13068 Pete Atkinson: Majored in football and minored in history
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
There’s something about the man that seems to engender confidence.
More than once along the way people were willing to go out on a limb for a military brat from New Brunswick, to take a chance—or extend a second chance—to a fellow whose circumstance would not necessarily have warranted such faith. Fortunately for Peter Atkinson, those opportunities got extended—and he didn’t disappoint.
He talks about them fondly now, one in each of the phases of a lifetime of serving his country, from the cadet corps on a Canadian base in Germany as a teen, as an officer cadet at Royal Military College, through a distinguished career as an armoured officer in the Canadian Forces, and now as a civilian in charge of the Personal Support Programs at bases across the country.
Atkinson tells a story about each episode with a touch of humour that suggests he knows his good fortune, and a note of gratitude to those who were there at those critical moments and saw something in him that instilled the belief they were doing the right thing.
Take, for instance, the fellow in charge of the CFE Pipes and Drums at Lahr, Germany, where Atkinson’s father was posted and a teenage Peter wound up with a job he was not expecting.
“My girlfriend was a highland dancer,” said Atkinson, recalling how he would often tag along to rehearsals. “In 1974 their drum major got posted home. The pipe major turned to me and said if you’re going to hang around the pipe band, we’re going to give you a job.”
That’s how Atkinson became the drum major, a position he held with several ceremonial units for the next 40 years.
He’d been a drum major for three years when he arrived at RMC and when he got there, the pipe major, Donnie Kerrigan knew all about him. “I’m not sure how a first-year got handed the mace on his first day in the door—much to the chagrin of a few of my fourth-year buddies,” Atkinson said, “but I became the drum major on Day One and did it for four years. It was a lot of fun.”
So new was Atkinson that he was oblivious to some of the unwritten cadet codes, which generally require first-years to be seen and not heard while in the presence of upper classmen, and in a well-defined militaristic hierarchy discourages them from trying to boss seniors around.
“I had a really good teacher in Jack Millen about being a drum major,” Atkinson said over the phone from his office in Ottawa. “What I wasn’t all that attuned to in the first month at RMC was the hurt feelings of fourth-years when you jack them up on the parade square because they weren’t doing the right thing, (but) they gave me the mace and when you’re the drum major, you’re in charge. I didn’t pull any punches about which piper couldn’t stay in step, or play music and walk at the same time or whatever it was, so I bruised a few egos.
“They probably all got back at me in their own way, once they got me off the parade square, but that was all part of the fun about being a first-year cadet at RMC.”
What wasn’t quite so much fun was facing an academic review panel at the end of his first semester. In addition to being the drum major of the RMC band, he was a starting guard on the Redmen football team. “I had a major in football and a minor in history,” is how Atkinson describes his academic career at the college, but no one in the room was amused that winter day.
“I’d had a successful football season,” he said. “I had a great time with the pipe band, (but) my academics were a little bit weak. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I had a 32 in physics and a 24 in chemistry and if the pipe major and the football coach hadn’t gone to bat for me at the little review board they had at Christmastime I might not have been there in January, but they said, hey, ‘He’s got a lot of potential; we know he’ll pull his socks up,’ and they turned to me and said the same thing: ‘And you WILL pull your socks up.’
“I was struggling, and it’s funny because I was really good with physics and chemistry in high school but trying to mix everything else in with being a first-year cadet, there were a few labs that I might have slept through. You’d get in there and you’d be bone tired. You put your head down inside your brief case and someone would wake you up at the end of the class.”
Getting regular sleep in the second term and buckling down enabled Atkinson to raise his average into the 70s, and his aspiring military career was saved. “I was never in academic trouble again,” he said. “I switched from engineering to military history, and it was a good thing because it actually taught me to write, and that was a skill that stood me in good stead over the years.
“I found that the ability to write and think with your pen was very helpful to me.”
Later in a career that took him around the world—and allowed him to be such things as mayor of Cornwallis, N.S., drum major of a pipe band in Cyprus, and an instructor at the U.S. War College in Carlisle, Pa.—in 1998 Atkinson was appointed commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, stationed in Petawawa, Ont. It was the unit with which he began his career fresh out of RMC. “I absolutely loved being a dragoon.”
Eventually the Dragoons had deployed two squadrons to the Balkans and another to Kosova and in 2000, while visiting those troops in Kosovo, Atkinson had what he now calls “a fairly traumatic incident,” when he had an accidental discharge from the coaxial machine gun on a tank.
“I buried three or four rounds into the back of the turret (of the tank ahead of me).”
No one was hurt but as the CO, Atkinson was the subject of a court-martial. “It didn’t matter what had happened in the turret, you’re responsible and I was the guy who made the mistake,” he said. “I was very lucky no one was hurt.” Atkinson received a $5,000 fine.
“The interesting part,” Atkinson said, “is when the judge was going through his judgment and explaining how he came up with the sentence, he said when he went back through all the cases, the only one that was similar, I had been the presiding officer at the summary trial of a one of a crew commander who was preparing to go to Kosovo.”
