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Faith in military unshaken

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Faith in military unshaken
Brian and Virginia Hicks say their dedication to the Canadian Forces became stronger following the death of their soldier daughter, writes Patrick Dare.
Patrick Dare
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, September 04, 2006

CREDIT: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen
Master Warrant Officer Brian Hicks and his wife, Sgt. Virginia Hicks, lost their daughter, Mariebeth Short, in September 2002 in an accident involving an armoured vehicle at CFB Petawawa. Since the tragedy, the military couple says their faith in the Canadian Forces has never been stronger.

Brian and Virginia Hicks almost stumbled into the Canadian Forces, but their careers today appear to reflect a family's poignant military destiny.

Brian Hicks was struggling in Grade 12 when he joined up in Kentville, N.S., at age 18, following in the footsteps of his father, who served for 23 years in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps.

"When I first joined the military, I didn't do it because my dad had been there or because there was a military history in my family," says Brian. "Basically the attraction was a full-time salary and a full-time job, learning something that is marketable in Civvy Street when you do get out."

On his route home as a young man, he had to go past the employment office, which is where the Forces recruiting people used to station themselves when they were in town.

"I went in and said, OK, here I am. It was that quick. I just came home one day, I told my parents I'd quit school and joined the military. It was a bit of a shock."

By February of 1981, he was in Cornwallis, doing basic training, "marching left-right-left-right."

He is now a master warrant officer doing technical management for projects such as the installation of diesel generators.

Virginia Hicks was coping with the breakup of her first marriage when she joined up in 1989 in Regina, following in the steps of her father, who served as a firefighter in the air force for 37 years. Her grandfather also served in the Forces.

Virginia had seen her former husband do well in the military. She had four children, needed income and started out as a private, making $12,000 a year. Today she is in supply management, holding the rank of sergeant.

Brian and Virginia met in 1991 and married in 1993. Their military careers have included stints on bases from Moose Jaw, Sask., to Greenwood, N.S.

They did stints in the Golan Heights and the Gulf War. Brian also served in the former Yugoslavia.

Virginia's eldest son, David, also joined up, doing a three-year stint with the artillery before deciding a lifetime in the military wasn't for him.

But her daughter, Mariebeth Short, shared the couple's enthusiasm for military life. She decided to join in high school and signed up a year after graduating. She turned 20 during basic training.

"She came home one day and said, 'I'm joining the Armed Forces.' She loved every minute of it," says Virginia. "It was something she lived and breathed for."

Mariebeth initially wanted to join the navy, but wasn't strong enough in math. She joined the army field engineers instead, though her parents warned her it was way too rough and she was too small for a job that involves building bridges, among other things.

"She was four (feet), 11 (inches), 98 pounds," says Virginia.

But Brian says Mariebeth found a niche with the 2 Combat Engineer Regiment as she was able to do physical work in tight spaces, which was a challenge for some of the big guys in the regiment.

She was serving in Petawawa with the field engineers, training to ship out to Afghanistan as an army sapper.

In September 2002, Brian and Virginia had been at a new posting in Halifax for just three weeks when they got word that there had been an accident involving Mariebeth. A LAV III armoured vehicle had rolled over and Mariebeth had been killed. She was 22.

She was buried in a cemetery at Trenton with full military honours on Sept. 27.

Her death tested their marriage and their commitment to the Forces, as they wondered whether all safety precautions had been taken.

"Extremely tough. I can't think of anything that ever happened in my life that was tougher," says Brian of the days and months following the accident.

"There's a lot of times when we weren't communicating very well. We were going in two different directions," he says. "It was a very, very traumatic period in our lives."

Brian says there was a mechanical fault in the vehicle that should have been fixed. He and Virginia are suing the vehicle's manufacturer.

When they returned to Halifax, they felt alone. They considered leaving the service.

"We had to really assess what was going on and our commitment to the Canadian Armed Forces. At the time we were very bitter," says Brian.

"We were quite pissed off with the military at the time. That was just emotion, dealing with the loss," he says.

"We had a choice to make. Stay in the military, or get out. Sit in the corner sucking your thumb for the rest of your life. Or get up and move on with your life. That's what we chose to do."

To some extent, it's the support of the wider Canadian Forces family that tipped the scale toward staying.

The funeral for Mariebeth was a huge show of solidarity, with busloads of soldiers descending on Trenton. The church, which holds 750, was overflowing with people.

"As far as you could see up the street, there were uniforms. It was a sea of green," says Virginia. Mariebeth's whole regiment showed up and did a slow march from the funeral home to the church.

After the accident, the military, on different levels, showed that it cared.

Their superiors worked hard to get Brian and Virginia back to the Trenton area, where they have a lot of family and friends.

Every year, Brian and Virginia drive up to CFB Petawawa to the site of the crash, on the anniversary of Mariebeth's death, and they are warmly received by her regimental colleagues.

This military couple also realized that they were born and bred in the Forces and they've become accustomed to the life, with its nomadic lifestyle.

