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12570 Mike Kennedy – Book Review – As You Were

Book Review – As You Were – By Gerry Fostaty – Published in 2011 by Goose Lane Press

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

In the summer of 1974, Gerry Fostaty was an 18 year-old Army Cadet Sergeant from the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire. Posted to Valcartier for the summer, his job involved helping oversee a platoon of teenagers who had been sent by various Cadet Corps across the country to attend a leadership course. Fostaty’s teenage charges were only a few years younger than he himself was, and when he arrived in Valcartier that year, little could he have imagined that several of them would not live to see the end of their training. In As You Were, Fostaty provides a first-hand account of an obscure incident that attracted little attention at the time, but nonetheless was one of the most tragic events that would scar the Canadian Forces during that era.

One afternoon in late July, Fostaty found himself sequestered in the platoon office, typing out a report on an errant cadet who was due to be sent him as a result of his misbehaviour. Shortly after lunch, he heard a loud noise emanating from a nearby building, where the cadets of his platoon had been attending a lecture on the proper handling of grenades. Rushing out to investigate, he came upon a gruesome sight. Somehow – to this day no one knows exactly why – a live grenade had gotten mixed up among the dummy examples that were to used in the demonstration. Thinking it was harmless, some unfortunate soul had pulled the pin, with predictable results. By the time Fostaty and his superiors arrived on the scene, six cadets lay dead and many more were wounded.

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Fostaty and his colleagues tried to contain the situation as best they could, and by nightfall, things seemed to be under control. What they didn’t realize, however, is that in many ways their ordeal was just beginning. Once the smoke had cleared and the dead and wounded had been attended to, nothing further was done to provide support to the survivors. Even though the cadets on the course were teenage boys who in many cases were not even old enough to shave, they were nevertheless given a subtle but very clear message to suck it up and get on with business as usual, as though nothing had happened.

Shortly thereafter, as the DND bureaucracy shifted into butt-covering overdrive, things started to get even worse for Fostaty and his comrades. Convinced that the incident had to be the result of some form of malfeasance, the higher-ups began desperately searching for a pair of shoulders upon which to lay the blame. Fostaty recounts how he and a number his fellow cadet NCO’s were marched one-by-one before a hastily convened board of inquiry that subjected them to a grilling that would be worthy of the Spanish Inquisition. Incredibly, no one was ever eventually charged under the NDA, and to this day, no one has ever been able to conclusively explain how the incident happened. But once the summer was over, the matter was quietly hushed up, and the surviving cadets were returned home, in a great many cases traumatized for life by what they had experienced.

The one hero that must undoubtedly emerge from this tragic saga is Sergeant Charles Gutta, a Regular Force NCO who served as the boys’ overall supervisor on the course. Revered by his cadets as a highly competent and inspiring leader, after the incident Gutta calmly and firmly took control of the situation, providing a much-needed anchor of stability for his charges. His exceptional courage and professionalism made a lasting impression upon Fostaty, as well as many of the other cadets who were involved. Years later, Gutta re-emerged yet again, this time leading a tireless fight to help the survivors obtain the medical and psychological care many of them desperately needed.

Had the events described in As You Were happened today, they would have caused a national scandal that would have ignited a veritable firestorm of media attention. In the much more cloistered world of 1974, however, that wasn’t the case, and the tragedy barely attracted a mention in the mainstream news media. One possible explanation might be the fact that the tragedy in Valcartier was sandwiched between other events that very likely overshadowed it. Ten days earlier, Greece had invaded Cyprus, and at the time of the explosion, troops of the Canadian Airborne Regiment were struggling mightily to contain the situation. Ten days later, on August 9 of that year, Canadian military transport Buffalo 461 was shot down by Syrian missiles, resulting in the deaths of all nine CF members who were aboard.

In any case, we may now give thanks that the ordeal Fostaty describes in As You Were has at last been acknowledged. A recently released report from the DND Ombudsman recommends that the survivors of the incident be assessed for their physical and psychological injuries, and receive appropriate compensation. It’s small consolation for the decades that many of them have spent suffering in silence, but nevertheless an important victory for justice.

As You Were is one of those rare books that manages to be disturbing and compelling, both at the same time. It’s a book that will be appreciated by anyone who served during the difficult and often directionless years of the mid-1970’s, and one that should be required reading for anyone who aspires to become a future leader of Canadian soldiers.