Saving the World with Captain (Navy) Patterson

Article / March 8, 2017

It was in Somalia that she knew for certain she had made the right choice.

Captain (Navy) Rebecca Patterson, Deputy Commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group (CFHS), enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in 1989. One might say that she has been “in” even longer than those 28 years, since she joined the Navy League at age 12, and really, as the daughter of a Canadian submariner and a British Royal Navy nurse, who “always wanted to do this,” one could say that she was born into the CAF.

There was that time at the end of high school where she wanted to save the world, and imagined working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) like Oxfam or CARE International. Maybe it was her love of the television show M*A*S*H that changed her direction “from saving the world, to joining the military and saving the world.”

She wanted to join the CAF as a MARS (Maritime Surface and Sub-surface) Officer, but the trade did not accept women at that time, so she came in as a critical care Nursing Officer instead. She ended up going through Basic Training with the first female MARS Officers, but did not pause long enough to regret her imperfect timing: two years later, a sub-lieutenant at the time, she was in Saudi Arabia as a member of Op SCALPEL with 1 Canadian Field Hospital, the first Canadian field hospital to deploy since the Korean War.

Somalia followed closely after, as she deployed on Op DELIVERANCE in support of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1993, part of the first modern advanced surgical centre to deploy. She was honoured to have been chosen for the mission, and she thrived in the austere environment, and as one of only seven women deployed with over 2,000 men. “Overwhelmingly, the Regiment treated us very respectfully,” she says, “contrary to what you might expect.

“Things have changed in the CAF in 25 years. I see many women in the combat arms. And of course, in my Branch (CFHS), we are very well represented.”

It was in Somalia that she knew for certain she had made the right choice in her career. “There is the idea that, if a person is injured, and they open their eyes and see the Canadian flag on the shoulder of the person bending over to help them, they know they are going to be all right.” She received a Chief of Defence Staff Commendation for helping to save the life of a wounded Somali civilian.

Op ATTENTION followed in 2011-12, the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, where Captain (Navy) Patterson was responsible for leading a multinational team that assisted the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in re-establishing their medical and dental education and training systems.  “In Afghanistan,” she says, “we called ourselves the third gender, older women not considered approachable by Afghans, out of respect, but not a threat to the patriarchy either. It gave us certain advantages. We could ask about things that others couldn’t ask.” In February 2014, she was recognized with the Meritorious Service Medal for her work in Afghanistan. She was appointed to her current position in 2016.

Asked how the CAF’s deployable health-care capability has changed over the years, Captain (Navy) Patterson says, “We’ve always been good at what we do, from the combat-medic level up. What has changed, I think, is how we are viewed by those we support. There is a recognition now that we are one of the key enablers of a successful mission. Sometimes, we are even a manoeuvre element, where others end up supporting us to achieve the mission, as with the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) missions, or Op SIRONA in Sierra Leone (training local workers caring for Ebola patients).

“There was a time not so long ago that the CAF would not have thought to use our military health-care capability, not only to help ourselves and others, but as a way to project our Canadian identity abroad. But we know now, as a nation, that health and security drive peace and change, as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Health Services supports the soldier, and that all goes towards peace and security, and it makes for a better world.”

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