Student and soldier: “A strange duality”

By Heidi Vanderveen

Most university students speak a language of parties and papers, lectures and lunch dates. But University of Calgary graduate student Ryan Flavelle speaks the language of armed conflict, where fear and combat are major parts of the vocabulary.

Flavelle joined the Canadian Forces as a reservist when he was 17. After completing an undergraduate degree in history at the U of C, he volunteered to go on tour. As a military historian, his experience with war was limited to what he read about in books. He expected the camaraderie, the uncertainty, and at times, the boredom. But even this knowledge did not prepare him for the things he encountered in Afghanistan. “When you’re doing it, it’s a fundamentally different experience,” he says.

Flavelle came home with Afghan mud on his boots and a complex mix of emotions weighing down his kit. He found himself getting irrationally angry, resenting fellow soldiers who hadn’t been through combat, and trying to sort through the memories of his tour. These memories became The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan — a gritty, honest account of a period of patrol duty that Flavelle describes as the hardest thing he did on tour.

The book describes muggy Middle Eastern nights and intense experiences, at times juxtaposed with accounts of the calm campus life that went on back home without him. He doesn’t shy away from talking about the toll that combat took on him.

“There were times where it was just emotionally difficult to relive those experiences. I didn’t feel that I had the right to be upset and angry,” he says.

The Patrol looks at more than just overseas army life. Flavelle describes a post-tour moment when he was walking downstairs at night in his parents’ house. One misstep over a creaky floorboard triggered a rush of feelings and memories of combat. “It was the same as what we would do in Afghanistan — carefully step over spots that we thought might have IEDs [improvised explosive devices].”

Moments like that come often for Flavelle — he says a day rarely goes by when he doesn’t think of his time spent as a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan.

Writing the book was a tough, heart-rending process, but Flavelle sees it as a catharsis. Speaking specifically of a section of the book where he wrote of a fellow soldier and friend’s death, he says, “it was a difficult thing to go through, and a difficult thing to revisit . . . but when I wrote the last word, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

To those of us studying on the fifth floor of the TFDL with a Phil & Sebastian coffee in hand, the muddy compounds and firefights of Afghanistan seem worlds away — something relegated to five minutes of the evening news or maybe a political science or history lecture. But Flavelle is an example of these worlds colliding, and his unique perspective as a student and a soldier — something Flavelle calls “a strange duality” — bridges the gap in our understanding. Flavelle lets us see the parts of himself that people usually reserve for close friends and dear family. The Patrol is an intimate conversation with someone who has seen and survived unimaginable things.

The average U of C undergrad’s experience with war is likely limited to episodes of Combat Hospital and games of Call of Duty: Black Ops with our buddies, where “the heroes” are tough and unshakeable. The Patrol gives us soldiers who are vulnerable, at times paralyzed by fears. It gives us soldiers who weep for their friends and sometimes question the path that led them to a gun and fatigues.

“I [was] given two options, one [was] getting shot at and one [was] not getting shot at . . . I chose option A,” Flavelle says. There were times when he questioned and regretted that choice, but ultimately he sees that it shaped him, and he shares that he would go again if he was given the chance.

Flavelle doesn’t think he is a hero. The Patrol intentionally avoids the heroic frameworks and narratives that war journalists often employ. Instead, Flavelle wished to paint a detailed picture of life in combat in a place far from home.

“We were just people doing a difficult job,” he says.

Heroism, to Flavelle, is an ethereal, hard-to-define quality. The soldiers all felt that every single thing they did was important, but Flavelle thinks of himself and his fellow combatants as “regular, everyday people who get put into weird situations and sometimes make heroic decisions.”

The Patrol come closer to being heroic than anything we could conjure up in our movies and our video games. It might be difficult for us to walk a mile in Flavelle’s combat boots, but his accounts of his experiences help us understand the hearts and minds of our nation’s soldiers.

With The Patrol, one of our own students has offered himself up as a raw, heartfelt witness to the meaningful, difficult jobs that Canadian soldiers do every day, in a work that makes heroism and vulnerability in a duality that is not so much strange as it is poignant.

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