I Joined the Navy Reserves at 51

After a tough divorce, I needed a new career. So I bought new running shoes, got two giant bags of rice for lifting and started training in a deserted parking garage.

The night I walked into the HMCS Donnacona base—a cavernous, nondescript building just south of downtown Montreal—for my enrolment as a 51-year-old Navy recruit, a well-meaning officer mistakenly offered to escort me to the ceremony room, congratulating me on my child’s recruitment. His eyes widened as I corrected him. He apologized politely, but this was not the last time I would mumble an explanation to a confused stranger under my breath—always some version of “I-know-I-am-old-and-frumpy-and-wearing-a-pink-cardigan-but-I-joined-the-Navy-anyhow”—while somehow both laughing and crying a little bit on the inside.

To be fair, not even I fully believed I should be there. Not at first. Four years earlier, in 2018, I had undergone a preventative double mastectomy. (I didn’t have breast cancer, but it runs in my family and I swore I would do anything I could to prevent it.) After the surgery, it was truly torturous to do any movement that required more upper-body strength than you’d use to open a jar of pickles, so I hadn’t exercised in ages. I had also indulged in a lot of pandemic pizza, packing on what I lovingly referred to as my body’s own weighted comfort blanket.

Two years before that, I had gone through a tricky divorce (is there any other kind?), which left me feeling defeated, depleted and directionless—a ship without a rudder.

I wish I could say it was these huge life changes and a desire to serve my country that led me to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), but, if I’m being honest, it had far more to do with my bank account. Single again at mid-life, I was in need of a solid career, preferably one with security and a pension. Enter the Canadian government job site.

As I scrolled through the listings, my eyes would glaze over as words like “data” or “administrative” whipped by. Then I saw something about communications. It went on to mention travel, adventure and a pension. I was intrigued. “Naval Communicators establish and manage all external voice, radio-teletype and data circuits, and provide real-time tactical information in support of operations,” it read.

I focused on the fact that I’m a writer—a professional communicator—who loves information. How hard could this be? I thought, somewhat naively. Only later did I bother reading the fine print about Basic Training, and learn how hard it is to qualify for the job.

For a while, sanity resumed and I went on to apply to a number of landlubbing, pushup-free data admin roles. But something was gnawing away at me, and over the next several weeks I kept clicking back on the original link. What if I told myself I could do this, and believed it? Perhaps it’s a mid-life cliché, but I had just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert for the umpteenth time—a book that explores the idea of living a life that is driven by curiosity rather than fear.

I was curious about working for the CAF, which surprised me. I spent ages poring over the website and learning about recent Navy missions, particularly Canada’s humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis. And when I later asked the recruiting officers, in person, about the CAF’s history of racism, misogyny and sexual misconduct, I was surprised at how candid and painstakingly committed they seemed to being more transparent and more inclusive in order to create a safer workplace for all.

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To this day, I still wonder why I kept returning to that website. The truest answer I’ve come up with so far is that it made me think, Maybe, when we are feeling helpless, the idea of helping others is all we can cling to.

The next steps were clearly outlined: Apply online, take the aptitude test, meet for a one-on-one interview and then pass the gruelling physical FORCE evaluation. This includes a simulation of real-life scenarios that members of the CAF may find themselves in: things like sandbag hauling, sprints and shuttle runs. Easy-peasy, right?

I took the required time to recover from my mastectomy surgeries (there were three in total) and slowly started training. I bought a few 30-pound bags of rice to use for lifting, sprung for a new pair of trainers, found a deserted indoor parking lot and made a Beyoncé playlist. It felt good to challenge myself physically again and to learn what this new body was capable of. I surprised myself and passed it all, and was offered a job.

I decided to join as a part-time naval communicator reserve, rather than as a full-time member of the force, and will complete the rest of my training concurrently over the next four years. This means I’ll still get the pension and the adventure, but I will also have the flexibility to decide how much time I spend abroad (a choice those in the regular force do not have). Though my sons, aged 20 and 22, are very independent, I’m not ready to live away from them for extended periods yet.

I have already completed the first of the three Basic Training modules remotely (it was a series of online units focused on the mission and ethos of the CAF). The second module, which I’m halfway through, is three months of in-person workshops and drill instruction. Eventually, I’ll head to Quebec City for the final module. This is the one that every army movie depicts: three weeks of climbing, cussing, muddy obstacle courses and marching while carrying a 50-pound backpack, shoulder to shoulder with fellow recruits half my age.

Once completed, I’ll head to the East Coast for the Navy-specific course, and, finally, an eight-week trade-specific course. Members of the Naval Reserves are only required to participate in weekly training at our local bases, though we can elect to do four months of active missions per year. When the timing is right, I’ll have opportunities to explore Canada’s coastlines and travel across the world.

It’s been a year since I enrolled. Though we are a diverse unit—four men, three women, ranging in age from 18 to 51 (me), with varying educational and professional backgrounds—we have quickly learned that we need to share our strengths and skills with one another in order to succeed. If my uniform has a visible wrinkle, we all do pushups. Ditto for not taking an order from a superior fast enough. We have to trust one another and follow our commanding officer without question, which is hard for me—I’ve always resisted authority figures and I question everything. Have you ever met a writer before? I seethed, after I was disciplined for asking too many questions. More pushups.

I started this journey hyper-focused on myself and what I wanted everyone to see: A Strong-Ass Woman Doing Fine On Her Own. I was worried the others would view me as the oldest, weakest link, but the crow’s feet around my eyes and the greys sprinkling my ponytail do not earn me a second of grace from the instructors when it comes to dropping and doing planks. And the punishments—even the pushups—have helped my whole unit develop a keen sense of camaraderie and trust. If we support each other, we do better. If anything, I think me being older, and a mom, has grounded us as a unit. I’m not quite bringing homemade bran muffins to drill practices, but I am often the one encouraging those who are struggling to take a moment and refocus.

Somewhere along the way, I became far more focused on finding my purpose and developing a sense of teamwork—like helping my unit learn how to tie a reef knot properly. (This is a skill my mom actually taught me when I was in Girl Guides, but it’s quite useful in the Navy!) I may not be the cool kid doing one-handed G.I. Jane-style pushups, but I was able to advocate for my entire squad and successfully petition for paid bonus training sessions for all of us.

When I think of my body now, it feels capable and functional. I can run five kilometres without getting winded, and I no longer have to ask one of my sons to open pickle jars for me. And, just last week, my youngest conveniently announced that my not-quite-bulging biceps probably meant I was “all clear” to resume snow-shovelling duties again.

Aside from the physical changes, there have also been smaller, invisible victories: The Navy taught me that my worth and ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way is not tied to my age, my gender or my size. And it also taught me that, even if the direction my life is now taking is not the one I had mapped out one unhappy marriage ago, I am not destined to be lost forever. I’m proud to say I am a Naval Reserves recruit, and I don’t plan to abandon ship any time soon.

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada