Reine Dawe: Love, Loss and the Life Lessons she has Learned

Reprinted with the kind permission of Canadian Military Family magazine

The Dawe family made media headlines across Canada back in 2007 when Captain Matthew Dawe, along with five of his troops and their interpreter lost their lives due to an improvised explosive device.

It is a situation that would leave most parents bitter, angry and shattered. But for Reine Dawe it motivated her to roll up her sleeves and become more involved with an organization that helps women in Afghanistan and as she put it, “to finish the work her son started.”


A petite blonde French woman, Reine grew up in La Beauce, Quebec. It is a village with the population of 3,500 and so small that Reine had to commute to a high school in a neighbouring community. After she graduated Reine made her way to Quebec City where she attended university and earned a degree in physiotherapy. She left Quebec after graduation setting her sights on Halifax where she participated in an internship and where she met a young gentleman from Newfoundland. At the time Peter Dawe was attending the Nova Scotia Technical College, now the Technical University of Nova Scotia.

The pair hit it off. But coming from two different parts of the country, and perhaps two different worlds some people believed they didn’t have a chance and their marriage was doomed from the beginning, but how wrong they were. The Dawes have been married 45 years and counting.

When they were newly married the couple experienced their first posting to the west coast to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Chilliwack where Peter began his training as a combat engineer. Ten months later the couple’s first baby, Peter Jr. arrived. Three more babies followed: Phillip, James, and Matthew. As a young mother with four little boys, and a husband who was away a lot Reine participated in whatever the base had to offer. Back then there were no Military Family Resource Centres, military families relied on other military families.

Back then there was no Internet, cell phones or email so Reine relied on making personal connections. “I had conversations with people, with families who were living a similar life,” explains Reine. She encourages any military spouse with young children to get involved with others on their wing, base, or station. She advocates becoming active in your military community for a variety of reasons. “To me my boys are successful because they are kind and good people. I also think they are so successful because they were military children. They moved around a lot and they were exposed to all different types of people, both on and off the bases we lived on.” The Dawe family moved around regularly and by the end of Peter’s career they had 15 to 20 moves under their belt.

Generally Reine found her military experience to be a very happy one. She enjoyed being part of a big military family, and she found her life with the military offered a strong and enriching experience. “We also enjoyed living in military married quarters where we found everyone spoke the same language, everyone understood each other, and they had the same type of experience going on.”

However, one challenge Reine faced in the beginning of Peter’s career was being left alone when her husband was away, but she admits, “It forced me to become more self-sufficient, and so I don’t really consider that to be a big detriment. It was just a bit of a challenge.”  She describes the readjustment phase, as, “learning to share the authority when your spouse comes back” and admits that it can be a bit of a challenge and made for some interesting times for the couple.

She also remembers facing posting season with trepidation because often the family didn’t know where they were going until a month before the moving truck arrived at their house. “That was challenging, because there’s a certain amount of uncertainty with that, keeping everyone in the house keyed up and not sure what’s going to happen next.”

And like most military families the Dawes experienced the typical bumps in the road. “No school is the perfect place to go and you will always face some difficulty no matter where you go,” shares Reine. “We always talked to the boys, and told them to do the best they could. Just carry-on. And they were all happy to be there.”

The family experienced one OUTCAN posting to Virginia in the States. “At one point we were offered another OUTCAN to Europe but the boys were teenagers, and we decided to let that one go. The boys were happy and doing so well in school we didn’t want to disrupt them, but they have lived all across Canada,” notes Reine.

The military lifestyle rubbed off on all four of their boys. Peter Jr. who Reine shares was a very good Junior A hockey player followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the military as an artillery officer and later enrolling into the infantry where he was assigned to the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (PPCLI). Next in line was Phillip who was accepted to the Royal Military College (RMC), then James, who also went off to RMC and finally the youngest Dawe family member, Matthew. He followed in the footsteps of his oldest brother Peter Jr. and became an infanteer with PPCLI. “Matt was the most enthusiastic about his acceptance to RMC,” explains Reine. “He was absolutely ecstatic and he really was suited to it.” For the Dawe family the military became the family business.

Reine credits her sons’ successes to them. Today Peter Jr. is the 2 Combat Mechanized Brigade Group Commander, Philip is a physician in the Canadian Armed Forces, completing surgical training and James left the military and pursued a career in the corporate world.

The youngest Matthew Dawe enlisted the summer of 1999.  Eight years later, while serving with the 3rd PPCLI based out of Edmonton Garrison Matt deployed to Afghanistan. The year was 2007. He left the security of his home in Canada, his spouse Tara and their two-year son Lucas behind. But they were obviously not far from his mind as he planned and named a military engagement: Operation Luger, after Lucas. Unfortunately it would be his last operation as tragedy struck. On July 4, 2007 the vehicle Matt and five troops were traveling in hit an IED 20 kilometres southwest of Kandahar City killing all of them plus their interpreter.

“I realize that our family tragedy was more public than most, and other people lose loved ones and suffer tragedy too,” shares Reine. “In relation to Matt, I guess I have always been a positive person. I am very good at rationalizing. I consider myself to be very fortunate to live in the best country in the world, to have a roof over my head, and have free healthcare. Really what is there not to be grateful for?”

