by Mark Brosens Monday November 12, 2012

Master Corporal Natalie Gajewski in a Chinook helicopter.

When you try to picture the typical Canadian Forces member, Natalie Gajewski probably wouldn’t come to mind. Currently, she's a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa. Although she likes criminal law, she’s staying open-minded about the area of law she'll one day practice. She’s also a master corporal radio operator reservist in the 33 Signal Regiment, headquartered in Ottawa. However, Gajewski doesn’t think she's a rare breed in the Canadian Forces. As she says:

There are a lot of really smart people that I encountered over the years [in the reserves]. Despite having successful careers, they still feel that need to do something a little bit different on their weekends. And have that additional contribution to society. That's one reason why I've stuck around too. I've gotten some experience and I think it's my turn to give back.

Gajewski’s an admirable, humble person who – although she probably wouldn’t say so herself – has done some interesting things in the Canadian Forces.

Life in the Reserves

Army recruiters came to Gajewski’s high school in 2003 when she was a Grade 11 student. Gajewski was looking for a summer job and the recruiters told her joining the reserves would be exciting and pay well. After doing some research, she decided that she’d much prefer the reserves over working in a fast food restaurant, so she signed up. 

Her first summer in the reserves worked out as well as she hoped. “[It was a] neat and exciting thing to do as a 17-year-old,” Gajewski said. 

She opted to be a radio operator, making her responsible for the communications between units and the command post. Her job is important, because it allows soldiers to receive assistance when needed, whether that's medical assistance or an artillery strike. 

“As long as we do our jobs properly,” Gajewski says. “We hope we will make the guys on the ground be able to [do] their jobs a little bit easier. And if something goes wrong and they’re in a dangerous situation, they can get the assistance they need.”

She stayed with the reserves throughout her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. This required her to participate in training one night a week and a couple of weekends a month.

A typical view of Kandahar Airfield Base.

Going to Afghanistan

When Gajewski's friends in the reserves began applying to deploy in 2006, it made her think about doing the same. After graduating from university in 2008, she asked to deploy. She described her motivations this way:

We do our jobs in training, but you don't actually get to do it in real life. I've heard people compare it to firefighters always training to put out a fire, but never doing it for real. Our jobs are a little bit different in the sense that we always provide real radio communications, but ultimately if on exercise something doesn't work, it doesn't really matter. … It's not a critical situation.

Gajewski was in Afghanistan from May to December 2010 (coincidentally, the same deployment period as Captain Stephen Keeble, who has also been profiled in this series, although the two didn’t meet).  

In Afghanistan, she was responsible for the communications equipment for the entire Canadian battle group – about 1,200 fighting soldiers at the time. Gajewski also supervised two other radio operators in the Tactical Operation Centre, which all the battle group’s communications were filtered through. This kept her on Kandahar Airfield Base most of the time, but she'd occasionally spend a week or two at Canadian outposts when they needed a fill-in radio operator. 

Why She Serves

As a married law student, Gajewski must be a busy person, so I was curious why she adds the reserves onto her other responsibilities. Her reasons for serving have changed from when she was a 17-year-old looking for an exciting summer job. Now her commitment to the Canadian Forces seems based on a multi-faceted connection with the institution.

“The more experience you gain, the more useful you became at doing your job,” Gajewski says. “As the years passed, I could pass that knowledge along to the newer guys. And teach and mentor people as they were learning all the skills.”

For her, reservists are a community of people with a shared experience. Gajewski talks about all the people she met while serving, including her husband. 

She says she looks forward to her work in the reserves, because there’s always something new to learn and because it’s different than her normal school routine.

When I ask her how much longer she'll be able to fit the reserves into her life, Gajewski starts talking about the reservist positions in the Judge Advocate General's office. She clearly has no desire to move on.

An antenna field at one of the patrol bases that Gajewski served at in Afghanistan.

On Remembrance Day

When asked how she sees Remembrance Day now that she’s been to Afghanistan, Gajewski stresses that the older veterans shouldn’t be forgotten because there is a new generation of Canadians who have served overseas. After all, she was a history major, so she's naturally interested in what previous veterans have done.

However, she thinks that much of Canada’s story in Afghanistan remains untold, because many veterans haven’t been talking about their service. “Over the next few years more and more people will come forward and share their experiences,” Gajewski said. “It's important to hear what happened over there. Especially with the losses we had.”

She is very grateful for people who show an interest in the Canadian Forces. At the end of our phone call she warmly thanked me for talking to Afghanistan veterans and mentioned how appreciated it is when people attend her unit's Remembrance Day service.

Photo credits: Natalie Gajewski.

Afghanistan    Politics & Current Affairs    War