Back to Focus

Canadian forces among us

Foreign Servicemembers stationed here love people, culture, military pride

Canadians on Joint Base Lewis-McChord live here full time and are a big part of the community. /Courtesy photo

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

The next time you see troops in dark green and black "digicam woodland" uniforms with Canadian flags on their sleeves, say hello. There's a good chance he or she may be your next-door neighbor, your co-worker or your newest friend - in addition to being a Canadian Servicemember on temporary duty assignment (TDY).

In fact, Canadian Forces has been stationed at bases throughout the U.S. for the past 50 years.

Part of that effort involves the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS), which is headquartered at McChord Field and is the larger of two sectors in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Continental NORAD region. It's responsible for "peacetime air sovereignty and strategic air defense in the continental United States."

"There are some 300 Servicemembers scattered within the NORAD," said Lt. Col. Mark Roberts, the WADS commanding officer at McChord.  "There's close to 750 total Canadian Forces working in the U.S. There are 15 in the WADS sector and 19 members at (Joint Base Lewis-McChord). We live here full time and are very much a part of the community."

NORAD is a bi-national United States and Canadian organization whose mission is guarding aerospace control for North America from the Mississippi River west to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Canadian border south to the Mexican border.

WADS reports to Air Combat Command (ACC) and NORAD, and works closely with the U.S. Armed Forces, and with federal agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Secret Service.

The average permanent change of station (PCS), or "posting" as Canadians call it, lasts for three years. Roberts, his wife Erin, and their daughters, Amy (4), Sarah (7), and Gillian (8), have been stationed here since July.

"The best thing about JBLM is the friendliness of the people," said Erin. "We had a sense of community from day one and folks here were so welcoming; it was incredible how welcomed they made us feel. The first day we moved in our house (off-base), the neighbor brought her kids over and introduced them. They were around the same ages and by the time the school year began, the girls already had friends at school. We couldn't have asked for a better reception and a better post."

Roberts, a 26-year veteran, was formerly stationed at Canada's equivalent of the Pentagon, but is still impressed with the manpower, equipment and pride of U.S. Servicemembers.  

"Military bases in the U.S. and Canada are similar because we stem from similar cultures," he said. "We watch the same TV shows, eat the same foods and have similar social inclinations. However, I'm most impressed by active duty and how well versed they are and how much they know and do - these guardsmen know their jobs inside out. We've been totally accepted by leadership and at the rank and file level as well."

The biggest challenge with assimilation was getting administrative tasks organized, "such as auto insurance, setting up finances with banks, credit cards and establishing credit," said Erin. "I didn't even know what Comcast was."

As with other military spouses, Erin is having difficulty finding employment at her new post. She formerly worked for the Canadian National Defense as a civilian employee for three years.

"Still, I love the U.S. school system," she said. "It challenges the kids and the grading system here helps us better track precisely where our kids are in school and how well they're performing."

The biggest benefit of this post, she said: "The shopping of course. I love Target and TJ Maxx."

Fellow Canadian Military spouse Amanda Graham agrees.

"The cost of living is better," she said. "And the Canadian military doesn't have BX and commissaries on the scale of JBLM nor are there military discounts in Canadian communities. Your dollars go further and the shopping is awesome."

Her spouse of eight years, C-17 pilot Capt. Bryce Graham, and their daughters Abby (4) and Makayla (6) have been at JBLM for almost three years.

"I have a lot of respect for the U.S. military and especially for (JBLM) Servicemembers," Capt. Graham said. "Their dedication, pride, and the operational tempo and the multiple deployments they conduct are amazing. Still, (Servicemembers) manage to have a great sense of family. I appreciate that so much and hope to take that back to Canada. The units here are truly one, and they're family."

Amanda, who works part-time from home as the community coordinator for Canadian Forces stationed at JBLM, is also a ‘key spouse' with the squadron. She loves the family connections as well.

"When we arrived, the commander came over with cookies," she said. "That gesture was so significant. I want to foster that same kind of culture, that same kind of support and environment we've found here - I want to bring that back home. I'll miss it here and we're so sad to go."

The high school best friends were born and raised in Ladysmith, British Columbia, and love this post because it's so close to family in Vancouver. They leave for Canada in August.

The things these Canadian families miss most from home: Tim Horton's coffee (a simple "double-double" with sugar and cream), ketchup chips and Nanaimo Bars.

"(Nanaimo Bars) serve a very chocolaty, crumbly, dessert bar with cream filling and layers of chocolate," said Cathy Bertrand, a 26-year veteran and Canadian Warrant Officer stationed at JBLM.

Like many U.S. Servicemembers, Bertrand is a product of a military family and grew up on Radar Stations in Canada, "some 500 people on a base in the middle of nowhere," she said. Both parents served in the 1960s. In fact, she was born in Maine, has dual citizenship and doesn't claim a hometown because the family moved so frequently.

"The biggest difference in our military units is structural," she said. "In Canada, we're all Canadian Forces, but the U.S. has Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard and Marines. We love hockey and the U.S. loves football. Still, I don't miss shoveling snow off the driveway and love the climate and tourist attractions here - Pike Place, Disneyland, Coney Island. The shopping is amazing, too. I've never seen so many Mexican foods and more nail (salons) next to Teriyaki restaurants in my life. But I love the culture here and without the tremendous support I received as a single parent (with two kids 17 and 14), it would have been an extremely difficult posting."

These Servicemember-ambassadors said they want to be known for more than what Americans see with the (Canadian character) in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, for more than a simple "Aye" answer to everything, for more than their nation's symbolic Beaver, and for more than "the million Canadian jokes the moving guy told me with every piece of furniture he unloaded off the truck," said Amanda, giggling.   

Cpt. Graham summed up the U.S.-Canadian relationship best.

"The U.S. always has a friend and close ally in Canada," he said. "We have a special bond and it's a lot stronger than other nations, and it's not just because we're neighbors. I know we'll continue to build on that - from military to civilian communities ... we're more alike than not."

comments powered by Disqus