Major (retired) Mark Andrew Bossi spent 40 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, enlisting as an infantryman in the 48th Highlanders of Canada in 1977 while studying at The University of Toronto.

In October, Bossi retired after a 40-year military career. But that doesn’t mean that the retired major and North York resident is done with his service.

Bossi spoke with about his Toronto-based military career, why he thinks our biggest contribution in Afghanistan wasn’t made with bullets, and what he’s doing now.

[NOTE: Responses have been edited for brevity]

Q: What made you want to enlist?

At that point in time it was the cold war, so I decided to join the army and continue a family tradition. My grandfather fought during the Boer War in South Africa. He was a Highlander from Scotland. I joined the 48th Highlander in Toronto, family tradition. I decided if there’s going to be a war, I want to know what I’m doing.

That proved to be a wise decision. When I went to Afghanistan, I’d been a soldier and an officer for 26 years. There’s a huge difference to that.

Q: You’ve had a lot of jobs in the military. Which one was the most defining for you?

My 40 years in the army – that was the best job I ever had. Within those 40 years, the one where I’ve been able to contribute the most was when I went to Afghanistan. I was doing something called Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC).

We’d go out and build schools, build medical clinics – make friends instead of enemies. The phrase you’ll hear referred to in literature is “winning hearts and minds.”

If you kill somebody, well his family is going to hate you and they’re going to come for you, so now you’ve increased the number of enemies.

By making friends, when we rebuild a school, the parents and the grandparents in that village say ‘you’re building a school for my children. Bad guys never build schools.’

By our good works and our good deeds, actions speak louder than words.

Slowly we’ve taken away recruits from the enemy.

I’m super proud of what the Canadian Army is doing in Latvia. General Jonathan Vance – he gets it. When he sent the Canadian army to Latvia, he told them ‘take your hockey equipment; you’re going to play hockey with the locals.’

Latvia has a budding hockey program and of course Canada is a superpower in hockey – there’s no argument about that. For the people in Latvia – maybe the soldiers, maybe the villagers – they’re playing with the hockey superstars, the Canadians, the best hockey players in the world.

Mark Bossi

From what you’ve seen since then, do you get the impression that that perception of Canadians has stuck?

The other day the break line on my truck went. I went to a mechanic and said please can you help me out. He fixed it and then he looked at my shirt and it had ‘Kabul’ on it.

He said ‘Where’d you get that shirt?’ I said ‘I got it in Afghanistan.’

Then he said ‘I’m from Afghanistan. You know, you Canadians – you’re the only country that kept its word.’

Before we went to Afghanistan, we studied their laws, their religion and tribal culture. And a verbal contract is binding. So it was our golden rule: Never make a promise you can’t keep.  

How did Afghanistan change the military?

When you spend 26 years training for something and then you get to put your training to good use and it works, it’s an incredible feeling of pride in our army, pride in my training, pride in everything we did and represented.

For many people, PTSD comes to mind when we think about soldiers’ experiences. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the military or military personnel that Canadians have?

Every soldier that goes away comes back with stories. We have war stories. When our Canadian soldiers go somewhere, there’s a good chance our soldiers will see something that most Canadians will never see in their life. It affects everybody differently.

Everybody thinks the legion is just a place where people go and play darts. No it’s not. They go and they talk. They talk to each other and tell their story. Sometimes they get it off their chest – it’s something they can’t talk about with their family or any other person. They need a place to go where they’re safe, where they can talk to others who understand them without judgment. If they need help we can take them to a doctor or maybe get some mental health care from a professional if that’s what’s needed.

Some guys don’t want to tell their story because it hurts too much.

There’s a stigma that they’re all suffering. Well some guys are, some guys aren’t

Is there a stigma among soldiers about expressing how you’re affected?

Well there’s something funny about soldiers and sailors and air force personnel that people might not realize – if they’re hurt, they won’t tell anybody because they don’t want to get sent home. They want to stay there with their buddies and finish the fight because they’re not going to let anybody down.

I’m one of them. I tore stomach muscles. When I came back, the army took care of me and I got surgery. I remember being on the operating table and I was awake and the doctor says ‘you’ve had these for a long time.’ I said ‘Yeah, but I didn’t want to get sent home from Afghanistan.’

Mark Bossi

After 40 years, is it difficult to step away?

