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  • Jay Willis

Die Hard - a Military Myth

After 20 years of regular force experience in the Canadian military I had come to believe that “retired Canadian soldiers don’t fade away, they just retire and die hard in quick time.” It took quite a while, but I finally figured out I have been wrong all these years.

Recent studies in Israel, USA, and Canada* have shown that military retirees are living considerably longer than their civilian counterparts. The reasons cited for this phenomenon are not conclusive, but it is postulated that the military population is generally healthier, probably due to the military’s stringent selection process on enrollment; continued emphasis on physical fitness; and comprehensive medical and dental health plans.

Still some myths die hard, partly because there’s an element of truth to every myth, and partly due to personal circumstance.

I’d bought into the ‘retire and die’ myth early in my career, and vowed to never become a ‘lifer’ (someone who retires after 35 years service). This was based, in part, on an apocryphal ‘military study’ passed down from who-knows-where, which purportedly found that long service non-commissioned members, like Army Chief Warrant Officers lived an average of three years following retirement; for Airforce Chief Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers in the Navy the figure was five years. A rather grim set of conclusions, to say the least.

But the main reason the ‘retire and die’ myth had such a profound hold on me was due to the memory of one man: Master Warrant Officer Ken Eakin.

Back in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s MWO Eakin was the ETQMS (the Electrical-Technical Quarter Master Sergeant-Major) of the Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers Maintenance Platoon (or ‘REME’ Platoon as it was known back then). REME Platoon’s purpose in life was to support the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3PPCLI), then based at Workpoint Barracks near CFB Esquimalt, BC.

MWO Ken Eakin (also known as the ‘ET’ by the troops) closely resembled Colonel Potter on the TV show “MASH”: like the TV actor, he stood not much more than five and a half feet tall and had a deep, resonant voice. He also had perfected a penetrating glare unique to Army Sergeant-Majors everywhere. The ET was a quiet man with an unmistakable air of authority about him - the adage about walking softly and carrying a big stick comes to mind. Throughout the short time I served with him as the Maintenance Platoon Clerk in 1979-81, (including a UN tour in Cyprus) he never once lost his composure. He used to say, “Never run. It panics the troops.”

The main thing I loved about the man is how he cared for others in his charge. He was perhaps an originator of the management style known as MBWA (Managing By Wandering Around). Never stuck in the office, he was always engaged in the work and (unobtrusively) in the lives of the thirty or so technicians under him: he knew the names of their wives and children, their favourite hobbies, and their personal attributes, positive and negative.

He was a man’s man - a soldier’s soldier through and through, and, at times, like a second father to myself and other members of Maintenance Platoon. He wasn’t much for long-winded speeches, so one particular moment stands out in memory, when he decided to pass on to me some of his wisdom.

During platoon level inspections all the maintenance technicians would stand to beside their kit in their respective workspaces, and, being the clerk, my duty was to follow the Sergeant-Major around the Maintenance Hangar, clipboard in hand, jotting down whatever he said to jot down. I stand over six feet tall, so it must have been rather amusing to watch the bespectacled bean pole of a private that was me, trailing around after the short and stocky MWO Eakin.

Over time I began to realize that he never forgot a solder’s previous performance, never repeated himself, and rarely, if at all, dressed anyone down in stereotypical Sergeant-Major fashion. Whether or not the soldier being inspected met the required standard, he treated everyone with the same respect. Even for the soldier who failed inspection and got hammered by the ET with a lot of extra duties and/or drill, he always had some quip that left the transgressor grinning. It was impressive to witness the respect the men showed him, and he to them.

One day after inspection, while sitting in the ET’s office transcribing notes, I screwed up enough courage to ask him the secret of his success with the men. He said, “Never back a man into a corner; always give him an out; and always leave his dignity intact.” His words stayed with me throughout my time in the military, a constant reminder that ‘firm but fair’ leadership requires compassion.

Not long after I was transferred to the Battalion Orderly Room, MWO Eakin was offered a promotion to Chief Warrant Officer, which he refused on the grounds that it meant getting posted to Ottawa - a move which would have been contrary to the welfare of his 14 year old daughter. Instead, he retired and took a civilian desk job at the Navy base in Esquimalt.

About six months later he had a stroke, and about a year later he had another and died.

At the time, I attributed his death to leaving the military too soon: sitting behind a desk was not his forte, and did not translate too well from the “work hard, play hard” mentality of army life. His workhorse heart literally seized up. MWO Ken Eakin was also a rather heavy smoker, and this, along with the sudden reduction in his level of activity did not bode well for his cardiovascular health.

Over the years I began to notice other military men of his generation dropping like flies not long after retirement. And thanks to that ‘apocryphal study’ (mentioned earlier) and the grief I felt, I blithely attributed this phenomenon to being an occupational hazard of being in the military.

Having been a ‘civilian’ for some time now, I know for certain that foreshortened retirements are not unique to the military. Today’s military is much changed from the one I knew, and the studies cited above are positive proof. All I have to say about that is - thank goodness!

I would have liked to have been friends MWO Eakin after he retired but I never got the chance. However, I did take the lesson learned in my military career to heart. I retired in 2001, quit smoking and drinking alcohol ten years ago, have stayed active (cycling, swimming, hiking) and was lucky enough to marry a very loving lady who knows more about good food and living healthy than I ever will.

The way I see it, if it were not for MWO Ken Eakin, I would probably be a part of the ‘die hard’ myth by now.


  1. “Canadian Forces Cancer and Mortality Study: Causes of Death (Stats Canada, 2011)

  2. “Health and Well Being of CF Veterans: Findings from 2013 Life After Service Survey”

  3. “Relative Longevity Among Retired Military Personnel: a Historical-Cohort Study (October 2015)

  4. “Retirement, Stats, Studies & Stuff”, Mariella Vigneux, 2017

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