happen," Stack said in an interview.

However, sources say Stack may not yet have peaked, and could one day command the army reserve.

"Canada would be well-served with Tony in that post," said one officer, anonymously.

There's usually a Newfoundlander at the highest ranks of the navy, but observers say that as long as Canada is engaged in a ground conflict in Afghanistan, the CDS will likely come from the army.

And one name that gets mentioned by his comrades is Col. Gregory Burt, a Corner Brook native who some say has the potential to reach the rank of general.

Burt is in his late 40s, and is one of the few Newfoundlanders to ever serve as an officer in a Quebec-based infantry regiment. He is currently based in Ottawa, and recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

In an e-mail exchange, Burt stated: "Yes, there is potentially a Newfoundlander out there with the potential of becoming a CDS. But when? How long is a piece of string?"

It's been reported that upwards of 10 to 15 per cent of those in the military have Newfoundland roots, despite the fact the province represents a small fraction of the overall population.

It's also known that the same proportion is not present in the officer corps. And since there are maybe 100 general officers in the Canadian Forces, the stars have to align perfectly for anyone with their sights set on the top job.

That's not to say that Newfoundlanders are not making their mark.

Lt.-Col. James Camsell, for example, is deputy commander of 36 Canadian Brigade Group, which has reserve units in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. He recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he mentored members of the Afghan army, and is said to be in line for a meritorious service medal.

In civilian life, Camsell is a teacher at Holy Heart of Mary high school in St. John's.

And Col. Howard Coombs of St. John's is director of the new distance learning program at Canadian Forces College. He has a master's degree, has plenty of operational experience, and is an author of several books.

He will deploy to Afghanistan in September in a civilian role as an adviser to the task force commander.

He said there are many "great Newfoundland officers" spread throughout the military, but noted: "If you ask me to cite you a name at this point, I'm not so sure."

But he wouldn't be surprised if a Newfoundlander was at least a contender for the top job in the next five to 10 years.

Stack agrees, but wouldn't throw out any names.

"It's certainly possible. Odds are, given the sheer volume of Newfoundlanders, there's a good possibility."

troberts@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canadian Forces College, Royal Military College, Canadian Brigade Group

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Afghanistan, Atlantic Canada St. John's Corner Brook Ottawa Nova Scotia Prince Edward Island

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Recent comments

  • karen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    While it's true that Hillier may have been outspoken (rude) at times, we all have to admit that under such extreme political pressure none of us would shine. Are all the other senior ranking officers (Stack, Burt, Camsell, and Coombs) prepared for the critical scrutiny that comes with Chief National Defence post?

  • Nathan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Gen Hillier has done as much as any one man can for Afghanistan. He was more than right in calling the Taliban leadership scumbags.

    When Western Forces leave A-Stan, any failures on the part of those Western Forces certainly will not lay on Hillier's shoulders.

    In the last 50 years, Canada, and it's military, has been a joke amongst our allies, and it's only because of Hillier, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper, than that is no longer the case.

    The fact that you still refer back to peacekeeping shows what a fool you are. Peacekeeping was a curtain to hide from the Canadian people what the government was doing to our military - destroying it.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box. ~Italian Proverb

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 02, 2010 - 13:28

    Spot-on Jerome. This man is a simply another right-wing redneck. I don't give a dann where he's from. He's just another lackey of the corporate elite... not unlike the politically correct pro-war apologists here -- except he got paid for it.

  • Jerome
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Another Hillier?

    I certainly hope not.

    Rick Hillier would have been more perfectly suited to Bush and Rumsfield than what Canada has stood for in the last fifty years.

    Calling people in a foreign land ''scumbags'' isn't something I would usually associate with a Canadian helping bring peace to a country.

    Telling a people how they should live and what kind of government they should have is something our southern neighbours have been doing for some time now. How has that worked?

    When Western forces leave Afghanistan, does anyone believe that women will have the same rights as men or teenage girls will walk down the street listening to their Ipods? I'm afraid not.

    To change a culture takes generations. Are Canadiand satisfied to stay until that change takes place?

  • Gerry
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Jerome, get your head out of the sand & take off your rose-coloured glasses & see the world for what it really is. What would YOU call these 'foreign' terrorists who stone females, consider their wives & daughters as chattel? Do you consider them just misunderstood??

