I was born in a small town on Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia in 1979 and my first home was a cabin surrounded by forests and wildlife. I lived in that little cabin with my mom, my dad, and my brother, who was three years older than me. My dad was building a nice family home on the property and the cabin was just a temporary measure as the house came together. My parents spent a few years in it, I think, but I barely did one. So, living miles away from the nearest town, I grew up playing with slingshots and wooden swords my dad made out of plywood. We had a few pigs and some chickens, and sometimes I couldn't go out to play because of bears or wolves in the yard. I thought it was a fantastic place to live. I was never bored, and my mother made sure that I was on the soccer and T-ball teams or involved with kids' clubs to keep me busy. When I wasn't up to that stuff I was back in the bush, throwing rocks at the snake nest or setting the tent up in the yard to sleep out at night. I loved it.
When I was about six my parents got divorced. My mom and my brother and I moved about fifty miles away to Comox and I had a whole new batch of friends. I was a little farther from the bush than I would have liked, but there were still some parks where I could crawl around in the trees and play soldier with my new mates. My dad had moved up to a more secluded town with plenty of bush around, so when I was visiting him I still managed to get my fill. I got to go fishing and camping, and learned to shoot in the local gravel pits at a young age.
High school came very quickly, and I excelled in every subject. Book work came easily to me and every few months my dreams of what I wanted to do when I grew up changed. Just before graduation we started having interviews and meetings with school and career counsellors about what options we had for the future. I had always thought of a career in the military, and was almost decided that that was what I was going to do. This counsellor who had been assigned to me actually spent most of his time trying to talk me out of it. The counsellor told me it was a horrible career choice, that the military as a whole was a huge waste of taxpayers' money and that no selfrespecting person would serve in the forces. My dad attended one of these meetings and I think he told this guy to piss off and mind his own business and then dragged me out of that office. Thinking back, it frustrates me to think that a professional providing career advice to kids would be so biased and unobjective. A career in the forces is a great option for many young people, and I hope that guy changed his tune over the years.
I couldn't quite make up my mind about what I wanted to do and ended up going to college for a year in my town, taking some general courses that I could use towards university if I decided to go down that road. But I was always a bit hesitant about committing to four years of classrooms so I never did apply to go to university. A year later I moved to Vancouver and enrolled in technical school for two years to study finance. As interesting as the program was, I never fully enjoyed my time there. I was just too much of a small-town boy and I couldn't figure out how everyone got along without the camping and fishing.
I was still kicking around the idea of joining the military and all I had in mind was some good old-fashioned infantry action. I loved being in the outdoors and hiking and shooting so it seemed like it might be a good fit. I started the recruiting process with the Canadian Forces. I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to something full-time so I started my career with the Reserve Force, joining an army reserve unit in Vancouver. This way there was no real contractual commitment and I could leave if it wasn't my cup of tea. I joined the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and started heading down to the armoury once a week. I was very proud to be in the Canadian Forces uniform, and wearing the Canadian maple leaf flash on my shoulder was an amazing feeling. In the summer of 2003, I headed off to train full time with the army. I was happy: Wearing a uniform every day, doing drill, marching, learning all about machine guns and grenades. I found that I was actually pretty good at soldiering and placed second in each of my courses. It was a fantastic experience and when I moved back to Vancouver Island a few months later I transferred to another unit, the Canadian Scottish Regiment, to carry on. In the C-Scots I made some good friends and attended everything there was to attend. I was there for every weekend exercise and every Thursday night I turned up full of enthusiasm. I was dismayed to find that some of the other reservists weren't as dedicated and wouldn't turn up for exercises if the weather forecast wasn't good. But I put in everything I had. I signed up for every possible course and was looking forward to going away again in the coming summer to complete my training.
