Commuter Terror!

First published 06 October 2005.

Or, “Routine military training interrupted by urbanite nervous nellies.” is reporting that citizens were alarmed at the sight of a soldier in full gear (including rifle), near an on-ramp of the Gardiner Expressway:

    Commuters driving along the Gardiner Expressway at the end of the Wednesday morning rush hour were met with a nerve-wracking sight – a soldier armed with an assault rifle.

After a wave of cell phone calls, Toronto Police cruisers were dispatched to the scene at the Jameson Ave. footbridge just before 10am.

There they found a soldier carrying his full gear, including a non-functioning dummy rifle. The man had apparently been waiting for a ride when he got fed up and decided to walk back to his unit.

He won’t be charged. The soldier is due to be sent to Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

“Commuter Cringe”,
05 October 2005

As usual for the media, they screw this one up.  The soldier will be deployed to Golan, not Afghanistan, and he was marching — meaning he intended to walk downtown — defintiely not waiting for a ride.  Of course he will not be charged, he was conducting routine training.  He describes his own situation at the forum.

The presence of a dummy rifle indicates BFT (battle fitness testing).  This is essentially a test of physical fitness as it relates to soldiering tasks (long distance marches/runs, trench digging, lugging heavy ammo boxes).  This may come as a shock to anyone who’s spent their whole career in civilian life, but rifles are as much as part of a soldier’s proper gear as phones, computers and staplers are for desk-flying paper-pushers.  And just because a unit is based in a major city does not mean that they will never display the tools of the warrior trade.  Whenever BFT is conducted in urban areas, the authorities are notified by the unit’s operations and public affairs staff.  Usually multiple times, because the police are busy and tend to forget things like military exercises.  Anyone want to bet that’s what occurred here?

One of the big disadvantages of living in a large urban area is that the citizenry are totally ignorant of all affairs military, and automatically assume that an armed soldier in their midst is going unleash mass havoc and death.  The guy was on a footbridge over the Gardiner, marching to his unit’s home (Fort York Armory).  This is not exactly a rare sight.  For instance, every Reserve unit has a regular, weekly parade night.  Since parking at most Toronto armouries is pretty limited, a lot of guys take the TTC.  On any given night it is not unusual to see many, many guys on the subway in uniform, with full gear, heading to an armoury.  They don’t usually have rifles, but then they wouldn’t be taking the subway for BFT, anyway.  Occasionally you may see them conducting other exercises, with dummy rifles, in wooded areas like the Don Valley or High Park.  Depends on the training needs and the relative availability of terrain in the city.

Now the police by all accounts handled themselves properly, as did the soldier in the story.  The civilians are another matter, though.  They don’t know how to distinguish between an armed soldier under good discipline and a random dangerous idiot wearing camo and carrying a rifle.  Unit badges, rank insignia, weapon type, camo type, type of web gear, the manner in which it is all worn mean nothing to the average Joe or Jane, and provide no contextual clues to them.  In civilian eyes, any kind of battle dress equals danger.  To soldiers, all of those things provide context, and someone who has a mishmash of gear, no identification, and is not conducting him or herself safely using recognisable tactical doctrine might just be a danger.  Somebody who is properly kitted out, wearing unit and personal identification, using recognisable, situationally-appropriate small-unit tactics and doctrine, is probably not a danger.  There is a difference; it’s not hard to figure out, even in an urban setting.

The reason so many civilians are lily-livered about the prospect of soldiers is because of this gross ignorance.  Your average citizen lacks the basic capability to distinguish between friend or foe in a military context.  And at a subconscious level they probably don’t realise or believe soldiers are ordinary human beings.  No one they know is a soldier.  No one respectable would be a gun-carrying soldier.  This is the city!  Why would you want to haul around guns in an urban setting?  It’s so far outside the realm of normal civilian experience that they instinctively think of the worst media portrayals, and not the quiet determination and dignity with which most soldiers, sailors and airmen serve their entire, incident-free careers.

Whenever I see a soldier on the street or subway (armed or otherwise), I try to stop and chat with them.  I’ll look at their beret badge and epaulets to see which unit they are from, and if my memory is working well, I will try to greet them with their unit motto and their rank, like “In pace paratus, Master Corporal.  How’s life in the QOR?”  Then I’ll ask them about how long they’ve been with the unit, whether we have any friends in common at their armoury, what sort of training they are currently conducting, and so on.  Basically treat them like somebody I know and respect, not a potential threat that needs to be dealt with via the police.

Yes I know, soldiers with guns are frightening in the city.  But try to remember that those guns have discriminating brains behind them, they know when (and when not) to pull the trigger.  These people volunteered to serve, for honourable purposes, and they are not Hollywood’s vision of psychotic, unremorseful killing machines.  The next time you see a soldier, sailor or airman, try growing some balls and treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve.  They’re out there to protect you.

Hat tip to my wife, who spotted the story.

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