OTTAWA – On July 3, 2009 the Canadian military came within a heartbeat of losing its future leader.
That was the day a powerful Taliban roadside bomb detonated beneath the light armoured vehicle behind the one carrying then-Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance.
Vance was standing in the rear air sentry hatch and saw, as the debris and dust cleared, the lifeless body of a member of his personal detail, Cpl. Nick Bulger, in the other vehicle.
It was a touchstone event for Vance, now a lieutenant-general, who was formally named on Monday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the country’s next top military commander.
He rarely speaks about the event, but sat down with The Canadian Press for an in-depth profile interview in 2011.
“The toughest moment (of the war) was holding Nick Bulger dead in my arms after the IED strike,” said Vance.
In the Balkans as a young officer and peacekeeper, he oversaw the grisly exchange of bodies between warring factions and the removal of mines from churches and holy sites.
Not only does Vance understand the business of war on a gut level, but he knows the cost in terms of destruction and lives, said retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie.
He described Vance as blunt and known for speaking truth to power, which could make him a popular choice for a military struggling to redefine itself following the Afghanistan mission.
“I am feeling old because I worked for Jon Vance’s dad,” said MacKenzie, referring to retired lieutenant-general Jack Vance, who served as vice chief of defence staff in the 1980s and passed away in 2013.
The day his father retired as the vice chief of defence staff, Vance was a captain serving with the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, which was stationed in Germany at the time.
The advice that stuck with him wasn’t necessarily restricted to soldiering.
“Be yourself, is what he told me,” Vance said of his father. “He had all sorts of other sayings, family sayings, but the one that I’ve applied to my military life and throughout my life is: Be yourself, which I took as don’t be contrived; don’t put on airs. And he always taught me to have the courage of my convictions, as long as they were thought through.”
He grew up an army brat and said he also took inspiration from the sergeants and warrant officers who were his hockey coaches.
Later this year Vance will replace the soon-to-retire Gen. Tom Lawson, a former fighter pilot, who announced last winter that he would step down after 2 1/2 years in the job.
He takes over at an important time, with Canada helping battle extremists in Iraq and Syria and as measures are being taken to reassure eastern European allies in the face of Russian aggression, Harper said Monday.
“I’m sure Gen. Vance will do a tremendous job for this vital national institution,” said the prime minister, noting that the transition would not take place for a couple of months.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he’s concerned about the amount of time that will pass before there is a change of command.
There’s been an open invitation for Lawson to appear before the Commons defence committee, and Harris said he’d like to hear from Vance about his vision for the future of the military and expectations for the mission in Iraq and Syria before Parliament breaks in advance of the fall election.
“I think it would be good for the public to know what Gen. Vance’s views are and whether he has any particular concerns,” said Harris.
Vance twice led the army’s task force in Kandahar during the Afghan war. He was commander in 2009, but returned for a second stint when his successor, Brig-Gen. Dan Menard was relieved for misconduct.
Currently, Vance serves as the country’s joint operations commander and has been the face of high-profile public briefings on the combat mission against the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
He’s also served in other key posts, including head of the strategic joint staff, the military’s nerve centre in Ottawa and was also deputy commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples.
Vance also takes over at a time when the military is juggling multiple deployments on a reduced budget, something that’s likely to weigh on the new defence chief, MacKenzie added.
“It won’t be a lot of fun,” said MacKenzie. “I’ve always said you have to be a bit of a masochist to take that job these days. There’s no doubt about it. Naturally, there is the other side of it where you have achieved the ultimate (career) appointment, but it’s not going to be the most enjoyable one.”
Aside from field experience, Vance brings a robust academic record to the job with a master’s degree in war studies, and he was one of the principal authors of the army’s counter-insurgency manual, which was adopted during the Kandahar campaign.