The way I’m fighting now is I’m helping out with the Royal Canadian legion. There’s a special section in the legion and we deal with something called Operation Stress Injuries – that encompasses PTSD, depression and many other issues.

I’m helping out veterans not just from recent campaigns like Bosnia and Afghanistan; I have met guys from the Korean War who are still having problems.

A lot of your career was spent in Toronto. Torontonians don’t typically think of themselves as living in a military town. Is it a strange thing to be a soldier in Toronto?

I remember after 9/11, the first day or two nobody knew what was happening. One of the orders was that if you’re a soldier and you’re going to work, wear civilian clothing because we have no idea if we’re going to be attacked.

I was walking to the subway to go to work and a neighbor and his wife came up to me. I didn’t even know they knew I was in the army, but they’d seen me walking in my uniform back and forth to work.

They came to me and said ‘excuse me, are you still in the army?’ I said yes, I’m sorry – they told us not to wear our uniforms for a couple of days.’ I remember the man just reached out and shook my hand and said ‘thank you.’  

So there I was going to work in civilian clothes and this guy felt reassured there was a solider around on his street.

The Highway of Heroes – that was also a grassroots movement. I say it was a reawakening in Canada’s pride and love for its military because we defend Canada. We’re not an army of oppressors like in some countries where they come at midnight and take away people and you never see them again. The Highway of Heroes exists because Canadians respect their military.

Some people think Remembrance Day is all about glorifying war; No it’s not. There’s a phrase I love about Remembrance Day: “Honour the fallen and help the living.” It’s two minutes of silence to honour the fallen and after the two minute of silence are over, you help the living.

Would you say there are better supports here for soldiers or ex-soldiers?

Toronto has an incredible advantage with a large population.

Just one example: Toronto has CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), which is THE centre.  

When fulltime soldiers retire from the army, they have a tough time getting a family doctor, like other people. The Military Family Resource Centre here in Toronto has a list of doctors who are more than willing to help retired soldiers because they understand them, they get them.

Are there any challenges to being a soldier in this city?

In a small community if you’re an ex-soldier and you retire, everybody knows your name.

In Toronto, it’s huge and once you’re a civilian and you’re wearing civilian clothes, you’re an invisible minority and you don’t know who else is ex-military. So one of the challenges for these guys is to find a sympathetic ear, somebody who will listen and understand what it is they’re saying, somebody who will listen non-judgmentally, in a friendly fashion.

So sadly some guys end up in their basements. Some guys sadly want to drink themselves to death because that’s the only way they can stop the nightmares. Some guys don’t want to inflict their nightmares on their children or their spouse and so they’ll leave their family, they’ll push them away because they’re afraid.

The thing is if we can just drag them some place, grab a coffee at Tim Hortons, it’s a first step. The Royal Canadian Legion is serving its purpose – it’s like a beacon.

Do you think for younger guys, they feel like the legion is a place they can go? If not, why not?

No, it’s rough. It’s interesting and a bit complex. They want to go and talk to somebody who understands them and some of the younger guys think the older people aren’t going to understand them.  

But I’ll tell you about a legion down in Southwestern Ontario – I can’t praise them enough. They took a room and rededicated it and unofficially call it the ‘modern veterans’ room.’ They put a coffee machine in there so if there’s a guy with alcohol problems, you can go up there and just shoot the breeze among yourselves. You talk to your peers, to your age group and you don’t have to put up with us old people – we’ll be downstairs.  

But then they’ll have a roast beef dinner and they’ll bring them up a tray, kinda like mom giving you a dinner in your room if you’re not feeling well.

Where will you be on Remembrance Day?

Friday night I’m the guest speaker at the Royal Ontario Legion in Cornwall, Ont. Then I have to turn around and drive back to Toronto because at 11 a.m. I’m going to be at the north end of Queen’s Park, by the monument to my regiment, the 48th Highlanders of Canada.

Then Saturday night I’ll be at the 48th Highlander’s Remembrance Dinner. That’s where 48th Highlanders from every generation – we get together and have dinner together because we’re all on the same team. We’ve experienced things that other Canadians only read about in history books.

When I came back from Afghanistan, I went to the Remembrance Dinner and a guy from World War II and a guy from the Korean War, they came up to me and said ‘now you get it.’