10970 Karmin McKay: What it’s like on your first posting

Editor’s Note: This article is the thirdin a series. Future articles will include: optimizing secondary duties, your first posting, Generals and RSMs are people too, What is TDV, you are your own career manager, and several more. Common themes intertwine between them all.

Article by 10970 Karmin McKay

Although I was in the Army, many of the comments apply to all cadets in all the services, graduates or not. In order to get posted to an operational unit, you first have to pass your final phases of training. Several did not pass phase 4 in their first choice of occupation. And phase training keeps occurring under different names such as Squadron Commander Course. Poor performance can result in reclassification or retirement much later in life. If you compare the occupation my classmates state in the yearbook to where they finally ended up, many are different. Doctor’s, lawyers and padres were not educated at RMC.  Many changed classifications. Some retired and then signed up again. I tried to reclassify and was not allowed.

After passing phase four, I was posted to The Royal Canadian Dragoons, the tank regiment in 4CMBG in Germany. I arrived to find 3 officers from the class of 73. I knew them, they did not know me. I was the only one from my class to go to Germany right after grad. Later in 1977, one ex-cadet from the class of 74 and 75 arrived and then one after grad from the class of 77. I did not serve with any of my classmates until my year long French course in 1981/82 and some were in NDHQ in the early 90’s but I never saw them. On the other hand, some of my best RMC buds graduated after I did as well as before.  One became my best man (his older brother was in my rook flight), one became a room mate in a house I owned and later sold to him (I was later his best man in Wales when I was posted to the UK) and one had a second home for me in Ottawa for partying and windsurfing. I have as many friends from other RMC classes as my own class.

I arrived in Germany with two others from phase 4. The assistant adjutant (who later became my CO) met us and delivered us to the officer single quarters. That night, he took us to a club that was later to cost one of our Minister’s of Defence his job. The next day, I was eating a pizza and drinking a beer (cost of $4 total) in the sun listening to ABBA sing Dancing Queen for the first time in my life. I thought that this must be heaven. A few days later I was moving in very dense fog in my tank at dawn in Bavaria. I looked down to see a woman cutting grass with a small scythe in the ditch to feed to her cows. She must have been born in the 1890s and lived through WW1 and WW2. She had nothing but hatred in her eyes for me. Young, blonde army guy in a tank. I was reminding her of a hell that she had lived through. We all looked the same to her no matter the year or nationality. Her eyes still haunt me.

I went to Germany expecting that I would die fighting in WW3. I was happy to be there. We used to practice occupying our real battle positions. I used to take vacation to drive in the same areas to review the ground on my own time not as dictated by the exercise. I became fascinated with tank gunnery and EW during this tour. Both were to become major segues in my career as I continued my experience and education in both fields.  My salary doubled by being in Germany with danger pay etc. 24 cans of Heineken cost $4 as did a 40 oz bottle of Irish Cream. We had ration cards for cheap gasoline and alcohol and access to the American and French versions of Canex for cheap Texas beef and French wine. They shopped at Canex for cheap Canadian butter. We had so much money and were on exercise or training so much that we did not have time to spend it all. I wish I had that problem today. It was common to work 6.5 days per week. We would be able to sleep in Sunday mornings.  I was buying a used Ferrari convertible for $4000 and made the mistake of telling my Squadron Commander. He ordered me not to buy it. Its hard to hide a fire engine red Ferrari so I obeyed this order. Within a year, I had a BMW and a Mercedes. Add in some great cheap food and wine, yes we lived well then.

I spent my first two years in Germany as a tank troop leader and my last as an LO in 4CMBG HQ. Instead of a horse in the movies, I was flown in a helicopter or rode in a jeep to deliver items on behalf of the Brigade Commander.  I was a tank troop leader on the team that won the NATO tank gunnery championship in May 1977. Suddenly, as my tank had been selected for a photo shoot for the monthly CAF magazine Sentinel, I became a poster child in those framed tank photos of Leopard tanks and was on the cover of Sentinel. I also spent a short time as a recce troop leader and was the enemy force for a joint Canadian USA attack helicopter exercise. My time at RMC prepared me for the exercise. The after  exercise party included a contest where cans of beer are drunk and the empty cans are used to safely build a bazooka that fires a tennis ball using lighter fluid as a propellent. I had made many of these at RMC. Our team was the first to fire the tennis ball, hit the basketball backboard and win.