Brian has made 15 moves in his lifetime, including stints in Germany, New Brunswick, Alberta, Vancouver Island and Nova Scotia. Virginia has made 16 moves, including to Labrador, Alberta, Germany, France, Nova Scotia and Quebec.

They find the idea of planting themselves in a small town forever slightly scary. In fact, after spending three years in one place, they start to ruminate about where the next stop will be.

As well, they appreciate the improved treatment of the Canadian Forces and their families by the federal government. When Virginia joined, her salary put her below the poverty line. Today, Virginia and Brian say that the military's salaries, benefits, pensions, family support programs, training and improved equipment all represent a turnaround in Canada's treatment of its soldiers. And the military tries to find jobs for married couples in the same communities in hopes of keeping them together.

About a year after Mariebeth died, Virginia was approached by her boss to ask whether she would go to Afghanistan to work on improving the supply of materials.

Virginia agreed without calling her husband. Their daughter, Valarie, wasn't happy with her mother's looming Kabul expedition, but Virginia was determined to go to Afghanistan and support the work of Canadian soldiers, including her daughter's regiment.

Adding further pressure to the situation was the fact that their daughter's father-in-law, Sgt. Rob Short, was killed in Afghanistan while on patrol in the hills near Kabul, two days after Virginia was asked to go to Afghanistan.

"Everything we had gone through with Mariebeth, we were living it again," says Brian.

"You're thinking, 'Is this where I really want to go

now? ' " says Virginia. "It was hard. You know you're going someplace where you know your daughter was going to be and where her father-in-law was killed." The next week she was packing her bags and was gone to Camp Julien. The assignment lasted eight weeks.

More recently, Virginia's Afghanistan assignment was followed by a tour by Brian that lasted six months, providing logistical support to the Afghanistan operations from Camp Mirage, Canada's staging base in the United Arab Emirates. One of his duties this spring was to arrange the base ceremony to honour Canadian soldiers Lieut. William Turner, Cpl. Matthew Dinning, Bombardier Myles Mansell and Cpl. Randy Payne, who were killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan.

Virginia and Brian say their service in support roles isn't nearly as dangerous or stressful as the duties of combat soldiers who are on patrol in Afghanistan and serve for many months. But they are proud that they have played a part and more convinced than ever of the mission's merit. In the garden in front of their Trenton home there's a sign that says, "We support our troops."

Brian is especially vocal in his concern about terrorism as the threat to the next generation of Canadians, and the rightness of Canada's mission fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I firmly believe that, in this day and age, nobody's safe. That kind of stuff (9/11) can happen anywhere, at anytime. We are fighting evil and, as members of the Canadian Forces, that's our job.

"You're saddened by the losses, but we can't pull out of Afghanistan, we shouldn't pull out of Afghanistan. Our job there is not completed," says Brian.

"What would the people of Europe have had happen to them if we had not gotten involved in World War Two? Where would Europe be?

"We're doing the same thing now. Just people aren't looking at it that way.

"Nobody likes to use the word 'war' anymore. We're at war.

"We don't turn tail just because we lost some lives. We do that ... all those lives are lost for nothing. What have we gained? Those people have died for absolutely nothing."

The master warrant officer stresses that these are personal views and says he sometimes has to bite his tongue. He says he's happy to live in a democracy in which people can express opposition to military missions.

But there's a steely determination in Brian, which helps explain why Canadian artist Gertrude Kearns selected him to be one of the subjects of portraits she was painting while on a tour of Afghanistan commissioned by the Forces.

"The dedication that we have toward the Canadian Forces now, I think, is even stronger than it was before Mariebeth died," says Brian.

"The bigger picture is a lot more important to me. I'm not just looking at what I'm doing today. I'm looking at what I'm doing over the next months and why am I doing this? I have a better understanding of the bigger picture."

"If I was asked to go back to Task Force Afghanistan tomorrow, I'd have to stop myself from saying, 'yeah, I'll go back.' I could be talked into going back tomorrow."

The house in which Virginia and Brian live today is just a few minutes by foot from the cemetery where Mariebeth is buried and where an oak tree, planted by Mariebeth's grandparents, is growing. Brian and Virginia visit her grave and remember the day of the funeral in the fall of 2002.

It was pouring rain. Virginia remembers the church was so packed with people, but so silent you could hear a pin drop, and there was an impressive guard of honour along the road in the cemetery, with a soldier every few metres.

Brian remembers the buses lined up on one side of the graveyard. The vehicles emptied into the cemetery as Brian and Virginia stood at the gravesite.

"It was eight buses of people all walking across this field. It was incredibly powerful to see that huge a number just walking across the field toward us to support us. It was just incredible," says Brian. "This area was just full of people.

"I couldn't have been more proud of wearing a uniform than I was that day," he says.

Virginia says: "We always know that we're part of that family."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006


Army.ca Legend
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I couldn't be more proud of wearing a uniform..................thanks for the oportunity to stand amongst people like them.



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Fallen Comrade
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              i fully concur....


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I served with Spr Short and she was good to go!!!!!!!!!