He’d had an accidental discharge of a Coyote on the range, and Atkinson had given him a $1,500 fine. “Since he was a master corporal, the judge multiplied the fine by three and rounded up.
“Turned out,” Atkinson said, “I was the author of my own sentence.”
The incident led to a change in Canadian Forces policy. Since then, officers visiting troops are no longer allowed to be put in a position where they could accidentally discharge a weapon in a major combat system.
“It was all about accepting responsibility and leadership, taking responsibility for your actions,” Atkinson said.
For a lesser officer, it might have been a career killer, but Atkinson’s record was such that his superiors saw it in a more understanding light. After his “setback” with the court martial, the commander of the army called Atkinson the next day.
“He said, ‘Listen I was really glad that you stepped up and took responsibility for your actions,’” Atkinson recalled. “He said, ‘We still have a lot of faith in you; we’re going to promote you and send you to Kingston as the base commander.’”
Atkinson came home with one other important memory from the trip to Kosovo.
“My soldiers over there—guess what they were doing?” he said, proudly. “ They were playing soccer with the Kosovars.”
To appreciate the significance of this you need to understand the high regard with which Atkinson holds the role of sport in the grand scheme. A varsity football player at RMC, a soccer player of note for most of his life and a soccer referee for more than 20 years—he worked games in the Kingston senior men’s league when he was the base commander at CFB Kingston—Atkinson was well aware of the elements of fitness and camaraderie sport provides. It wasn’t until he was serving as a peacekeeper in Cyprus, however, that deeper benefits started to become apparent to him, as his troops played soccer on both sides of the green line that separated the Greek and Turkish communities.
“Sport has always been a great way to crack open the door on soldiers,” he said. “Whether they’re your soldiers, the soldiers of another country or a conflict zone that you’re in, sport is a great vehicle for doing that. That was my first operational tour and that really opened my eyes to that door and the capability of it.”
Later, while posted to the former Yugoslavia, Atkinson and his soldiers played soccer with Bosnians, Croatians and Serbs. “Football is a common language,” he said.
“Because a good number of the soccer fields had mines on them, we played soccer indoors, on concrete, where we knew there were no mines. It was a great door opener for relationships with other soldiers in a conflict zone.”
Even in intramural athletics, sport gives insight into the soldiers you command, Atkinson said. “That’s where you get to see the leadership side of people in another venue. It’s a great venue for stress relief, a great venue for promoting esprit de corps and teamwork.
“It always opens doors. When you meet somebody on a sports field, when you come to talk afterwards, the ice is already broken. I found that every tour I was on, any time you can deal with people on another level than the end of the gun, you find common ground. Sometimes the games might get a little bit rough, but soldiers being soldiers, they would find the silver lining in what sports really meant. I feel to this day how important sport is to us.”
Coming as he does from a military family—Atkinson’s grandfather served in both the Second World War and the Korean War, in the first with an uncle, and the latter with his father—a military career was perhaps pre-ordained. His father was stationed at Lahr, Germany during Atkinson’s high school years, during which time Atkinson was in the Dragoons’ cadets program.
There was no North American-style football at Lahr, though one day a couple of teachers, who had played some college ball, gathered the boys together for a few scrimmages. “These two profs said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a natural talent for the game, so when you get to college, get yourself onto the practice field and someone’s going to give you a shot.’”
The words stuck with Atkinson, who was already inclined to go to RMC, and he recalls vividly his admissions interview to this day.
“It’s funny the things you do remember,” he said. “When they said, ‘What’s your second choice?’ I said, ‘No, I want to go to the military college, I want to be an armoured officer and I want to play football.’
“They said, ‘Well, you need to give us a second choice.’ I said, ‘No, I want to go to RMC, I want to be an armoured officer and I’m interested in playing for football for them.’ They said OK.
“When I shredded that old personnel file after I retired, I went back and some of those exact words were on this form, which was kind of funny.”
Having arrived with no position to speak of, Atkinson was working as a fullback in his first football training camp, but at an exhibition game at Carleton in the fall of 1977, the starting right guard broke his ankle.
“You know what they say about fullbacks—he’s just a guard with his brains shot out,” Atkinson said. “So when he went down, I got put in as the guard. I knew all the plays, because I knew where the guard was supposed to go, because he was leading the fullback.
“That’s where I stayed for the next four years.” Atkinson was a team captain in his senior year, and he was a member of the Redmen team that won the national small college championship in 1979, the last title an RMC team has ever won.
There were some interesting times in a distinguished career:
• On being the mayor of Cornwallis: “It was an appointment. I think the base commander looked around and saw this one army guy who didn’t have a good excuse for why he shouldn’t be the mayor, so he made me the mayor.” As such, he represented the Town of Cornwallis at the Annapolis Valley Chamber of Commerce and, in his time there, helped to establish a daycare.
