For Craig Tompkins, it all started with a poster he passed in the window of a recruiting office.
“I was 19 and didn’t see much of a future,” recalled the Scarborough, Ont. native. “I got taken in by the slogan that said ‘Be All That You Can Be’ or something like that,” he said with a chuckle of his decision to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done, by far,” he said. “I got opportunities to travel, see a third of the world and meet different cultures.”
Tompkins retired in 2007 after 25 years in the service and moved to the West Shore in 2001, where he now lives in Langford.
His career includes a peacekeeping tour in 1987 in Cypress and tours of duty in both Gulf Wars, where he did logistics work in support of the navy, moving troops and equipment in and out of different theatres of war.
He also spent four years in Germany with NATO as the senior logistics co-ordinator for troops, families and freight moving in and out of Europe.
Along the way, Tompkins earned his wings and spent five years flying C-130 Hercules aircraft with the 435 Squadron, first based in Edmonton and then Winnipeg.
“Getting my flight wings took a lot of work and was a big deal to me,” he said. “It ranks right up there with getting promoted to sergeant as highlights of my career.”
Tompkins eventually logged 2,200 hours of flying time doing humanitarian airlifts in Somalia, tactical airlifts, mid-air refuelling and troops and equipment drops.
“My wife, Sarah, has been incredibly supportive throughout,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges that come with that kind of a career, where you’re away for long periods of time.”
Tompkins hasn’t exactly eased into retirement, spending his time volunteering with a variety of organizations. He works with veterans at the Legion in Langford, assisting them with government programs, and recently helped 93-year-old Second World War veteran George Wastle receive his Knight of the Legion of Honour Medal from France.
“Advocating for veterans is very important to me,” Tompkins said. In addition, he volunteers with the Red Cross, the YMCA-YWCA, Victoria Hospice and even does turns as a stage hand for the Victoria Operatic Society.
“I still miss the teamwork and camaraderie (from his time in the RCAF),” he said. “Everyone pulling together, the ethos of a bunch of people getting a mission completed.”
Remembrance Day can be a challenging time for Tompkins, who has lost comrades suffering from PSTD to suicide, and has several friends suffering the effects.
“You do whatever you can,” he said. “PTSD affects different people in different ways.”
The eleventh day in November also evokes positive feelings that he sums up succinctly in two words.
“Honour and privilege,” he explained. “It’s an honour and a privilege to work with the veterans.”