At the young and impressionable age of 16, Lance Knox donned the Canadian Armed Forces uniform and the artillery cap badge. At the time, the thought of joining the non-commissioned ranks, getting paid, and going on an “adventure”, as the job was then described, piqued his interest enough for him to enlist. Now 39 years later, that then young and naïve teenager is now Lieutenant-colonel (LCol) of the 49th Sault Ste. Marie Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, and has seen the realities of total war.
Knox is the only member in the history of the regiment to go through the ranks from private in 1976 to commanding officer (CO) as Lieutenant-colonel, a title he earned in mid-October at a special change of command ceremony, in which, for the first time, one Afghanistan veteran (LCol Eric Groulx) handed over command to another Afghanistan veteran. Yet despite the prestigious title, Knox’s lengthy career with the Canadian Armed Forces has been served on a part-time basis as a reserve soldier.
“As commanding officer, it is a very busy part-time job,” he says with a laugh. “I’m responsible for supporting regimental activities, that includes everything from supporting the soldiers, getting them ammunition and supplies, to getting approvals to run exercises, to maintaining the administration associated with a reserve regiment.”
Administration duties include ensuring soldiers are paid in a timely fashion, managing and adhering to the budget, and regimental discipline. “I am responsible for the discipline of the unit, up to and including things like summary trials.”
Prior to becoming the head of the Sault Ste. Marie’s artillery forces, Knox served overseas for eight months in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan from April to December of 2010. Although Knox did not take up the call to arms initially when Canadians became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, he knew he would venture overseas, and was inspired to do so when members of the 49th Sault Ste. Marie Field Regiment began to voluntarily enlist.
“I felt as an officer in a unit who had reservists that were going … that it was important as a leader to go to better understand what they would be going through and would go through. Every tour is different. What a young soldier goes through might be entirely different than what I went through. But nevertheless, for them to know that I had walked the same ground and gone through the same trials and tribulations that they had was important to me. I felt that it made me a better officer. That was my primary reason for going. I wanted that opportunity to better myself as an officer for my soldiers.”
As a proud Canadian, and a member of a peacekeeping mission, Knox also wanted to share Canadian values and privileges such as freedom, education, and democracy, with those in Afghanistan.
While on active duty, Knox served as Captain and Second-in-Command of the Civil-Military Co-Operation (CIMIC) team. CIMIC operators were responsible for providing support to combat forces in villages and communicating with Afghans. Often, by communicating with the nationals, CIMIC operators were able to understand the needs of specific villages as well as their infrastructure. They were also able to connect relief agencies with one another to provide valuable provisions, such as blankets, to villages that were cut off from supply lines. If a CO was planning to do an operation that could potentially affect a village, CIMIC teams would be able to provide an assessment and comment on the potential impact of that operation on villages, and suggest alternative plans to avoid any distress to villages.
“So as a second-in-command, my job was to support my team who was out there. Support them with supplies and administration … I would be brought out when there were tough negotiations with a village or if [the team]wasn’t sure what the solution should be. It gave me an opportunity to go to those villages, have conversations, share ideas, and hopefully come to a resolution that would help them through their lives.”
While Knox had opportunities to leave the safety of Camp Nathan Smith and Kandahar Air Field, where he spent the majority of his tour, he only left the compound three or four times throughout his deployment. And that was enough, as imminent dangers loomed just metres outside fenced in Forward Operating Bases (FOB).
“I had a sergeant that worked for me that stepped on an IED [improved explosive device]with just two weeks to go on his tour. He survived it but it drove home how close you can be to not surviving. The dangers were very real.”
On one of his adventures outside of the confines of Kandahar Air Field, Knox had the opportunity to communicate with an Afghan Elder. The conversation has stuck with Knox, and helped him realize the positivity that has come from his and other Canadians’ involvement in the third world country.
“I came across a village Elder who said to me, ‘Education is the way ahead for our life… My grandchildren will learn to read and will be able to help me understand the world better.’ That was pretty insightful for me.” The Elder admitted to not being able to read, including the Quran, and wasn’t able to decipher which way to properly hold a book.
For Knox, Canada’s involvement and mission in Afghanistan brought sweeping change to the country and great pride in himself and in his fellow comrades.
“I was deployed for eight months and in those eight months, our teams, scattered throughout the battle space, opened up 21 brand new schools, put 4000 kids back in school – 1000 of those kids were girls – so education came back to the villages. We re-established commerce in villages that had been vacant. Lights were coming on at night and villages were starting to thrive. Those were all positive things. I watched local governance, everything from local village leaders to small towns who had a mayor, re-establish governance. I saw Afghan citizens walk through minefields for the opportunity to vote,” he pauses. “We helped them re-establish democracy. We had to lead their hands through it since it was a new concept for many of them, but they were embracing it. Those Afghan citizens appreciated it. And that made me extremely proud to be there.”
