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General promotes optimism

Canadians should be the most optimistic people on earth, according to retired Canadian Forces General Rick Hiller.

“I’ve served in 63 countries and about 41 of those didn’t have something as basic as rule of law,” said the general, who spoke at the Farm Credit Canada conference on Tuesday at the Sheraton Hotel in Red Deer.

He showed slides of a burka-covered Afghan woman seconds before she was executed by the Taliban during half-time at a soccer game.

Her “crime” was being seen with a man who was not from her immediate family, said Hillier, who noted other Afghan women are beaten if caught wearing nail polish, or if their heels make a clicking sound on the stones.

Another slide showed Afghan children miming their requests for paper and pencils so they could learn to read and write.

The general said children in countries such as Bosnia usually ask soldiers for candy, but in Afghanistan they recognize their lives can only improve through education.

In Canada, all children are educated, women have equality, and everybody lives in a safe society. “If Canadians can’t be optimistic, who can?” said Hillier.

“Don’t we live a great life? Isn’t this an awesome place?” he added, to cheering affirmation from the crowd.

The general, who retired from his chief of defence staff position in 2008, was asked to pass on tips about leadership, and he eventually did. But first he generously sprinkled his speech with comical anecdotes, such as growing up the only boy with five sisters in Newfoundland.

(Hillier said he got so many girls’ hand-me-downs, he was nine years old before he discovered that boys’ pants are supposed to have a front fly.)

He also talked about his long-suffering wife Joyce, who thought she was going to die when the C-17 plane she was travelling in had to make a near perpendicular landing to avoid being strafed by Taliban fighters during a landing on the Kandahar air strip.

“She threw her coffee in my lap . . . and yelled, ‘We’re going down!’” recalled Hiller, who noted all the ‘Vegas get-aways he’s since taken his wife on haven’t made up for that.

When he got around to the topic of effective leadership, he said it boils it down to inspiring workers with “perpetual optimism.”

Part of his duties were to ensure that Canadian soldiers never forgot their core values, even though they were often immersed in inhumane conditions, far from home.

By bringing a Tim Hortons coffee shop franchise to Kandahar, as well as visits by the Stanley Cup and comedians such as Rick Mercer, Hiller said he ensured that “figuratively,” the soldiers were still part of Canada.

In that way, he believes he prevented such tragedies as occurred in Somalia, when Canadian soldiers forgot their values and tortured a local teenager to death.

The other half of the leadership equation, according to Hillier, is allowing himself to be inspired by his soldiers. “You need that to help get you through your worst days.”

He shared stories about those who inspired him — including Mark Fuchko, a Calgary gunner who worked inside an armoured vehicle in Afghanistan.

Realizing that most soldiers in his position were killed by low-set Taliban explosives that blew off their legs, Fuchko routinely travelled with two loose tourniquets around his knees, as a precaution.

One night, when an explosion ripped through his vehicle, the tourniquets paid off. Hillier found out that the injured soldier pulled them tight, to prevent bleeding to death.

In the 42 minutes it took his fellow soldiers to free him from inside, while under artillery fire, Fuchko was also able to grab the bags of plasma that were passed to him through a small hole.

He stuck the needle into his arm and saved his own life, said Hillier.

In 2011, Fuchko climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro on prosthetic legs.



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