    Too bad this site didn't have emoticons 'roll eyes'

  • Hinterland
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Robert said , while defending using force to change the culture in Afghanistan
    I suggest you also need to go to Holland and speak to someone there regarding what they think of Canada and why.
    Totally different scenario ,Robert .We were defending the freedom of our ancestors in Holland against some of our more militant ancestors - the Germans, and we were only trying to change their racist and superman viewpoints , and halt the genocide and their world domination goal .We knew that if we contained them there ; the western hemisphere would breathe freely again .Apart from the Nazi aberrations, we are basically the same people .You have mistakenly set up a very poor analogy.

  • Robert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Jerome!

    Mr. Hillier already has the heart of most Newfoundlanders. I suspect if he decided he wanted to be Prime minister the current leaders would scramble to get out of his way.

    This weekend just happens to be the memorial weekend for Americans. I suggest you need to visit Arlington to even grasp what the USA has spent to defend your freedom. The right you have to express your opinion in this paper came because brave people stepped forward to assure this right.

    Your foolish notion that Canada's peace keeping role could have dealt with the likes of Hitler proves you know nothing of the price paid for peace.

    And finally the time will come when young girls in Afghanistan will know opportunity and they will always know that Canadian blood bought that opportunity. I suggest you also need to go to Holland and speak to someone there regarding what they think of Canada and why.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    B - R- A- V- O ------- Jerome . I expressed those same sentiments a few years back . I guess those words still ring true today .

  • Jerome
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    Well, here I am, a poor misguided soul, wearing rose coloured glasses and with my head buried in the sand, but for anyone to suggest I'm equating the Taliban with Hitler, is delusional.
    A superpower (as Germany was at the time) led by a maniacal bigot whose goal was world domination is so far removed from a group in a country many, to this day, wouldn't be able to find on a map.
    Is the freedom of the Western world threatened by the Taliban?

    My niece's husband is a captain in the Canadian forces and has done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. We've talked about this on numerous occasions, and though we agree to disagree on the ''mission'', I have the utmost respect and admiration for the men and women who serve. They have a job to do and are doing it to the best of their ability.

    My initial post wasn't a criticism of General Rick Hillier. As a Newfoundlander, I'm proud of his accomplishments, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with the rhetoric he has so often espoused.

    When I visit a war memorial on November 11th., I give thanks to those who helped prevent a despot from taking over the world. The lives they gave were not in vain. If I ever get the opportunity to visit the Vietnam memorial, (58,000 killed and for what?) I will probably have different thoughts. However, my admiration of the troops who serve will not waiver.

    We are becoming too American, and I guess that's to be expected of an ultra conservative government.

    We fought and paid the price when the world was threatened, but it appears now that whatever battle our southern cousins are involved in, also involves us.
    Unfortunately, the leadership in Ottawa - from any party - is unwilling to show the USA that we have the gonads to stand as a a sovereign nation and make our own decisions.
    Is there another Lester Pearson?

  • neil
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    Grew up in Campbellton,with Rick Hillier,all Canadians should be very proud of him,i know as a Newfoundlander,and as a childhood friend i am,just goes to show the caliber of people the Rock is capable of producing.

  • Patrick
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Jerome, Jerome, Jerome! You poor misguided uninformed soul. First of all, Gen. Hillier did not call Afghan's scumbags, he called the Taliban(most of whom are'nt Afghan), scumbags. The Canadian Army does'nt tell Afghan's how to live, nor do we intend to. We don't tell them what type of government to have, nor do we intend to. The Canadian Army is in no way attempting to change Afghan culture. How do I know all this? Because i've been there, twice, two Combat tours in southern Afghanistan, 14 months total. Have you been there? I'm guessing no.

  • karen
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    While it's true that Hillier may have been outspoken (rude) at times, we all have to admit that under such extreme political pressure none of us would shine. Are all the other senior ranking officers (Stack, Burt, Camsell, and Coombs) prepared for the critical scrutiny that comes with Chief National Defence post?

  • Nathan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Gen Hillier has done as much as any one man can for Afghanistan. He was more than right in calling the Taliban leadership scumbags.

    When Western Forces leave A-Stan, any failures on the part of those Western Forces certainly will not lay on Hillier's shoulders.

    In the last 50 years, Canada, and it's military, has been a joke amongst our allies, and it's only because of Hillier, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper, than that is no longer the case.

    The fact that you still refer back to peacekeeping shows what a fool you are. Peacekeeping was a curtain to hide from the Canadian people what the government was doing to our military - destroying it.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box. ~Italian Proverb

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Spot-on Jerome. This man is a simply another right-wing redneck. I don't give a dann where he's from. He's just another lackey of the corporate elite... not unlike the politically correct pro-war apologists here -- except he got paid for it.

  • Jerome
    July 01, 2010 - 20:15

    Another Hillier?

    I certainly hope not.

