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Changing career, changing outlook

Changing career, changing outlook

A career in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) can prepare someone for success in post-service employment. But the transition requires a change in the Veteran, as well, says Major Ret David Blackburn.

Born in Scarborough, Ont., David says he was the kind of kid who loved sports and the outdoors. In class, he would look out the window, daydreaming of adventure.

David moved with his family to Edmonton, then Vancouver, when he was a teenager. By the time he graduated high school in 1986, he had narrowed down his career choices: the military, the Coast Guard, or a police force.

That summer, he saw an ad in the local paper: the Canadian Forces Reserve offered a paid program that included basic training as well as career training. David jumped at the opportunity. After three months, he had qualified as a radio-teletype operator, graduating top of his class.

“I loved it,” he recalls. “The competitiveness, the structure, the camaraderie.” He decided on a career in the CAF and went to the local  recruiting centre. There, he found that the officer in charge of the summer training program had left a letter on file, recommending David Blackburn for officer training.

“That totally floored me,” David says. “I didn’t have any idea that he had written a letter of recommendation.”

On his 21st birthday in 1988, David went to Chilliwack, B.C. to start the Basic Officer Training program. After training, he was posted to the Royal Canadian Dragoons in Petawawa, Ont., as a Second Lieutenant and commanded a four-car troop of Cougar six-wheel armoured tank trainers.

David’s competitive nature was evident in Petawawa, where he played regimental hockey and rose through the junior officer ranks to captain. His final role there was A Squadron Liaison Officer. “It was my job to ensure our soldiers were organized, trained and equipped for the operations.”

As a newly promoted Captain, David went to Germany to coordinate deployment operations of a field hospital during the Gulf War in 1990. In 1997, he was part of the relief operations for the Red River floods in Winnipeg.

“That was a very meaningful operation to me,” he recalls. “We could see how the local people appreciated what we were doing.” Residents brought food and other items to the CAF’s quarters, just to make life a little easier and provide some respite.

David Blackburn and two members of the UN military mission in Bosnia meet locals, 1998.

David Blackburn and two members of the UN military mission in Bosnia meet locals, 1998.

It was while training for his operational mission in Bosnia as the Battle Captain for a reconnaissance squadron, that David suffered his first service-related injury. While travelling at night, the Cougar he was in overturned in a ditch. After climbing from the rear hatch, David could not see the distance to the ground, and crushed his vertebrae when he jumped down.

Despite the severe damage, David did not realize how badly he’d been injured. Not yet.

In 1998, still in Bosnia, he suffered another back injury. Even so, he describes his tour in Bosnia as fantastic.

“It was rewarding to put into action all the training and education you get.”

After returning to Canada, David was posted to the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Group headquarters and promoted to Major. For the next several years, David’s duties focused on human resources management: training, logistics coordination, personnel management—everything that the people of the CAF need to perform at their best.


In 2005, David earned his Bachelor of Military Arts and Sciences degree while posted as the Canadian Forces Liaison Officer to Fort Hood, Texas. Then, he went on to earn a post-graduate certificate in human resources from the University of Texas.

But his repeated injuries eventually caught up with him, leading to a medical release in 2011. “I was on the permanent medical/ill and injured list for two years. There’s a stigma associated with that,” David says. “I had to learn how to shed that cultural and psycho-social identity.”

Approaching release from service, David says he had to learn how to market himself in a completely different employment world. “In the military, you’re part of a team. It’s ‘We did this,’ not ‘I did this.’ After release, members have to return to an individualistic labour market.”

He realized he had developed people skills, highly marketable outside the military.

David says he was lucky. “I saw a job ad for a health services manager with military experience.” He sent his resume and got a call the next day. His experience as a leader and in human resources management made him the perfect candidate—and the employer agreed.

David Blackburn promoting the Forces@WORK program at a Royal Canadian Legion Annual General Meeting, 2019.

David Blackburn promoting the Forces@WORK program at a Royal Canadian Legion Annual General Meeting, 2019.

Today, he is in his fourth management position after release, with Prospect Human Services. This not-for-profit organization in Alberta helps people find jobs. Of the nine teams he manages, his passion is the Forces@WORK program, which helps match Veterans to fulfilling careers.

“I was more fortunate than many,” he says. “The multiple roles I had in the military have trained me to be adaptable to change, and to learn on the fly.

“A military career sets you up well for that.”

Tips for members facing transition

David has some advice for Veterans and currently serving CAF members.

The biggest challenge is learning a new culture. “You don’t have someone managing your career and telling you what your next job will be. You don’t have the same network anymore. You have to motivate and market yourself.”

Leadership has valuable lessons. “People are your greatest assets. Know and promote your people. You don’t have to yell at or belittle them. You can get a lot more done by asking, and ensuring that your people have what they need to accomplish their goals.

“Make a plan, refine it on annually, and invest in your education and transferrable skills.

“The first job you take will be a ‘lily pad’ role,” David explains. “It won’t be exactly what you want, you’ll get your feet wet, you’ll find it uncomfortable, but it will set you up for your next job.

“Don’t be afraid to take chances and have confidence in your abilities.”

Prospect Human Services of Calgary, Alta., has received funding from the Veteran and Family Well-Being Fund for the Forces@Work program.

If you or someone you know is transitioning to life after service, check our website for services related to mental and physical health, finances, education or jobs and housing and home life. We also provide services to families and caregivers who support our Veterans.


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