Support and Service Battalion, Teteron Barracks, Chaguaramas, Friday 14th December, 2018
Everyone loves a parade. Crisp, spotless uniforms, spiffy, mirror-finish boots gleaming in the sun, synchronised movements to march rhythm. What’s there not to love?
One reason we enjoy a parade is that it gives us a sense of order, discipline and regularity; that everybody knows what to do and is doing it the right way, at the right time. However, my question for you today is, does this morning’s impressive display of military splendour and precision truly and accurately reflect what’s going on under the surface in the everyday experiences of the Defence Force?
As your Commander-in-Chief, equal to the pride I felt as I took the salutes of the detachments of the different formations, is my concern with your true state of affairs. Not long after my inauguration, I received a message from a concerned citizen who wanted me to know that soldiers ‘under my command’ as she put it, were not receiving proper meals even though money was being deducted from their salaries for that purpose. And closer to home, I have observed that the personnel posted within the four walls of my residence often receive meals about which, they are less than enthusiastic. Let us just say that I am now familiar with the concept of macaroni pelau.
I trust that the top brass of the Defence Force and those outside it who have responsibility for the welfare of the armed forces, are making every effort to ensure that the cohort is being adequately nourished; not necessarily with ham, jam and lamb, even though we are in the height of the Christmas season, but with well-balanced, nutritious meals that would allow the men and women to carry out the functions expected of them.
I don’t know if I am more ‘hands-on’ than former Commanders-in Chief, but I do take the position seriously, even personally. Recently, a citizen wrote to me about the inconsiderate and careless driving of a Defence Force vehicle along the Cocorite stretch. I did my duty, as I saw it, and conveyed his concerns, and mine, to the then Ag CDS. I am pleased to inform you that the matter was investigated promptly, necessary action taken, and a report given to me in record time. I was able to write to the citizen informing him that the Defence Force had taken the matter seriously and the errant driver had been disciplined. Small thought it may seem, this is the type of response that builds public confidence in the armed forces.
In another instance, I received a letter from one of your number, despairing of dire financial and emotional circumstances. While I must report that through the good offices of your Chief of Defence Staff, there has been some mitigation, I remain concerned that the first resort that came to the person’s mind was not within the Defence Force.
It is well known that working in the armed forces is one of the most stressful jobs in the world; it is hard on both the individual and the family. The very nature of military service demands a particular kind of sacrifice. Physically demanding operations, monotonous duties and long periods away from family, are but some features of the military life. This necessitates a robust, effective Employment Assistance programme specific to the unique needs, circumstances and demands of this environment, especially since members of the Defence Force are held to a higher standard than other segments of the population and as you are seen as a single entity: when one of you is found wanting, all of you are tarred with same brush.
The toll of life in the armed forces can be too much to bear, moreso when coupled with personal pain. Sadly, this year two soldiers attempted to take their lives, with only one surviving the attempt. The stereotypical image of the “rough and tough” soldier often prevents members of the military from seeking assistance, even when they need it desperately. I encourage any of you who is suffering from personal or professional challenges to seek help. There is nothing shameful about needing or asking for support to tackle the trials and vicissitudes of life. I applaud the ongoing development of a program to expand further the capacity of the military to address such issues. When it has been properly established, please do not hesitate to take advantage of the various forms of assistance on offer.
Notwithstanding the trials of 2018, the Defence Force has managed to faithfully defend Trinidad and Tobago against internal and external threats, secure our national interests and provide support to State and Non-State agencies pursuant to national development.
The critical role played by the armed forces in drug and ammunition interdiction and irregular migration at our borders bolsters the ongoing efforts of the police service in the fight against crime. Prison officers sleep a little easier knowing that their counterparts in the Defence Force “have their back”. This type of support is critical to alleviating the fear that has gripped many in the prisons community and your response to this matter of national concern is praiseworthy.
Your assistance was not confined to the other services, civilians also benefitted from your aid. The hard work you put in in assisting government ministries and state enterprises in preventing illegal quarrying and cultivation has not gone unremarked.
Your humanitarian work is also legendary. We citizens commended the diligence and commitment of their armed forces during and following the recent devastating floods which affected entire communities. Your involvement in conducting damage assessments, distributing much-needed relief items and evacuating persons-at-risk was greatly appreciated and justly praised.
I was both exasperated and amused by the calls made by a Member of Parliament, who should have known better, and members of the public whose ignorance can be forgiven, respectively, for me, as Commander-in-Chief, to order the military into action at that trying time. They did not know that my title is purely ceremonial, and that I can give no such order, but by now, citizens would have realised that the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force does not need prompting to act in a compassionate way – your swift response spoke for itself.
The professionalism and diligence of the members of the armed forces of Trinidad and Tobago are also evident in those who work at the Office of the President in varying capacities. I have found them to be, without exception, courteous, helpful and disciplined in the execution of their duties.
Another achievement, in which we can all take pride, is the progress that has being made with respect to having greater gender equality in the armed forces. More and more women have joined the military since the first batch of 33 pioneers in 1980. It is perhaps no coincidence that the first female Commander-in-Chief should be ably supported by the first female Aide-de-Camp, who, incidentally, was among those early recruits.
I was pleased to receive an invitation to the launch of the Chief of Defence Staff’s Women’s Initiative carded for next year. Its theme, ‘Gender Equality in a Framework of Operational Readiness’ is an acknowledgement of the unique challenges affecting women who serve and it will, undoubtedly, be of great inspiration to women both within and without the armed forces. I urge you to engage in further outreach to women and other demographics, so that as far as applications and suitability allow, the armed forces will accurately reflect society’s inclusive picture.
The investment in our nation’s youth is another sterling example of your commitment to our country’s stability and development. The Military-Led Academic Training programme (MiLAT) provides young men, sometimes described as an ‘endangered species’ with a safe, structured and regulated setting for their development.
The Junior Achievement Youth Empowerment Camp which was held this year, was another forum for instilling in high-risk youth, purpose, discipline and skills. Even if they don’t join the military, their training would serve them well in their lives as valuable, law-abiding citizens.
The Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force must continually ensure its relevance to the current and ever-evolving needs of our country and be equipped to tackle changes in the national and international environment.
I note that efforts are being made to ensure that military operations are up to standard and that capacity-building exercises have been conducted alongside other nations in the areas of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counter terrorism. These partnerships, in facilitating training and continuous development of our men and women, will increase our ability as a nation to adapt to present and future challenges which are sure to come our way.
As we reflect on the high and low points of the past year, I thank you for
your contribution to the well-being of our nation and encourage you to continue to carry out your duties diligently and effectively. While we may never fully understand the sacrifices and complexities of life in the military, the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago remain eternally grateful for the support and protection of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force.
May you and your families have a Merry Christmas, and may peace, joy and love dog your footsteps into 2019.
And may God Bless Us All.