My tank was parked in a potato field during an exercise the next year. The only part of the tank over the hill we sat on was my head. In the event the bad guys appeared my tank would advance a short distance in order to shoot at them and therefore stop their advance into the valley below. I was cooking fried potatoes and bacon on the back of the tank when I saw an American A10 Warthog tank killer jet enter the valley below us. I alerted the crew and continued to make breakfast. I then saw that the pilot had seen us and told my gunner to get into the tank an to get ready to fire at the jet. We had a Hoffman device on the gun barrel. It would simulation gunfire by making a small noise while shooting a white smoke ball into the air. My orders to the gunner were to fire at the jet when he could see the whites of the pilots eyes. Sure enough the pilot popped over the hill about 100 yards directly in front of us and about 50 yards higher than the hill. I could see into the barrels of its 30 mm cannon. My gunner fired and surprise, surprise, surprise he fired the main gun round. A large fire ball meters across flew out of the gun barrel, throwing many potatoes, rocks and dirt directly at the jet. I did not know that an A-10 could turn 90 degrees and climb vertically in about half a second. He never came back.  We were the only country that had a blank round for the 105 mm tank gun. It is not the only time I fired a blank round towards US enemy forces on exercise and they thought we were firing live rounds.

On exercise, we could drive and park our tank just about anywhere for a valid operational reason. My tank had ripped up a farmer’s field and I happened to meet the farmer. I apologized to him and his answer was no problem. Russian tank tracks are bigger. We were less than 20 km from the Warsaw Pact border.

4 CMBGs mission was to act as the final reserve for the Central Army Group (half of Germany). We had to support 2 different Army Corps, one German and one American. That meant that we had to write SOP’s for both Corps as well as exercise with both of them.  We exercised with the Americans in the fall of 1978 and then the Germans in the winter of 1979. We were in the field for most of the time from September to February. Late one very dark and snowy night in January 79,  I was given a map to deliver to the German Brigade to the East. There was an American brigade on the West side of our brigade. An hour later, I told my driver to stop and I proceeded to walk cross country through a jungle of pine trees. As I pushed my way through the trees I heard two Texans talking. Holy crap I got lost and ended up in the USA brigade. I was in deep doo doo, would be very late delivering the map and totally lost. The Texans were two German Air Defence officers that had learned English at the US Army Air Defence School in Fort Bliss Texas. They were out in the woods smoking at midnight practicing their English skills.

Highlights not mentioned already include: becoming the Lahr airfield game warden for two years, being only one of two to not get caught in a 3 day escape and evasion exercise (he was my escapee partner),  falling out of the sky from 3000 feet in a Kiowa helicopter that lost its engine and flying a CF 104 jet fighter. I flew the fighter but did not land or take off as the pilot. I also commanded an Honour Guard for Princess Anne. We played pick up football every Sunday morning when in garrison. Our players included the COS of CFE.  Three of us decided to drive to St. Tropez on the French Riviera for a long weekend. I woke up the next morning to pick an orange off a tree beside my window. Try that in Petawawa in April. We had a strange large bowl in the middle of the living room. We filled it full off ice and beer. None of us had ever heard of a bidet before let alone what one looked like.  I also had the misfortune to be involved with 2 more accidental deaths, was involved in a fight in front of the Regimental Sr NCO’s (more on this later) and survived at least 5 more Near Life Ending Incidents (NLEI). The term NLEI will occur too many times in this series of articles. If you have read the first two articles in the series, you may start to recognize some common themes in each of all three articles.