    Rick Hillier would have been more perfectly suited to Bush and Rumsfield than what Canada has stood for in the last fifty years.

    Calling people in a foreign land ''scumbags'' isn't something I would usually associate with a Canadian helping bring peace to a country.

    Telling a people how they should live and what kind of government they should have is something our southern neighbours have been doing for some time now. How has that worked?

    When Western forces leave Afghanistan, does anyone believe that women will have the same rights as men or teenage girls will walk down the street listening to their Ipods? I'm afraid not.

    To change a culture takes generations. Are Canadiand satisfied to stay until that change takes place?

  • Gerry
    July 01, 2010 - 20:12

    Jerome, get your head out of the sand & take off your rose-coloured glasses & see the world for what it really is. What would YOU call these 'foreign' terrorists who stone females, consider their wives & daughters as chattel? Do you consider them just misunderstood??

    Too bad this site didn't have emoticons 'roll eyes'

  • Hinterland
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    Robert said , while defending using force to change the culture in Afghanistan
    I suggest you also need to go to Holland and speak to someone there regarding what they think of Canada and why.
    Totally different scenario ,Robert .We were defending the freedom of our ancestors in Holland against some of our more militant ancestors - the Germans, and we were only trying to change their racist and superman viewpoints , and halt the genocide and their world domination goal .We knew that if we contained them there ; the western hemisphere would breathe freely again .Apart from the Nazi aberrations, we are basically the same people .You have mistakenly set up a very poor analogy.

  • Robert
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    Jerome!

    Mr. Hillier already has the heart of most Newfoundlanders. I suspect if he decided he wanted to be Prime minister the current leaders would scramble to get out of his way.

    This weekend just happens to be the memorial weekend for Americans. I suggest you need to visit Arlington to even grasp what the USA has spent to defend your freedom. The right you have to express your opinion in this paper came because brave people stepped forward to assure this right.

    Your foolish notion that Canada's peace keeping role could have dealt with the likes of Hitler proves you know nothing of the price paid for peace.

    And finally the time will come when young girls in Afghanistan will know opportunity and they will always know that Canadian blood bought that opportunity. I suggest you also need to go to Holland and speak to someone there regarding what they think of Canada and why.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:56

    B - R- A- V- O ------- Jerome . I expressed those same sentiments a few years back . I guess those words still ring true today .

  • Jerome
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Well, here I am, a poor misguided soul, wearing rose coloured glasses and with my head buried in the sand, but for anyone to suggest I'm equating the Taliban with Hitler, is delusional.
    A superpower (as Germany was at the time) led by a maniacal bigot whose goal was world domination is so far removed from a group in a country many, to this day, wouldn't be able to find on a map.
    Is the freedom of the Western world threatened by the Taliban?

    My niece's husband is a captain in the Canadian forces and has done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. We've talked about this on numerous occasions, and though we agree to disagree on the ''mission'', I have the utmost respect and admiration for the men and women who serve. They have a job to do and are doing it to the best of their ability.

    My initial post wasn't a criticism of General Rick Hillier. As a Newfoundlander, I'm proud of his accomplishments, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with the rhetoric he has so often espoused.

    When I visit a war memorial on November 11th., I give thanks to those who helped prevent a despot from taking over the world. The lives they gave were not in vain. If I ever get the opportunity to visit the Vietnam memorial, (58,000 killed and for what?) I will probably have different thoughts. However, my admiration of the troops who serve will not waiver.

    We are becoming too American, and I guess that's to be expected of an ultra conservative government.

    We fought and paid the price when the world was threatened, but it appears now that whatever battle our southern cousins are involved in, also involves us.
    Unfortunately, the leadership in Ottawa - from any party - is unwilling to show the USA that we have the gonads to stand as a a sovereign nation and make our own decisions.
    Is there another Lester Pearson?

  • neil
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Grew up in Campbellton,with Rick Hillier,all Canadians should be very proud of him,i know as a Newfoundlander,and as a childhood friend i am,just goes to show the caliber of people the Rock is capable of producing.

  • Patrick
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Jerome, Jerome, Jerome! You poor misguided uninformed soul. First of all, Gen. Hillier did not call Afghan's scumbags, he called the Taliban(most of whom are'nt Afghan), scumbags. The Canadian Army does'nt tell Afghan's how to live, nor do we intend to. We don't tell them what type of government to have, nor do we intend to. The Canadian Army is in no way attempting to change Afghan culture. How do I know all this? Because i've been there, twice, two Combat tours in southern Afghanistan, 14 months total. Have you been there? I'm guessing no.