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Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.


Suicide bomber robs regiment of its soul

When Robert Girouard was killed, his unit lost more than its Chief Warrant Officer

Christie Blatchford, Globe & Mail, 2 Dec 06

Article Link


As Chief Warrant Officer Robert (Bobby) Girouard and Corporal Albert Storm came home to Canada last night, their flag-draped caskets arriving at CFB Trenton in a light rain, there was nothing to tell the non-military observer what a profound loss he was witnessing.


While the army properly grieves every fallen soldier equally, regardless of rank, the death of CWO Girouard was felt keenly not only on a personal level, but also as an enormous symbolic blow.


The 46-year-old husband and father of three wasn't just the senior non-commissioned officer of the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, he was also the unit's Regimental Sergeant Major, the first of about 25 RSMs in the battalion's storied 123-year history to be killed by enemy action.


He and 36-year-old Cpl. Storm, a native of Fort Erie, Ont., and a father of two, died Monday when their Bison armoured personnel carrier was struck by a suicide bomber just west of the main base at Kandahar Air Field.


The RSM is not a rank, but an appointment -- one steeped in military lore and best expressed in the old saying that if a regiment is commanded by the lieutenant-colonel, it "belongs" to the RSM.


Equal parts mother hen, stern father figure and kindly mentor, the RSM is variously described as the soul of a regiment, the keeper of its institutional memory and fierce guardian of its traditions, and a figure so important that every soldier from the most junior private to the most senior officer listens to him "as if unto God," as one soldier said yesterday.


The RSM is also widely considered to be invulnerable, the character who, as Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Ron Bragdon told The Globe and Mail yesterday, "in war movies is the guy standing up and walking as the bullets are flying."


Now a senior controller for the army, former Lt.-Col. Bragdon said that the Commanding Officer-RSM relationship is the pinnacle of the officer-NCO pairing that happens as soon as a young officer gets his first assignment.


The officer, likely then in his 20s, begins as a platoon commander, with a warrant officer probably in his 30s or even early 40s. "You're brand new, and he's like the uncle. And if you don't listen to him, you can get into a lot of trouble."


By the time the officer returns, older and a little wiser, as a company commander and is paired with a sergeant-major, the relationship is more mature, with the sergeant-major now like an older brother. "He becomes your confidante, you tell him things you wouldn't even tell your wife. You might say 'I have a great idea!' and he'll say, 'Let's go for a walk,' and he'll provide you that other perspective. And it might even be a great idea."


The next step, where the CO and RSM pair up, the relationship changes again, "brother to brother, but you're more equal, you're closer in age. Now, you do more than just move together inside the battalion, when the CO goes to merit boards to discuss troop promotions, the RSM goes with him."


Indeed, the CO and RSM "are together 70 per cent of the time and when they are not, it is often because the CO has asked the RSM to chase down an issue of 'ground truth,' " Lt.-Col. Geordie Elms said yesterday in an e-mail from Kabul, where he is now the Canadian defence attaché.


Col. Elms attended the ramp ceremony in Kandahar two days ago when the Canadian battle group said goodbye to Cpl. Storm and the RSM.


"I had known him for 27 years," Col. Elms wrote wistfully, from when "he was Private Bobby Girouard. . . . I looked at the picture released of him and thought, 'He still looks the same, with that grin and those ears.' "


The CO-RSM relationship, he said, "goes on long after each of you give up your appointments. I saw it in my father -- an RSM -- with the COs he served under, and I see it at every regimental gathering or reunion."


Indeed, one of the first people to whom Col. Elms had to break the news of RSM Girouard's death was his own old RSM.


So revered is the office of RSM, and so two-headed the nature of his responsibilities -- Col. Elms describes it as having one foot in the sergeants' mess and the other in the CO's tent -- that tradition decrees that while the troops may address him as "RSM," officers must refer to him as Mister.


Only the CO has the privilege of calling him RSM, as the men do.


RSM Girouard embodied all of the lore "and more," says a 1RCR officer who grew up in the ranks before being commissioned and thus has seen RSMs from both ends.


Wounded in Afghanistan, the officer said it was RSM Girouard's "face I saw soon after" and whose "words which drove me to recover and to get back overseas in a few days."


But even as he looks after the men, simultaneously the RSM's other responsibility is to watch his CO's "6 o'clock" -- his back. RSM Girouard was doing just this when he was killed.


On Monday last, the 1RCR CO, Lt.-Col. Omer Lavoie was in the lead vehicle of the convoy as it left the air field, with RSM Girouard and Cpl. Storm in the Bison just behind.


Command is acknowledged as the loneliest job, with CO Lavoie's peer group, as such, consisting only of the hard-charging former hockey player with the Royals. "I have no doubt," Col. Elms said, "that RSM Girouard will be with Omer the rest of his life."


On Wednesday, when he returns to CFB Petawawa, Bobby Girouard's body will be marched through the 1RCR lines for the last time.


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