I had the privilege to serve with some of the finest men both officers and soldiers that I have ever met on this tour. Many of my peers and superiors went on to become great leaders at senior ranks. I worked with and for many of them as a Lt when they were Majors to Generals. I then later worked with many of them again when they were Generals of a higher rank. Both BGen’s that I worked with as the LO in 4 CMBG were 3 stars when I worked for them as a Captain. One major I hunted with became our CDS. Another major (R22R infantry) asked me to be his aide when he was to command our forces in Bosnia. My first driver became the Armour Corps RSM as did others. That is just the tip of the iceberg for who I later worked for and with again in the next 13 years. As a captain and a major I later worked with and for at least 75% of the officers that I served with from 1976 to 1979. They knew me and I knew them, the good, the bad and the ugly. My first CO became a mentor for me to the extent that after I retired, he helped me with my first job as a consultant for the company that employed me. When a second Canadian general’s input was required, we had my first brigade commander join us in Atlanta. As a brigade LO, I was attached to the HQ & Signals Squadron. I also later worked with several of these officers later in my career.

The Regimental MO became a great friend as well as the god father to my children. If you like your unit MO, maintain the friendship. He was also my MO when I served in NDHQ. I was moving into his house when posted to Gagetown in the 80’s until he was suddenly posted to Uganda. The regimental signals officer looked after the single subbies. A hot meal and ice-cold beer were always available at his house. I carry on this tradition today in retirement. I also later served with the regimental logistics officer. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that to serve in Germany you had to have served there already.  Catch 22 in action.

Many of these people will be referred to in later articles. I only served in the Army of the East (Germany Gagetown and as far East as Ontario). My first tour was in Germany, I was now in the Army of the East. Many that I served with in my first tour were in the same boat.  I worked for 3 days in Calgary with 1 Brigade HQ. I have never been to Shilo, Wainwright, Suffield or attended an Army RV exercise. I know Bavaria to this day like the palm of my hand. When not posted in Europe I managed to work there off and on for every year in my regular force career except for 2 years. I missed a year while attending the French course and spend almost all of military service in 1992 in El Salvador. I was asked to go back to Europe in 1992 but I declined as one brutal civil war that year was enough for me. I had already postponed my retirement once to go to El Salvador and had a great job waiting for me. Transition to winter combat from living in the jungle at 100 F in a couple of weeks was not in the cards.

Regrets, nothing major. I should have attended the brigade weeklong ski school at least once. I would have started skiing earlier than I did. My first tour was very exciting, a great deal of fun and helped to set me up for the rest of my career. I loved the concepts and application of Electronic Warfare as much as shooting tank rounds. We seemed to have endless rounds to fire in those days. We were paid well to go enjoy semi- permanent adventure training on steroids. I loved it.

For Part 2 of this series please see here

For Part 1 of this series please see here

4 Comments

  • J.R. Digger MacDougall

    June 8, 2021 at 12:14 pm

    Karmin, I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Although I served in a different armoured Regiment our stories are amazingly similar.

    Even at 83, I frequently conduct workshops, seminars and lectures in a wide variety of subjects, either through organizations like the Canadian War Museum’s witness to history program or “Memory Project”. Tomorrow for instance, I am scheduled to give a two hour presentation on leadership to a class of grade 12’s and a Toronto high school. Recently, during my research for one of my presentations I ran into your article written in response to Colonel Nick Nicholson’s military journal article “where have all the tigers gone”. I had a similar response to Nick when I was out in Chilliwack when he was running ONCOS. He did not like what I said about the effectiveness of his program. Armoured Corps officers are funny that way.
    Stay healthy and continue to enjoy life as it unfolds for you. Best regards.
    Digger

  • 10329 Shaun Tymchuk

    June 8, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    Fabulous storytelling, Karmin (just discovered your first three instalments); great memories for your classmates and great insights for today’s cadets. Your ability to recall detail is amazing. Many thanks for these great articles; looking forward to your next chapters. Best. Shaun