In the meantime I found a new girl in my home town. Her name was Jennifer, and she was lovely. We worked together, in a big parts warehouse, so I had plenty of opportunity to flirt with her. Before I knew it we were going out together, and everything seemed to be going really well for me. The army thing was progressing nicely, I had a decent job, and there was a great girl on my arm. Life was good. As the summer rolled nearer I started to make plans at work for my absence when I would be off training. I was getting excited and couldn't stop talking about it, but a few weeks before I should have headed off to Alberta for the course, I got a phone call to tell me that there weren't enough places and I would have to wait another year. Bombshell. I was pissed off. It got worse when I saw who was actually getting to go on course. I was livid. People who didn't show up when it rained were on course. People who did poorly on previous courses were on this one. A light went on. Hard work and dedication, it seemed to me, didn't mean shit here. That sounds a little harsh now, but at the time, when I was angry and stinging from a decision that made no sense to me, that is what I thought. I knew then that if I wanted to do any real soldiering, I would have to look elsewhere. Cue my friend John.
John is a great guy and an even better soldier. I met him in basic training with the Reserves and we got along splendidly from the first day. He was serving with the Royal Westminster Regiment on the mainland. He is a sucker for physical punishment and loves the outdoors just as much as I do, if not more. We had already been on a few good hiking trips together, pushing deep into Strathcona Provincial Park and on to Della Falls. One day, not long after I got the bad news about the course, he mentioned something called the Royal Marine Corps. I had heard of them before as I was a bit of a history buff but it had not occurred to me that I could join them. I really knew very little about the Royal Marines. Well, John decided it was a good idea to put in an application, so the next day at work, out of curiosity, I went onto their website and did a little research. It turned out that the Royal Marine Commandos were a hard-core bunch of guys. They form the Royal Navy's "go anywhere" amphibious force and are a key component in the United Kingdom's global Rapid Reaction Force. Training looked intense and there was a lot of travelling so I was intrigued. I did a bit more reading, and then click, click, click, I'd requested an information package too. I never told Jennifer, because I wasn't taking the idea entirely seriously. But the Corps was taking it very seriously. They were heavily committed in the Iraqi invasion and Afghanistan and needed manpower. I was just what they were looking for. When I had applied to join the Canadian Forces, the process had been long and tedious. Delays were common and expected. In contrast, three days after I applied online to the Royal Marines I received a huge application and information package in my mailbox. Three days to hear from England, three weeks to hear when I tried to apply in Canada. These guys meant business, and it was a breath of fresh air.
John and I filled in our applications and sent them back to England, not knowing what would happen next. But the more we talked about it and the more we looked into the Corps, the more we knew we had to give it a shot. It would mean abandoning everything I had going for me in Canada. It would mean leaving a good job that I enjoyed, it would mean leaving my girl, and it would mean leaving my favourite place on earth, Vancouver Island. My family would be left behind, I'd take a huge pay cut from my job in the warehouse, and any thoughts I had of starting a family would be put on hold. My freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted would be gone. I was twenty-four years old and figured that was pretty much the cut-off age for me to make a choice. The Corps will let you join up until age thirty, but I figured that if I spent, say, five years with them starting now, I'd be enlisted while I was in my physical prime and before I had any children. It was a classic now-or-never decision, and I chose now. I knew that the Royal Marines always saw action. The Canadian army at this time was only just starting to get committed in Afghanistan, and nobody then could have foreseen how involved they would ultimately get. I figured joining the Corps was a sure bet to get some trigger time, and I was not wrong.
As spring turned into summer, John and I quietly kept up the application process. Soon we had to pick a date to head over to England for our interviews and an intense selection process to see if we were suitable to attempt Royal Marine training. This would involve four days of fitness assessments, team work, and tests. It would be anything but easy, going by what we were reading. We figured we would need a few months to get in shape, so we picked December 7, 2004, as the day we would show up at the Commando Training Centre, Royal Marines, in Lympstone, Devon. It was about this time I broke the news to everybody. Jennifer was surprisingly supportive but I think she might have reacted a little differently if she had really known what we were getting ourselves into. I had no idea either how difficult the separation would eventually become. But for now all was well.
For the next few months John and I gradually ramped up our exercise program and little by little prepared ourselves. I was nervous and wasn't sure how fit we would really need to be to get in. We booked our flights to London but about two weeks before we were scheduled to fly, John called me up and gave me some terrible news. "Things are not good," John said. "I injured my knee. I can't make it." And that was that. I was on my own.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wearing the Green Beret by Jake Olafsen. Copyright © 2011 by Jake Olafsen. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.