By Sandrine Murray
Since February 2014, Major-General Michael Rouleau has been the commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), the Canadian government’s force of last resort for operational command.
Its five different units — Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit – Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CJIRU-CBRN), the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (SOAS), and the Canadian Special Operations Training Centre (CSOTC) — are ready to respond to a wide range of missions, including: hostage rescue, maritime special operations, and combating weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Special Operations Forces members are highly trained personnel ready to respond to missions of strategic significance.
Esprit de Corps’ Sandrine Murray sat down with MGen Rouleau on September 19 to hear his thoughts on how the organization has changed since its creation in 2006, mental health initiatives within the organization, and where CANSOFCOM is headed next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Esprit de Corps: What do you find makes Special Operations Forces soldiers unique?
MGen Rouleau: There’s an uncommon level of commitment for the individuals who work here, and once they get here it’s a lot of work to be here. It’s a high-pressure environment; the expectations are very high. It’s an ongoing commitment. You don’t just get in the door and coast. There’s no such thing as coasting. We’re always going pretty hard at our job. What makes us unique though goes beyond the soldiers. We’re organizationally unique. We’re a very agile organization. We’re very flat as an organization, so we move quickly. We don’t have a lot of structure and hierarchy built into our organization. It allows us to move very quickly on issues to build, break, hack, iterate and do it all over again.
Esprit de Corps: Since you took over in February 2014, have there been any changes to the organizational structure?
MGen Rouleau: Special Forces has always had reserves of excellence at the tactical level. People do very well on the ground. But I felt where we needed to mature was as a Level 1 organization in the military, at the same level as the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. I felt that we had some distance to go to mature as that organization. I think we’re more coherent as a force right now, than we were. We’re more sustainable and forward-thinking in institutional terms. It’s not just about doing a great job, but about sustaining ourselves as an organization over the long term.
Esprit de Corps: Has it proven to be a challenge to be more open? Especially with the nature of the Special Operations Forces?
MGen Rouleau: With running any organization, there are always challenges. There are always opportunities as well. There have been challenges wanting to open up more, as it would be unwise and unsafe. But, in opening up more, people’s appetites increase, especially about capabilities that relate to the national interest. There has been challenges internally — cultural challenges. Because we’ve operated in relatively closed-off ways, opening up more sort of makes my people ask the question, “Well, why are we doing this?” But Canadians can’t support something they know nothing about. And frankly, as a vehicle to recruiting more people, but also as a hedge. Because there’s always going to be not-so-great things happening in every organization and if you have nothing on the positive side when something bad happens, there’s nothing to balance it off with. There’s evidence of that in our outreach, here sitting with you. But like everything else in life, it has to have balance to it.
Esprit de Corps: The Liberal government promised $62-billion over the next 20 years and that includes 605 new Special Operations Forces soldiers. What are your thoughts?
MGen Rouleau: I am delighted. The CDS [Chief of the Defence Staff] had approved our growth a year ago within the Canadian Armed Forces, but that was affirmed now by government policy. We are going to grow by an additional 600 plus, which will bring us to just under 3,000 uniformed people, which is tremendous. That is going to allow us to develop depth, so that I won’t have to necessarily work my soldiers as much as I do now.
I would just point out though, those 605 people, they’re not going to be all special operators. You’ve got some operators, whether it’s a JTF2 operator, CJIRU operator in the chemical-biological space, or CSOR operator. We’re also giving some of those positions to our Air Force squadron, to our helicopter squadron. I have given the commander of the Air Force a certain number of those positions, so we can further develop the helicopter squadron. We are going to flesh out our schoolhouse as well, in Petawawa.
But I would also like to point out that we’re growing in the civilian defence team side. Because it would be out of sync to just grow uniforms but not the defence team. An effective CANSOFCOM is like a team effort, a team sport. I need my civilian defence team members to be a balanced element with my reserve members and with my regular members. It’s a balanced people portfolio that’s really going to help us get even better in the future.
The last point I’d make is that one of the things we mention often here is growth, [but that doesn’t always mean] bigger and bigger. Growth for us is better and better. There’s a difference. I am not looking for the biggest CANSOFCOM possible. Because every person we grow by puts risk on our culture, on our uniqueness, on our specialness. What I want is a CANSOFCOM appropriately big enough to handle the future load that we think we’ll have to carry, but not one person bigger than that so that we’re not putting at risk our culture, and furthermore, that we’re not taking people away from the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, because we’re part of a bigger team.
Esprit de Corps: Is there any story you have the freedom to share that can reflect the reality of special forces and the level at which they operate?
MGen Rouleau: Two of my three tours at the Balkans were in non-special forces context. I got to the Balkans in 1991, right at the start of the conflict, and my last tour was in 1997. Reflecting on my special forces tour that occurred in 1997, I was a captain leading a small team back then. It was a different time. The Canadian Armed Forces hadn’t had Joint Task Force 2 for very long. It had only been around for four years operationally at that point. It was a young unit. It was not well-known, so it was hard to integrate into operations. We did some good work back then, but we were sort of trying to find our way even when we were deployed. When I think of operations now, I command and control my deployed forces. And I think that’s an important point to make, because I work for the Chief of the Defence Staff. He gives me my orders. I translate those orders to a commander I deploy, and that commander works for me. There’s an unbroken chain of clarity and speed in that system. And that’s not the way it was in the early years. Every relay doubles the noise and cuts the message in half.
Esprit de Corps: Has there been an increase in services offered to members of the special forces?
MGen Rouleau: I’ve got 30 years in the military and in the past several years I’ve seen such a difference from my first 25 or 27 years … it’s incredible. And it’s a good thing. My job as a commander is to establish the correct climate and culture for my command. Fundamentally, that’s one of my most important jobs.
I’ve tried to make a strong point with my subordinate commanders for people to understand that mental health is no different than physical health. We would never leave a trooper with a broken leg untreated. And so why would we ever consider leaving someone with a mental health concern untreated? It makes no sense.
We’ve expanded; we spent a lot of time, about a year’s worth of work, putting together special forces mental wellness. We hired experts in the field; we supplemented our organic psychologists with other experts. We brought a multi-disciplinary team together: padres, social workers, psychiatrists, sports performance specialists, and human performance specialists. We developed a special operations mental agility program, which is a training program that gives people tools to be able to contend with stressors in life. More broadly, we developed the Optimizing Performance Force and Family (OPF2) initiative.
The OPF2 targets an operator demographic, and everyone [fits into the] CANSOFCOM demographic and a family demographic. It’s a regime of tools to help them contend with the stresses of working here, or being with a loved one who works here. It’s not just about helping people who work here. It’s about giving them the tools they need to not get broken in the first place, hopefully. But more than that, if they are hurting, it’s about taking care of them because there’s more to life than the military. We all have lives after the military, and I don’t want my people to ever leave the military broken.