Before Matt deployed to Afghanistan, back in 2005 Reine became involved with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan). A brief article in a national magazine caught Reine’s attention. The article described the dire circumstances Afghan women were living in. “I certainly remember feeling terrible for those women when I read the article. As in many cases you read something and action just doesn’t materialize.”

She notes she really wanted to contribute to the efforts of the organization so she decided to attend a meeting and was very impressed with them. “I decided to become involved. For two years I was minimally involved,” she notes.

However, Matthew’s death would be the impetus for her decision to make a substantial commitment to the organization and in turn help the women and families in Afghanistan. She explains that Canada CW4WAfghan members host ongoing public engagements, education and fundraising activities. Their activities include organizing public events which feature expert speakers, making presentations to adult and youth groups, participating in local fundraising initiatives, and networking with social justice groups around the world. “Over the years, evidence emerged that education was the most strategically important area in which we could invest, where funds raised could travel the furthest and leave an impact on present and future generations,” explains Reine. She notes that access to quality education, from adult literacy classes to having trained teachers in public schools, contributes to every other social, economic, and political development objective of Afghanistan.

“In my opinion it’s so important that people get involved in this organization. And it’s so easy to get involved, to raise money to purchase books for these women,” says Reine. She notes people can visit the organization’s website where they can learn more about CW4WAghan and their mission. To ensure the bulk of the organizations’ fundraising efforts are directed to the women in Afghanistan the organization has only one employee. “So not one penny is lost. We really are providing for the women of Afghanistan. Because there are so many different chapters across Canada anyone of your readers might be able to join.”

For her it is important to continue what our Canadian men and women in uniform started in Afghanistan now that the mission has officially ended.

A few projects CW4WAghan is involved in include: Fatema‐Tul‐Zahra Schools, Women’s Literacy Classes, School and Community Libraries, Teacher Training, School Science Labs, The Darakht‐e Danesh Library for Afghan Educators, and Event Sponsorship for Global Citizenship.

Reine had the opportunity to visit Kandahar, not with the charity but on a Next of Kin Trip. The Canadian government provided a trip for next of kin family members who lost a loved one in Afghanistan. She explains she had a deep need to experience what Matthew experienced and doesn’t regret going. “I really wanted to go see what Matt saw. I needed to feel the dust he felt. I needed to touch that atmosphere. Some people need that to heal. I’m glad I had that opportunity; to be in that same space that he was in and see the things that he saw around him. I came away with some sort of idea of what troops went through when they were there, and I admire the young men and women who were there so much. I found my trip very moving, and it was a link to Matt.”

Along with Matt and Tara’s son Lucas the Dawes have eight grandchildren and she says she is very fortunate to see them often. The couple has them over for sleepovers. “It’s really the best thing in the world to be able to just love them unconditionally, then give them back to their parents,” laughs Reine. “We travel to Winnipeg to see family as well.” In between visits the family stays connected using FaceTime. “I can’t complain about technology. I would encourage military spouses to take courses to learn how to use technology to communicate with loved ones who are far away. There’s no reason to be isolated in this day and age.”

Early in her career as a physiotherapist Reine learned it was important for her to stay up to date in her profession, particularly because she was a military spouse who was moving from posting to posting and job to job. She believes the key to a successful career is to keep studying. “I took courses every single year and I learned something from every single posting, because each new situation, each new clinic, did things differently so I learned something new every time we moved.” As a physiotherapist she worked with the military quite a bit and had the opportunity to learn the systems they used and learned the way they did things.

Each time the Dawes arrived at a posting word got out quickly that a new physiotherapist was in town. “I remember there were times when I was still unpacking in our new house and I would hear a knock at the door. There would be someone asking me if I was looking for a job.” A career in physiotherapy provided Reine with a very versatile career that suited the family’s many postings and from her experience she believes employers are keen to hire military spouses because employers find them adaptable, flexible, and capable.

After serving 33 years in the military Peter retired a few years ago.

“When Peter decided that it was time for him to retire we realized we’re not actually moving anymore, and I found I felt really old. Moving always offered new challenges and new things to learn.” She says she found moving to be a positive experience and she was a little disappointed when it sunk in that the couple weren’t going to be moving anymore. “Honestly, I have to say the smell of cardboard and paper can get me a bit anxious. When I smell cardboard and paper it indicates to me that that there’s change in the wind.”

And although there was no cardboard boxes or paper involved for Reine, last year she did make a change. After spending 40 years as a physiotherapist she retired, leaving the profession with many fond memories. “I believe there is an end to all things, and it was my time to retire and let some newer younger physiotherapists take over.”

With both of them now retired Peter and Reine enjoy traveling together. This spring they already have several wedding in their calendar. And when they are not travelling the couple enjoys going to the symphony. Peter is the former president. “We go to the theater, and we go out to dinner,” explains Reine. Today Peter is very involved with the Boys and Girls Club where he is the president. “I think the important thing in life is to be useful and feel useful, and to just make a difference in the world.”

Indeed you have Mrs. Dawe. Indeed you have.

For more information how you can easily become involved with click, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

This article was originally published in the Spring (Canadian Military Family magazine) 2014 Issue.