12320 Walter Natynczyk: Service before Self

12320 Walter Natynczyk: Service before Self

By 27832 OCdt (II) Pablo Cardona

“Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” – Booker T. Washington

The Monte Cassino campaign was one of the bloodiest operations in the Italian theatre during the Second World War. It lasted more than 120 days and, over the course of four battles against the German 10th Army, the allies suffered more than 55 000 casualties.

Among those wounded was a young tanker fighting for the Free Polish Army. When he could not return to his homeland, he immigrated to Canada and raised three children. One of these kids, his son Walter, would go on to follow his father’s legacy of service and would eventually become of one Canada’s most renowned soldiers.

In 1975, Walter Natynczyk enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces and began attending Royal Roads Military College.  The young Officer-Cadet quickly grew to love the College for its small size and sense of family. As there were only 200 cadets in the school, everyone came to know each other.

After spending a year at Roads, he attended CMR St. Jean to study business administration and to play football. He found that his time at the predominantly French military college helped him develop a sense of biculturalism and newfound respect for his Francophone counterparts.

He recalls that the bilingual environment “attending CMR was key to ensuring that I achieved the second language pillar.”

The Winnipeg native was also succeeding in the athletic and military pillars. Having been an Air Cadet for five years, he had already spent time developing his leadership skills and he was an avid athlete. The academic component of the college, however, was a different story.

“I think that academics was one of the hardest ones for me,” he remembers, “being from a province that didn’t teach calculus, I had to struggle through that first year as many do”

Nevertheless, he persisted and graduated from CMR with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration in 1979. Following his father’s footsteps in the armour corps, he was badged into the Royal Canadian Dragoons as an armoured troop leader and posted to West Germany.

When the young Second Lieutenant arrived in Germany, he and his classmates were the first generation of officers trained on the Leopard Main Battle Tank. Thanks to efficacy of the training system exemplified by the Armour School and his experience developing his professional abilities at military college, the young officer was confident in assuming command of his troopers.

“I was on the ground in Germany for 18 hours and I was deployed on the first exercise,” he said, “and what I was really pleased with was that I had all the skills and knowledge to be successful immediately.”

After first regimental tour, the young captain wanted to teach at the Armour School in Gagetown with his colleagues. He, however, was posted to RMC Kingston as the Commander of Mackenzie (8) Squadron in 1983.

Despite initially being disappointed that he was not selected to go to Gagetown, he recalls that “My posting as a squadron commander was one of the best postings I had during my 37 years, I got to work for a terrific leader, in the form of Brigadier General Frank Norman, the commandant.”

His posting as a Sqn Commander was professionally rewarding and was good for his young family. Furthermore, he had the chance to mentor and inspire young cadets to reach their full potential. Out of admiration for his squadron, he named his dog Mackenzie.

As his career in the forces continued, he assumed a wide variety of staff and command positions. One of the highlights of his career was becoming the Commanding Officer of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. In this position, he found that he possessed both the knowledge and resources to enable his unit to complete their missions.

When he assumed command of the RCD, the unit was just returning from a deployment in Bosnia, but the Winnipeg Floods and 1998 Ice Storm kept the weary soldiers busy. From this, then LCol Natynczyk learned the importance of taking care of his soldiers and their families. As a Commanding Officer, his top priority was ensuring that his soldiers were set for success and that their families had the support that they needed.

He also had the privilege of serving overseas in Cyprus, Bosnia, Croatia and Iraq with the United States Army. While on overseas operations, he learned the importance of mastering the profession of arms and understanding the tactical, operational and strategic situations of the given conflict. Furthermore, in every conflict area that he was deployed to, he found that he had to react to rapidly changing circumstances.

“Every operation is so unique, it is complex and its dynamic, the situation changes rapidly.” He said, “And the problem is, for people back in Canada, they don’t understand the new reality because they’re so far away.”

In July 2008, he was promoted to General and took over the position of Chief of the Defence Staff from General Rick Hillier, another Dragoon. As the CDS, he found that the CAF was in a period of high operational tempo, particularly the early part of 2010. Within a three month time span, several thousand soldiers were in Afghanistan, many of them dealing with combat, 4000 Canadians were in California training for the next Afghanistan rotation, nearly 2000 personnel were deployed to Haiti for disaster relief and several thousand forces members were providing support to the Vancouver Olympics.

His role was “understanding the challenges at the tactical level and then mobilizing the higher headquarters to enable the success of all of those folks who were out there [because] the further you are from the sound of the guns, the less you understand.”

