Fortunate as we are to be living in an age when women can serve in the military next to men and be recognized on the same level, the idea was still a novelty not that long ago – something Sooke veteran Camille Tkacz knows a few things about.
Having served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 35 years, Tkacz was part of only a handful of women in the military who pushed towards recognition and equality.
She was also involved in many peacekeeping missions, as well as combat operations in Bosnia and Hertzecovina and Afghanistan.
Sitting behind a desk was just never her thing, and sure enough, she made the decision to do something about it early in life.
In 1973 at age 20, in her first year of university, she was given two offers in one week: one was to be come an airline stewardess, the other to go into the military.
She chose the military.
By the time she finished her degree, she was already a master corporal, and remained with the Canadian Armed Forces until her retirement at age 55.
Again though, it wasn’t easy, as back then, it was very much a man’s world. It didn’t help either that in those years, the military didn’t allow women in combat; but that didn’t stop Tkacz from reaching the goal of what she wanted from her career.
“As a woman, you couldn’t expect in those days to go into a field unit directly to become a sergeant major, if you wanted to do something, you had to play the same game as the men did,” she said.
Once an established NCO, being in the field was far more satisfying to her due to the hands-on experience, as compared to an office clerk or administrative job behind a desk.
She spent a year in Bosnia and Herzecovina during the Bosnian War, in what she calls “roto zero” – a military term for the first unit to set everything up and put everything in place. And even though her mission was initially a peacekeeping one, the operation had quickly turned into a military force.
“What amazed me about Bosnia is that it was such a change from doing the Olympics one year before, to using the Olympic soccer fields for a mass grave site,” she said. “They were such a modern country, and to see how quickly things can change was pretty shocking.”
And regardless of how much training and preparation goes in place, witnessing and dealing with death is still an emotional and deep part of human nature.
“The hardest part for me was to ask people to do things that I knew were going to maybe affect them for the rest of their lives, such as going to work with the infantry that were helping us in areas of mass graves,” Tkacz said.
Her experience in Bosnia was only part of it, as her challenge as a high-ranking woman in the military was still hard to accept for some, especially in the Eastern European block where such positions were essentially non-existent, along with the idea of soldiers having a voice in the first place.
One time, she made a speech to some military people. They were really taken with her, but not in the way she hoped.
“They thought, ‘that’s what we need, a lot of those really aggressive women, good soldiers, we can do this, and NATO will love us.’ I later get a call, saying they were very impressed with me, and that they went and took every cook and every secretary and made them a sergeant.”
Her reaction was to re-explain that regardless of the fact that they were women, they still needed to start at a low rank like every other man, to learn to be a soldier, learn to handle a weapon, and actually develop the ability to lead before becoming a sergeant.
Mind you, it wasn’t without a positive result – many countries had to completely revamp their military, and Tkacz spent several years doing professional development and training, as well as teaching other countries how to have NCO’s who were empowered to speak.
With an illustrious military career behind her, she moved to Sooke with her husband, becaming service officer at the Royal Canadian Legion and volunteering at the Sooke Food Bank and seniors homes.