The day before I interviewed Lieutenant Jennifer Martin, George H.W. Bush passed away. Endless media stories paid tribute to his life and love of family and country.
But something gnawed at these accolades and testimonials to his service. I went back to my computer realizing I needed to ask Lt. (N) Martin a critical question I had overlooked.
First, some context to that question. I met Lt. (N) Martin at a business reception in the fall of 2018 when I signed on to do an expedition to the Arctic. Monies raised from my trip would support wellness programs and research for military veterans needing help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), family counseling and other support systems for re-entering civilian life.
Lt. (N) Martin was one of a four-women panel speaking about the branches of the Canadian military and her personal experiences and challenges. It was obvious this was a small group of highly motivated and dedicated individuals driven to serve.
Turns out, there are roughly 126,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Their mandate is threefold: to defend Canada and North America in cooperation with the U.S. forces and to contribute to our broader international security.
Of these forces, approximately 71,500 are regular members, 30,000 are Reserves and 25,000 are civilian employees. Only about 15% of these are women (including part-timers).
The Canadian forces are working to expand their female representation and plan to add 1% to this number every year until 2026.
While lofty, Lt. (N) Martin has taken it upon herself to advocate for this goal by speaking about her military experience with as many audiences as possible. She teases she’s just one woman doing good one day at a time and sharing her love of country.
This love of country includes what so many of us would never do. In May of 2010, Lt. (N) Martin deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A). During her eight-month deployment, she worked closely with coalition forces to better the Afghan forces in combat and non-combat roles.
This work gained the attention of senior American military officials, who recognized her leadership and, as with all great leaders, Lt. (N) Martin was asked to do more. Her duties were expanded to include: recruiting and training Afghan women, as well as building infrastructure to ensure the border police could accommodate a mixed gender force.
Liaising with American mentors, Lt.(N) Martin was able to successfully graduate female border police from the first ever co-ed basic police training course. She worked with the Minister of Interior in Afghanistan as well as top ranking Afghan police to create an infrastructure to support the transition of women into the border police.
Photo credit: Specialist 3rd Class Kirk Putnam
As a current member of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, Lt. (N) Martin knows what it takes to lead a ship but insists many of her skills and training transfer into civilian life as a high school math teacher in Collingwood, Ontario.
In-between military deployments that generally last for six months, Lt. (N) Martin tries to live a normal life and juggle relationships but dependence on family and friends is critical.
As a woman, Lt. (N) Martin has faced some unique challenges in the military. In solidarity, she admits the male and female leaders she’s worked with have always offered phenomenal support. While it’s not usual for a few male subordinates to hesitate when they first see a female commander, they are inevitably receptive and always professional.
But there’s another side to Lt. (N) Martin’s service that illustrates her commitment. While in Afghanistan, she was keenly interested in the welfare of the locals. Using her spare time, personal income and connections at home, she worked in conjunction with an American Sergeant-Major to raise over $15,000 worth of school supplies to help outfit several thousand students in needy Afghanistan schools.
Rotting floors and dimly lit classrooms were a common sight for Lt.(N) Martin who learned that 1,800 students a day crowded into the school in three different shifts. Lt.(N) Martin said, “The children were literally sitting on top of one another [and] on the floor when they couldn’t squish into the benches. Some classrooms had a blackboard, but no chalk,” says Lt.(N) Martin. “Most had no books, pencils or paper.”
Lt.(N) Martin’s dedication did not go unnoticed and her work in Afghanistan earned an Army Commendation Medal from the United States Army as well as several coins of achievement for her work with the Border Police. The Canadian government also presented Lt.(N) Martin with a Chief of Defense Staff coin for her exemplary service.
Which brings me back to the critical question I had overlooked in my interview questions. While I wanted to understand the history and challenges that military women like Lt.(N) Martin faced, I had forgotten to ask how they felt about their service. Did people really appreciate them?
Over the last few months, I’ve learned this is a complicated question. Of the female veterans who will be a part of our 24-person team heading to Nunavut on April 1st to the14th, most are married and have children. Many have spouses also serving in the military and, in most cases, one of them suffers from PTSD. They all live, like Lt.(N) Martin one day at a time and never doubting their duty to others.
Lt.(N) Jennifer Martin won’t be joining our expedition group but she exemplifies this strength and dedication. Currently, she is a staff officer for the Naval Reserve Central Region Team, where she oversees the implementation of training requirements across all trades.
She says she’s still that same girl who was impressed by the polish and power of a uniform when the CAF recruiter visited her high school. She feels empowered and appreciated by the faces of little girls in Afghanistan and the people she helped. She knows she’s a part of the Canada and U.S. forces that have helped Afghan to attend school and overcome the scars from acid thrown on their faces by the Taliban.
Lt.(N) Martin wishes more people understood the broader role of our military. Kids in Ontario think nothing of skipping school and don’t realize what it means to live free and protected. Most Canadians are supportive but they can’t really appreciate the scope of their work or classified assignments that take them on dangerous drug patrols and more secretive operations.
When a country is not at war, it’s easy to forget what isn’t making headline news. What I do know is we can feel secure and live free because a woman named Jennifer Martin serves under our Canadian flag, advocating for unity, tolerance, and peace.
P.S. WomanScape sends a special salute to Lt.(N) Martin’s students. Know that your voice matters. Anyone who has ever changed the world started with an idea and the courage to act on it.