Knox admits his tour, including both the positive and negative experiences, has stuck with him.
“I’ll be honest, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my tour. I’m not sure if that’s normal or not – I think it is. It was a very enriching experience for me. Scary at times, no doubt about it. Sad at times, we all saw things that were unpleasant. But also rewarding since I saw things that Canadian soldiers were doing for the average Afghan on the ground.”
Despite spending the majority of his eight-month tour within a FOB, Knox was confronted by death and the cost of total war on a daily basis.
“When I worked in Kandahar Air Field, I was metres away from the Kandahar Memorial, so the faces of every Canadian, American, and other nations’ soldiers who we lost in the taskforce during the years of combat, were on that wall. I walked by them every day. To see the wreaths there, and people coming in from the FOBs and that was their first opportunity to say goodbye to someone that they knew, that inspired me every day to do the best that I could and to remember those that weren’t coming home.”
Unfortunately, Knox lost many Canadian, and a few American comrades while overseas. He participated in countless ramp ceremonies, in which a casket containing a fallen soldier was loaded into an airplane to be transported back to loved ones in Canada.
“As much as possible, when a ramp ceremony was occurring, you would go to it. It was very sobering. It was a reminder of our mortality. It could happen to anybody. It was an opportunity to say goodbye to a comrade in arms.”
In total, 158 members of the Canadian Armed Forces were killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2011, when Canada ended its mission abroad.
Although he admits one can never be fully prepared to deal with the reality of death and losing a fellow comrade, Knox did have sympathy training prior to his deployment. Knox served as the Casualty Assistance Coordinator in Sault Ste. Marie for Master Corporal Scott Vernelli, who was killed in Afghanistan on 20 March 2009, when an IED detonated near him. Knox provided vital support for the immediate family of Vernelli.
“Because of that, I understood what was on the other end of those ramp ceremonies. And having that understanding was a double edge sword for me. Part of me was comforted knowing that there was a very good support network in place for those survivors, but part of me was sad knowing what was waiting for that plane when it got back to Canada.”
If the opportunity presented itself to Knox, he doesn’t feel he would participate in another tour of duty – but not because he wouldn’t want to. He admits that being 56 years-old and close to retirement has put a damper on those sentiments.
“It’s a young man’s game. You’re doing 17 hour days, 7 days a week, weeks on end. I could do that, but I’m two years from retirement.”
Between his eight months in Afghanistan and his eight months of work-up training leading up to deployment, Knox had to push back his retirement with the Ministry of Transportation, where he works on a full-time basis.
“The other reason I probably couldn’t deploy is because I have kind of promoted myself out of a job,” he adds with a laugh. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for deployment for a lieutenant-colonel.”
He also isn’t sure he could put that kind of pressure and stress on his family, which consists of his wife Pattie, and children, Jacob (who is also a member of the 49th Sault Ste. Marie Field Regiment) and Jennifer. His family has been supportive of his entire military career, including his time overseas.
“I get goosebumps thinking about how much they supported me. It was extremely hard on them. I spoke about this last year at the Remembrance Day Ceremony – we just don’t give enough credit to the families for the hardships they go through. I couldn’t do what I do without support from my family. And it’s not just doing a tour. It’s all the other things reservists do – we’re gone a lot. And if we want to do what we do effectively, we can’t be thinking about what’s going on at home while we’re doing that. We need to have that support from home, and not everyone has that. I’m blessed that I do.”
Last year, Knox served as the Guest Speaker for the 2014 Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Essar Centre. Remembrance Day has always been a day of utmost importance for Knox and he started participating in the City of Sault Ste. Marie’s annual ceremony when he was a cadet. But his concept of Remembrance Day changed after returning home from Afghanistan.
“A tour is different than normal day-to-day reserve life. You’re only maybe gone for three weeks at a time, nothing significantly long. The tour exposes a totally different mindset to you and the sacrifices that soldiers make. Since I was a young boy I had always appreciated the idea of sacrifice. So the tour certainly strengthened my convictions on Remembrance Day.”
To show your support for Remembrance Day and Canada’s men and women in uniform, Knox urges citizens to proudly wear a poppy this Remembrance Day.
“You don’t have to support our missions. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t even have to pay for the poppy if you don’t want to. But wearing a poppy, in my mind, is a way of recognizing the sacrifices of those who haven’t come back have made, as well as those who are still in uniform. It’s a simple thing to do.”