Student soldiers

There are 23 Canadian Forces members enrolled in undergraduate programs at Queen's

Cpl. Jeff Cho is balancing a full-time job at the Joint Signals Regiment in Canadian Forces Base Kingston with distance studies at Queen's.
Cpl. Jeff Cho is balancing a full-time job at the Joint Signals Regiment in Canadian Forces Base Kingston with distance studies at Queen's.
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Ontario students make up the majority of those who receive education subsidies from the Canadian Armed Forces.
Ontario students make up the majority of those who receive education subsidies from the Canadian Armed Forces.
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Of the 528 Canadian Forces members studying full-time at Ontario universities, 23 go to Queen’s.

For every two months of service in the Canadian Armed Forces, a student is subsidized for one month of education.

Tuition and books are paid for up front by the student who receives a reimbursement cheque for every course passed.

Cpl. Jeffrey Cho joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2007 when he couldn’t afford to pay for his second year of undergraduate education at York University.

“It was one of the reasons I thought joining the army was perfect for me,” said Cho, who’s stationed at Canadian Forces Base Kingston with the Joint Signals Regiment.

After five years of training with the Armed Forces, he enrolled at Queen’s as a part-time student last year.

“Would I recommend people to join the military to get an education? Definitely not,” he said. “It’s not just a job.

“If your priority is not to get the job done and support the mission, you’re going to clash with the culture and expectations.”

Cho is currently enrolled in correspondence courses at Queen’s in hopes of getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He said applying to a university other than Royal Military College (RMC) was a struggle with military bureaucracy.

“My friends who applied to take courses at RMC were approved in under a month, whereas I had to go back and forth for almost a year to justify why I would be going to Queen’s instead of somewhere else,” he said. “Because they’re going to be reimbursing you later, it’s easier to stay within the military structure.”

In military terms, Queen’s is demarcated as a civilian university because of its separation from the Armed Forces.

Other schools are more flexible than Queen’s in helping students balance military training with distance studies, Cho said.

RMC accepts mail-in assignments from students who have been unexpectedly deployed.

He added he’s been able to take four courses with his demanding work schedule. Cho’s work with the Joint Signals Regiment can cause him to be deployed on a moment’s notice.

“I work my full day then have to manage studies, exams and all that stuff on my own,” he said. “It’s difficult to take certain courses if professors can’t accommodate your schedule.”

This semester he was forced to drop all of his courses in anticipation of a late-October overseas deployment.

Despite the administrative hurdles, Cho said he’s glad to be at Queen’s.

“I wanted to get an education that wasn’t through the military,” he said. “I’d like some parts of my life not to be engrained in that.”

Having a university degree is mandatory for corporals like Cho to become commissioned members of the Armed Forces. Commissioned members are officers or captains who specialize in a certain regiment.

Officers and captains can either be promoted from within the ranks through the University Training Plan Non Commissioned Members (UTPNCM) or through direct entry from the general public.

Cho is planning to go the UTPNCM route, which would require him to pursue full-time university studies at Queen’s and attain a degree. Corporals applying to UTPNCM are assessed based on the specialization of their degree, a general aptitude test administered by the Canadian Forces and leadership experience in the field.

His UTPNCM application isn’t the sole reason Cho wants to pursue full-time studies at Queen’s, he said.

“Right now I’m missing out on the university experience,” he said. “The most important things you learn aren’t what you learn in the classroom, right?” He said right now it’s difficult to transition from a daytime military lifestyle to nights as a student.

“I’ve got other things on my mind when I’ve worked a full day preparing for deployment,” he said.

Cho was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a few years ago, a condition he said was the culmination of a long-term battle with depression.

He said shifting his mental focus from the Armed Forces to academics has helped him to cope with the mental stress.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “When you put on that uniform it doesn’t matter what state you’re in, but when you get home ... it all hits you.”

A 2002 report on mental health in the Canadian Armed Forces estimated that 20 per cent of its soldiers suffer from PTSD.

Associate professor Alice Aiken also works with PTSD patients at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) where she’s director.

The institute is a network of 19 Canadian universities dedicated to researching health issues that occur with military personnel.

It’s co-directed by Queen’s and RMC. They deal with a diverse set of health issues that are faced by veterans, returning soldiers and soldiers who are in garrison.

“When people come back with a physical injury, it’s very clear that they have a physical injury. Those are the known injuries,” Aiken said, “Mental health injuries often don’t show themselves right away, or they take time.

“Sometimes the mental health injuries aren’t known.”

Mental health issues including PTSD are among a variety of occupational stress injuries that soldiers can suffer from.

Like Cho, Aiken used military education subsidies to fund two of her four degrees.

“The agreement was that they subsidized three years of education for me, and I owed them back [four years of service],” Aiken said.

Aiken decided to pursue more schooling and completed her master’s and PhD in rehabilitation science at Queen’s on a part-time basis.

As an associate professor with the School of Rehabilitation Studies, Aiken said she often speaks to students about her experiences in the navy.

Her physiotherapy students sometimes get the chance to examine solders from the Kingston base at Aiken’s request. Treating soldiers is a unique experience, Aiken said.

“[As soldiers], they’re typically very fit and very motivated to get better,” she said. “So they’re almost an ideal patient population.”

Edward Woolley was in his first year at Queen’s in 2009 when he decided to transfer to RMC.

He considered a subsidized degree program through the Armed Forces while at Queen’s, but instead opted for full-time schooling at RMC.

Woolley said he felt lost in his large first-year classes at Queen’s and RMC’s close-knit community of students was a better fit.

“I bought into what the military sells: doing something meaningful and exciting,” Woolley said. “I thought, let’s go for it.”

— With files from Terra-Ann Arnone

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