Gritty artillery officer to become one of two female Battery Commanders in Canada

Article / June 12, 2019 / Project number: 19-0134

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By Ashley Materi, 3rd Canadian Division Public Affairs, with files from Army Public Affairs

Shilo, Manitoba — When she takes over as Battery Commander (BC) of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Shilo’s Headquarters Battery, Major Melissa Marshall will be one of two currently serving women battery commanders in Canada.

Taking over from Major Greg Keach in August 2019, she’ll handle everything from discipline and administration to ensuring that soldiers are prepared for deployments.

History of women in the Combat Arms

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) was one of the first militaries in the world to open all of its positions, including combat roles, to women.

Introducing women into the Combat Arms in 1989 increased the recruiting pool by about 100 per cent.

The Combat Arms are the four combat-focused branches of the Canadian Army: armour, artillery, infantry and engineering. Each now has a small but powerful contingent of women, including artillery officer Maj Marshall.

Maj Marshall’s career beginnings

Immediately after graduating in 2007 from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick with a political science degree, Maj Marshall joined the Canadian Army. She completed artillery officer training the next year and was posted to The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery School in Gagetown, New Brunswick.

It was there, on the large military base in the small maritime province, that Maj Marshall received her Forward Observation Officer qualification. Thereafter, she could work within a combat team, advising in offensive and defensive manoeuvres to ensure safe and tactical firing of artillery.

Extreme fitness part of plan for success

In a field that is less than 10 per cent female, old misconceptions can make work challenging for a woman. Maj Marshall said this inspired her to go the extra mile to “prove” herself physically. She began weight training and became passionate about fitness, exercise, and nutrition.

“I am constantly pushing myself to be stronger, to be faster and to be better,” she explained. “Fitness teaches me to focus my mind and push myself well beyond perceived limitations.”

Maj Marshall continues pushing her body to extremes, from breaking trail through waist-high snow while carrying a 150-pound rucksack to completing the 26-mile Bataan Memorial Death March across New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.

Building mental resilience is also key to success

You have to be physically fit to accomplish these feats, but Maj Marshall believes mental resilience is equally important.

Strategies like positive self-talk, setting specific goals for each workout and focusing on how amazing the human body is when properly fuelled and trained have helped propel her over any hurdle in her path.

“As long as your heart and mind are always a part of the journey, your body will follow suit,” she said.

Deployment to Afghanistan

In 2013, Maj Marshall deployed on Operation ATTENTION Roto 3 in Kabul.

This was the CAF contribution to the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan (NTM-A), which delivered training and professional development to the national security forces of Afghanistan.

As Task Force adjutant, she co-ordinated administration while also providing administrative and disciplinary advice to the commanding officer of the National Command Support Element, the command-and-control centre for CAF members in Afghanistan.

This element was a hub for security, mentoring sessions between Canadian and Afghan soldiers and police forces, and governance efforts in Kabul.

One day she would be advising the commanding officer when misbehaving soldiers were brought to a summary trial; the next day she’d be the Master of Ceremonies for an American-led Sept. 11 memorial parade; and the day after that she was conducting live-fire ranges with Canadian Special Operations Forces members mentoring their Afghan counterparts.

‘Best part’ was interacting with Afghan civilians

The best part, Maj Marshall said, was interacting with Afghan civilians. NTM-A forces were there to lend support and security to the Afghans, and meeting with locals let soldiers get to know the people who most benefit from improved stability. Regular contact also allowed citizens to maintain friendly relations with the military personnel.

To this end, Camp Phoenix, the NATO military base where she worked, held a monthly market set up by Afghan women and children.

During the course of her nearly seven-month tour, her “desire changed from wanting to buy scarves to giving something back to them, even if it was little.”

Maj Marshall began collecting some of the bulk items that came in from overseas, including shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste. She also brought snacks to give to the children.

“One day I asked a woman if I could give her daughter a Popsicle. She said yes, hugged me, and cried. She didn’t speak English but her daughter translated that she was emotional because she would have never been able to give her daughter something like that,” she recalled.

Maj Marshall didn’t really sleep that night.

“I found it incredibly sad to think that there were children in the world who would never be able to enjoy something as simple as a Popsicle on a warm day,” she said.

“That always stood out to me, because you never actually realize how good your life is until you see what life is like ‘on the other side.’”

Home postings

Maj Marshall has been the executive assistant to the Commander of 3rd Canadian Division since 2017.

The role, vital to day-to-day command group operations, has largely kept her from the field for the past two years.

This will change in August 2019 when Maj Marshall will take over as the Headquarters Battery Commander in charge of the functioning of the artillery group, at CFB Shilo.

In the summer of 2019, 3rd Canadian Division will be in the high-readiness phase, poised to deploy in Europe, in the Middle East and domestically.

As one of two female battery commanders in Canada, she says she’s humbled by the opportunity to set an example of leadership that soldiers can emulate.

Canada’s other woman battery commander, Major Carla Brumpton, will command Y Battery at 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Petawawa, Ontario in the summer of 2019.

“Whether it’s in terms of their physical or mental resilience, I want to show the people I’m responsible for that I absolutely want to be a part of their lives,” said Maj Marshall.

“I will celebrate their achievements and also support them through hardships.”

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council's New Atlanticist blog on April 2, 2019. Ashley Materi is a public affairs officer for the Department of National Defence and recently finished an internship with the Public Diplomacy Division at NATO.

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