General Walt Natynczyk.
Credits: REUTERS/Chris Wattie
OTTAWA - If you ask Gen. Walt Natynczyk about the legacy he'll leave behind, those who know Canada's top soldier say he'll furrow his brow and take a pass on the question.
However, those same people aren't too shy to describe the chief of defence staff's contribution to the military as he prepares to pass the baton to Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson in the next few weeks.
"It's just a question of caring deeply about the soldiers," said retired colonel Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. "(Natynczyk has) spent a lot of time on the road, whether it's visits to Afghanistan or visits to bases."
While Natynczyk declined comment, his supporters were more than willing to speak on his behalf.
Earlier in his 37-year military career, troops dubbed Natynczyk "Uncle Walt" because of the way he took a personal interest in their well-being.
The general's top spokesman says Natynczyk, 55, and his wife Leslie, have tried to hard to improve the way wounded soldiers and military families are taken care of.
"They've championed a number of causes and a number of initiatives to basically make sure no one is forgotten, no one is left behind," said Lt.-Cmdr. Kris Phillips.
He points to Natynczyk's efforts to strengthen care for soldiers suffering from combat stress, while also spearheading a still-developing program to make it easier for military families to access doctors when postings move them from province to province.
"Everything for him is very personal and he takes a very deep personal interest in it, as does Mrs. Natynczyk," said Phillips.
Phillips recalls the outgoing chief stopping by the Victoria home of a military veteran diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour to thank him for his service.
"It's amazing when you happen to be there, when you're seeing one of these visits going on and you see how much it means to the person," said Phillips. "I mean it just bowls people over."
Others credit Natynczyk with keeping a steady hand during combat in Afghanistan, and then transitioning to training Afghan forces.
"He was constantly on the ground and was a very effective leader," said Don Macnamara, a former brigadier-general who teaches at Queen's University. "He was the guy that had to create the atmosphere and be reassuring to the political forces as well."
Pellerin says Natynczyk's public communication efforts about Afghanistan helped to build a "love story" that saw civilians on overpasses honouring fallen soldiers as their caskets were driven down the Highway of Heroes from CFB Trenton to Toronto.
Repatriation ceremonies for fallen soldiers were always something very personal for Natynczyk.
"I've seen the look on his face change almost on every single occasion when he's spoken about these types of issues," said Phillips.
Natynczyk also faced media controversy during his tenure.
He dealt with a series of reports about alleged mistreatment of detainees by Afghan authorities after being handed over by Canadian soldiers.
Ultimately, the allegations fizzled following last year's release of government documents about prisoner transfers.
Natynczyk also came under heavy fire for his use of government planes.
Much of the criticism centred on using a Challenger jet in 2010 to join his vacationing family in the Caribbean because Natynczyk had missed his commercial flight while attending a repatriation ceremony.
Natynczyk's smile never disappeared in the thick of the media storm, but it was a difficult time for him, despite getting Defence Minister Peter MacKay's approval for the flight.
"He has expressed some frustration, yes," said Phillips. "That was one of things that was also very personal for him in that, as I say, he has so much integrity and has always tried to do the right thing."
Despite Natynczyk's offer to repay the flight's cost if found inappropriate, the government hasn't asked for a dime.
Natynczyk has never been totally satisfied with how military procurements have gone, especially with delays in shipbuilding and the F-35 stealth fighter controversy.
"I think he would say that there are successes in the procurement file and he'd also say that we still have work to do in other files," said Phillips.
Meanwhile, don't expect a change of command ceremony like Gen. Rick Hillier's costly spectacle in 2008 that saw the outgoing chief of defence staff ride in on a tank.
At Natynczyk's request, he'll hand the keys to Lawson in a low-key ceremony.
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"What you see in public is what we get to see here in private. So, what we get to see behind closed doors is someone who is trying to do the right thing, someone who cares deeply, someone who is so genuine in his approach that it's astounding in many ways." - Lt.-Cmd. Kris Phillips, public affairs officer to the chief of the defence staff
"I know that he and the prime minister were pretty close and I'm sure that Walt would be giving the prime minister the unvarnished truth. What the prime minister or other politicians would want to do with that would be in their hands, but he would not hold back." - retired brigadier-general Don Macnamara, Queen's University professor
"He did a fine job in running the armed forces during the period, and also, I think, communicating with the public on what the armed forces are doing in Afghanistan." - retired colonel Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute
"I've seen some guys throw their notebook across the room, they get so frustrated by things. But, if he does that, he does that in private. He's cheerful. He's efficient. He's keen." - retired lieutenant-colonel Doug Bland, Queen's University professor
Gen. Walt Natynczyk
Born: Oct. 29, 1957 in Winnipeg
Parents: German immigrant mother, Polish immigrant father
Religion: Roman Catholic
Married to wife Leslie: June 1982
Children: Margaret, William, and John, who serve in the Navy, Air Force and Army respectively.
Education: Business Administration Degree, Royal Roads Military College
Joined military: 1975
- UN peacekeeping duties in Cyprus in 1984, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994
- Commanded Royal Canadian Dragoons during the Winnipeg floods of 1997 and 1998 Ice Storm in Ottawa region
- Deputy Commanding General, U.S. III Corps as military exchange officer, deployed to Iraq in 2004
- Became chief of defence staff on Jul. 2, 2008
Visits to Afghanistan as chief of defence staff: 16