• On forming a pipe band on Cyprus: “There were four or five pipers in the unit, me as the drum major, our chief clerk was a base drummer and we had a couple of drummers. We did Canada Day and a bunch of ceremonial stuff. That was fun.” Atkinson remains unsure of what the Cypriots made of it. “I think they ran scared,” he said, “(wondering) what the heck was that sound?”
• On being posted to the Army headquarters in St-Hubert, Que., in July of 1990: “Didn’t I land, and three days after I was there the Oka crisis happened. My poor wife and my son, I bought our first house and dropped them off in downtown St-Bruno and checked into the ops centre. I was there for the next three and a half months.”
• On suspending himself in a broomball league in Petawawa: “I played and was also president of the league. I got in trouble with the referee in the middle of the ice and I just walked right to the penalty box, saying to myself, ‘That was really dumb. This carries a suspension.’ Because I was the discipline guy, I had to suspend myself for two games.”
After his time as base commander in Kingston, Atkinson went back to the Balkans, where he was the task force commander in 2003. On his return he attended the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, and then was asked to stay and teach international security and national policy there. “What an awesome experience to be able to do that,” he said.
At that point, Gen. Rick Hillier, then the Chief of Defence Staff, asked Atkinson to be his Executive Officer and after about 18 months promoted him to general and a posting to the joint staff. What followed a year later Atkinson calls “what I consider to be the pinnacle of my career”—a posting to be deputy commanding general of 3 U.S. Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Tex.
“All of the things that I had done in my military career came together in a job where I was responsible to train and prepare 12 brigades for combat,” he said. “What a great experience to go down there and represent Canada and be part of that great formation for three years.”
It was a bittersweet experience, however, as it was at the time he was to come back to Canada that Atkinson’s wife, Charlene, was diagnosed with ALS. It was late 2011 and Atkinson retired early to take care of her. “Ten months later, she was gone, ” he said. “I lost my girl.”
“She was from New Brunswick. We’d been childhood sweethearts but we kind of grew apart when I went to high school in Lahr. I found her again in my fourth year at RMC at Christmastime when I went home. We started going out and we got married in 1982, on Grey Cup weekend.”
Atkinson recalls it as a difficult time, but some time later he ran into a woman who had been part of his and Charlene’s life. “She was a great friend of ours in Petawawa, was separated and raised two daughters on her own. She’d moved back to our hometown in New Brunswick, and was best friends with my sister.”
Atkinson and Diana are now married. “Life begins again,” he said. “I’ve got a great gal who’s with me for—I’ll call it the second half of my career. I consider myself doubly blessed. I went back to that same small town in New Brunswick to find a girl twice and came away lucky.”
Yet another second opportunity that paid off. “There’s always a glass half full,” he said.
When he retired, “like a lot of military guys who retire,” Atkinson established a consulting company, did some distance teaching with the War College and “a bunch of other unpaid stuff.” He wasn’t looking for anything beyond that when he got a call from the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services and was asked if he’d be interested in running the Forces’ Personal Support Program—responsible for such things as sports, recreation, fitness, messes and clubs—nation-wide. It was suggested that he apply.
“I thought about that for about 10 seconds, and I said, ‘The answer’s yes.’” He went through a formal hiring process and was successful. He’s now the senior vice-president of PSP, based in Ottawa.
“I continue to have an awful lot of fun,” he said. “My time in uniform, I played a lot of sports, I was a tanker, I crashed in a helicopter once, so I did beat my body up a bit over the years.” The resultant wear and tear on his knees has forced him to abandon two passions: recreational hockey and the pipe band.
“Two tough decisions, he said, “but I did it with a view to the future, because I want to play golf; I want to walk on the beach with my wife; I love hunting and fishing—and I need these two legs to do that.”
Atkinson remembers well arriving in Kingston for the first time.
“When I got to go to RMC, that was the first step in something I felt I really wanted to do,” he said, and when former classmates gather, the same subject always arises first.
“We talk about the guys,” Atkinson said. “There’s a little cabal of football players and they’re the guys I still talk to regularly: Gerry Moodie, Mark McQuillan, Luiz Araujo, Ken Chadder—that football crowd; we’ve all stayed in touch. The camaraderie that was created through sports while we were there is a huge thing.
“These are friends for life. The friends you met (at RMC), in some cases they’re closer than family. That bond you establish in the time we spent there, and in the case of a bunch of us we spent four years there and then 30 plus years in uniform—that notion of brothers in arms? There’s a lot to that. It’s not a cliché at all.”
The Atkinson family’s military tradition continues, though when Peter joined the armoured corps he ended the line of infantry men. His son, Mitchell, a 2006 graduate of RMC—he played junior B hockey in Gananoque while he was at the college—has followed his father into the Dragoons and served one tour in Afghanistan. He’s now posted to Kuwait.
“The family tradition of serving our country continues,” Atkinson said. “When I go up to Petawawa to regimental dinners, and you lean over and look down the table and see the younger version of you, it’s pretty hard not to be proud.”