November brings Remembrance Day — a good time for an inside look at how Canadian Forces members are nominated and selected for honours and awards ranging from commendations to decorations for valour and meritorious service.
When a soldier, sailor, airman, airwoman or civilian is nominated for an honour or award either while deployed on an international operation or while working at CEFCOM Headquarters in support of international operations, the Honours and Awards Section at Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) Headquarters is responsible for shepherding the file through a complex process.
Since its stand-up in 2006, CEFCOM Headquarters has processed more than 2,000 awards to individuals who represent the finest the Canadian Forces and Canada have to offer. A great deal of time and skill is invested in the effort to ensure that recipients of honours and awards are given the recognition they deserve in a timely fashion.
The work of the Honours and Awards staff is not limited to gathering signatures and tracking down missing documents. They provide historical context and statistical analysis, they champion the nominee, and they argue for the highest possible level of recognition. For new missions, they also help identify the appropriate campaign medal. Ultimately, the section’s task is to help decision-makers make informed choices.
Members of the Honours and Awards Section even go overseas on technical assistance visits to help the headquarters staff of deployed task forces process nominations. In July 2011, production manager Sergeant Norm May spent 30 days at the headquarters of Joint Task Force Afghanistan at the end of Rotation 10 of Operation ATHENA — the last combat rotation — at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
“I sent Sergeant May to Afghanistan to help with the honours and awards process any way he could,” said section head Major Rick Champagne. “The J1 (Personnel) staff over there had a pretty good idea of our process but it’s always good to send someone who can answer questions immediately and provide extra processing power.”
Whether the award is for valour in the face of the enemy or outstanding performance throughout an entire tour, the process begins with someone, somewhere, who witnessed something extraordinary.
On 2 June 2008, soldiers of the Canadian Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) deployed on Rotation 5 of Operation ATHENA were conducting an operation in Zhari District with the Afghan National Army unit to which they were assigned. When one member of the team accidentally triggered an improvised explosive device, insurgents lying in wait nearby ambushed them with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns.
Thanks to their skill, experience and sheer courage, every member of that OMLT group and the Afghan unit survived — even the soldier who tripped the IED, who applied a tourniquet to his own leg while a medical technician ran to his side through a hail of bullets. The OMLT members and their Afghan comrades fought off the insurgents, cared for their wounded, and ensured the site harboured no more IEDs.
After this event, several “someones” took action to ensure that meritorious acts received appropriate recognition. The chain of command received 11 nominations that eventually led to two awards of the Medal of Military Valour, one award of the Meritorious Service Cross, two awards of the Meritorious Service Medal, three Mentions in Dispatches, one Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation, and two Commander CEFCOM Commendations.
When the Commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan approved all 11 nominations, his staff forwarded them from Kandahar Airfield to CEFCOM Headquarters for review by the Honours and Awards Committee. This internal CEFCOM committee is chaired by the CEFCOM Deputy Commander and made up of senior leaders representing all three environmental commands and a wide variety of military occupations.
After detailed evaluation and discussion of each file, the committee members agreed that all 11 nominations justified an award. Then they voted on the level of award for each nomination, thus launching the process known in the Honours and Awards Section as “production.”
For the Commander CEFCOM Commendations, the entire process took place within the headquarters. A citation was written for each award, using the information provided in the original nomination. The award certificates — called “scrolls” although they are framed, not rolled — were printed, and the insignia were obtained. By December 2008, all the staff work was done: the Commander CEFCOM approved and signed the scrolls, the recipients were notified and arrangements were made for a formal presentation in early 2009.
The Commander insists on personally presenting his commendations whenever possible. On occasions when duty takes him elsewhere, a senior officer in the recipient’s chain of command makes the presentation. Field engineers Private Robert A. Driver and Master Corporal Edward T. Vandenberghe each received the Commendation of Lieutenant-General Marc Lessard, Commander of CEFCOM, in recognition of their actions on 2 June 2008.
All the other awards arising from the action of 2 June 2008 would be presented by higher authorities in the Canadian Forces chain of command. Consequently, those nominations were forwarded to the Directorate of Honours and Recognition (DH&R) at National Defence Headquarters.
DH&R sent the single nomination for the Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation and the three nominations for Mentions in Dispatches directly to the office of General Walt Natynczyk, who assumed the duties of CDS from Gen Rick Hillier in July 2008. The nominations for the Medal of Military Valour, the Meritorious Service Cross and the Meritorious Service Medal went to the Canadian Forces Decorations Advisory Committee for another, even more detailed, round of evaluation and discussion.
When all the nominations were reviewed and approved, arrangements were made for final approval and presentation.
For the CDS Commendation and the Mentions in Dispatches, Gen Natynczyk was the final authority. Like the Commander CEFCOM, the CDS makes his presentations in person whenever possible, delegating this responsibility only when duty calls him away.
On 6 January 2010, Gen Natynczyk presented framed copies of their Mention in Dispatches citations to Warrant Officer Jason Pickard and Sergeant Steven Corcoran of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and medical technician Private Jason Toole. The CDS Commendation went to Pte Jonathan Miller-Jury of The Royal Regina Rifles, an Army Reserve unit in Saskatchewan.
Because the Medal of Military Valour, the Meritorious Service Cross and the Meritorious Service Medal are national-level awards, those nominations were referred to the Governor General, at that time Madame Michaëlle Jean, for her approval. The formal presentation of decorations, called an “investiture,” is normally done twice a year, in the spring and fall, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
At the investiture held on 13 November 2009, Her Excellency presented the Medal of Military Valour to medical technicians Sgt Martin Côté and Master Corporal Brent Gallant; the Meritorious Service Cross to Master Warrant Officer Rod Dearing of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; and the Meritorious Service Medal to Cpl Jacob Petten and Cpl John Prior, also of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Beginning in 2006 with the award of the first ever Star of Military Valour to Sgt Patrick Tower, the combat mission in Afghanistan produced more nominations for valour decorations and other high-profile military awards than Canada had seen since the Korean War. Operation ATHENA is ending, but CF members continue to tackle tough, dangerous jobs — sometimes in the presence of the enemy — with courage, determination and flair. Consequently, the work of the Honours and Awards Section also goes on, with new nominations from task forces deployed on missions around the globe.
From the individual on the ground who writes the original nomination and the task force commander who approves and sends that nomination to CEFCOM Headquarters, to the review committees at CEFCOM and NDHQ and the production staff at the Department of National Defence and Rideau Hall, each award — whether a decoration, a Mention in Dispatches or a commendation — is the product of much labour and thought. The Honours and Awards Section estimates that it takes about 18 working hours to get just one nomination through CEFCOM Headquarters alone.
The honours and awards process is complicated and occasionally cumbersome, but the members of the Honours and Awards Section are on the job to keep it on track and get results. A medal or a commendation is small recompense for some of the actions Canadian Forces members must take to achieve their mission, so they do their best to ensure that these forms of recognition are given sincerely, and as quickly as possible.