As the CDS, his main efforts were not much different from what they were as unit CO. He worked tirelessly to ensure that soldiers and their families had the support systems in place to deal with the challenges of the profession of arms. He also worked to end the stigma around mental illness and sought to create a military where everyone could feel safe to seek treatment.

Unfortunately, his career was not without heartbreak. By the time that Canada’s combat role ended in 2011, nearly 160 Canadians had lost their lives in the conflict. Several others took their own lives upon returning home. Although the CDS and his commanders did everything that they could to mitigate the loss of life, tragedies were not completely avoidable.

The retired general somberly recalls that “every time a man or woman in the Canadian Armed Forces died, whether that be as a result of operations or at home to suicide, every Repatriation Ceremony I had to attend, was the hardest day of my life.”

Soon after retiring from the CAF in 2013, General Natynczyk became president of the Canadian Space Agency. In this civilian job, he had the privilege of working with highly trained, brilliant innovators and engineers. His job was to serve them, and to ensure that the government provided them with the guidance and resources that they needed to pursue ground-breaking innovation and invent new technologies.

In November 2014, he became the Deputy Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Canada. He had asked for this position so that he could continue to serve the men and women in uniform and to have the opportunity to work with other Veteran’s groups (like the Royal Canadian Legion), to serve those who have sacrificed so much for their country.

“I feel a responsibility to those men and women who were wounded or ill or injured as a result of their service, including those who were wounded on my watch. So I feel that this is a humbling opportunity to serve and to enable veterans to transition to civilian life,” he said.

He then added that “we cannot turn the clock back on folks and make them as healthy as they were when they walked into the recruiting office or on basic training. But we can give those men and women the support that they need to find their new normal, find their purpose and to maintain their identity.”

Furthermore, the Deputy Minister understands the importance of mentoring the next generation. In March, he was a guest-speaker at RMC for an international affairs conference, in which he spoke to Officer Cadets and Civilian University students about the changing global landscape. His advice for aspiring officers is to remember that their careers are marathons and will all be unique.

Additionally, he has four key pieces of life advice to help people find success and happiness.

His first is service before self. In order to be successful in the military, one must always place the mission above themselves and have the passion to serve others. This was exemplified when the four Canadian divisions fought to take Vimy Ridge in 1917 and continues to be a virtue of the Canadian soldier.

His second is to define success early in a career and “figure out what will make you happy and declare success early in your career, so that you’re comfortable and happy with your lot in life.”

His third piece of advice is to be humble and not to change who you are as you advance in rank. He believes that “You’re a good person because of who you are when you began.”

Finally, he believes that if anyone follows this advice, they will live their values. Whether those values are TDV or something else, he states that leaders are those who know what they believe in and stand up for what is right.

Over the course of his 40 years in the military and in public service, Deputy Minister Natynczyk has no doubt inspired thousands of Canadians, myself included. Yet, it is not his impressive resume, job titles, or maple leafs on his shoulders that have made an impact. Rather, it is the character of the man. Throughout his career, he has exemplified the virtues of service and has devoted his life to serving his country and his soldiers. He is a reminder that happiness is not found in a paycheck, but in bettering the lives of others.


  • Mike Houghton

    May 8, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    An excellent article concerning a true leader I have admired for several years. We could certainly use a few more Walters.

  • Ian Tisdale

    May 9, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I had the privilege of serving in Bosnia when he was the Contingent Commander and he presented me with a Commander’s commendation for a bridge I was responsible to build – several years later I had the chance to give him a ride in a Griffon (as I’d changed careers from MILE to pilot) in Edmonton. He saw my name on the back of my helmet as he sat in the back row and said, “Is this the same Ian Tisdale that I met in Bosnia five years ago?”, absolutely incredible memory…and a truly great person as well. He really did care about his soldiers.

  • Larry Biggin

    May 9, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Good article about a great man. As the article says, the character of a good leader does not change during life. There are so many facets to this guy. I played football with Walt when he was Captain of the football team at CMR and I was a Prep. He inspired everyone who played with him by his effort on the field, he would flash that great smile of his before leveling any opponent and kept up moral by signing ‘Shake it up Baby Now’ on the bus rides home (win or lose)

  • Johanne Durand

    May 9, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Good article Pablo. Reading about his career was captivating. What I liked the most about your article though is the life advice he gave to help people find success and happiness. Deputy Minister Natynczyk was my squadron commander i.e. Mackenzie (8) Squadron in 1983 & 1984 at RMC. He was already a great leader then and did inspire me to become the best I can be. His smile and simplicity made him a very approachable man. There is a good chance I will see him during my future reunions as we are in the same reunion cycle.