A special conversation in honour of Remembrance Day...
You’d be forgiven for addressing Jeff Casey as “Captain” if you meet at the Cenotaph this coming Sunday” because, at 6-foot-4 and wearing his naval uniform, he makes a commanding impression.
Master Seaman Casey, 39, is a non-commissioned member (NCM) of the Royal Canadian Navy. He’s in his 16th year and at Master Seaman, has achieved the highest rank for a junior NCM. Born and raised in Port Howe and still living on the family land, he joined the Navy in 1996 when he was 24 years old.
“Me and five others guys went up to Moncton when we were in Grade 12 and went through the recruitment office but only three got in,” says Jeff. “Early in 1996, they called me back and wanted me to reapply.”
He went in as Naval Acoustic Operator, which meant he was hunting for submarines. Three years later, he left the Navy and worked in this area for nine months until returning to the Navy in August 2000 as an electrician.
“I was in cadets when I was younger and always liked the military aspect,” Jeff explains, “but I always wanted to be in the army. I joined the Navy because when they called me up the second time to ask me to reapply, by then I had Brandon and Tammy had Heather so we were a family. The Navy kept me on this coast. There’s only two spots you can go, the east coast or west coast, and I knew with a family and a house, they’d post me in Halifax.”
He says Tammy accepted his re-enlistment.
“Not at first, though,” Jeff admits. “I have to give a lot of credit to Tammy and the kids [they have two sons now]. They put up with me being away and being in Halifax during the week, only coming home on weekends. When I’m deployed, I’m gone all the time. I don’t know how she does it. It’s hard knowing you’re going away and you won’t see land for awhile. It’s hard leaving the family.”
It’s become easier over the past 15 years, though.
“Now, it’s just part of the job,” says Jeff. “We’re always pretty busy at sea. I’m an electrical technician so there’s a lot of stuff to fix. [As a working supervisor], it’s my job now to teach other young people how to do it.”
Jeff has just returned from deployment on the HMCS Charlottetown. It was an 8-month deployment for the ship but he was only on board for three months because he was flown over to Qatar to meet the ship in order to relieve a sailor whose wife was having a baby (that’s relatively new, since Jeff took his oath, getting time off for family matters and career courses).
“You get deployed and they give you a number of months but with circumstances beyond our control, they can extend you for as long as needed.”
That’s the way it was in September, 2001.
“I was off the coast of Scotland when 9-11 happened,” Jeff recalls. “We were doing NATO exercises with the British and the Portuguese and we were eating supper on September 11 when we heard. We thought it was a training exercise because for training purposes, they make stories up, things that could happen in the world. We thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good one. Someone had a good imagination.’ Then the CO came over and said this is real. Everything went silent while we were eating.”
Back then, all they had was email on a diskette that came in once a day. There was no satellite television or Internet.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen because no one knew,” he says. “We continued on with the NATO contingent. It wasn’t until mid-October that we were deployed to the Persian Gulf.”
When asked to described his most memorable event during his career, Jeff immediately recalls one from the very early years.
“With NATO in 1997 on the HMCS Toronto. We’d just circumnavigated Africa and were coming into the Red Sea to go through the Suez Canal when we were called for search and rescue to an island off the coast of Yemen that was pretty much just volcano. The volcano had erupted and Yemenis soldiers had gone into the water. We actually rescued one,” Jeff says. “I think he was the only one who was still alive. The US boat might have got one as well.”
Why does he remember it so vividly?
“Well, we were on watch for these guys 24/7 and we saw a live volcano erupt,” he explains. “Not many people get to see that. We were within a mile of it. This young Yemeni soldier was in the water for 22 hours and still survived.”
Jeff won’t soon forget his time in Afghanistan, either, where he volunteered to serve from February to July 2010.
“There’s a lot of naval guys over there. We do the security for the base, the airfield. It was keeping track of who was on the airfield and I was a supervisor. There’s different tasking, like training some of the Afghani forces. It depends on your background,” Jeff explains. “I have a background in the boarding party, which is a special team on the ship that boards other ships to search for contraband and stuff like that. I’m no longer part of that but I used to be and it was a prerequisite for going to Afghanistan as part of the airfield security. I was never outside the wire, never did any combat.”
The thing about being on a ship is that once you’re on board, you don’t leave. You live, work and sleep in the same place, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Afghanistan was a unique experience.
“It was different from a ship, that’s for sure!” Jeff says. “After our shift, we used to go and have coffee, like we can’t do on a ship. We’d work three 12 -hours shifts and get one day off to do laundry. It’s a lot different. I was carrying a sidearm 24/7. I had to have a weapon on me all the time.”
Like most sailors, Jeff has seen a lot of the world. He says you start to take it for granted, like going to Portsmouth, England, again or flying into Qatar for the third time.
“People in a rural community don’t know much about the military,” is Jeff’s observation. “They just know that guys go away, get deployed and come home. We all get the same question, ‘You home for awhile?’ but, no, I’m home for the weekend. That’s the way it is. They assume we’re sailing the whole time but when we’re alongside in Halifax, it’s a regular eight to four job like anyone has but there’s training we have to do and duty-watches on the ship. There’s someone on the ship 24 hours a day.”
Down in Halifax, he rents a room from a friend and on the weekends, he’s home with the family in Port Howe.
Jeff has two sons. Alex is 12 and wants to join the Navy, but 17-year-old Brandon doesn’t.
“I’ve missed a lot in 16 years,” Jeff admits. “I had that nine months when I was out but my shore posting the last two times was supposed to last two years but it lasted only 20 months. If you calculate it in the last 15 some odd years, I’ve been home for 5 years if you put them together.”
Jeff is not on his two-year leave right now; he’s back on a ship which means another four years at sea. In fact, he sails on November 19.
“I always do Remembrance Day in Oxford because I’m from here,” Jeff tells me. “I don’t consider myself a veteran so I go to pay respect to other members of past and present military who have lost their lives or been affected by war in any way. Nowadays, I think a lot of people forget exactly why Remembrance Day is held. I am proud to wear my uniform all the time but more so on Remembrance Day. It’s a big deal.”
This is the part of our conversation when it seems to become more difficult for Jeff to express himself.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I have a pretty good job and I signed the dotted line to do this; I wasn’t forced to do it. But I think a lot of people forget exactly what we do.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that Master Seaman Casey is giving his life to and for his country.
“I’ve said ‘I might not come back.’ I hope it doesn’t happen but I wouldn’t think twice about doing this.”
MS Casey deployed on Monday, November 19 aboard HMCS Halifax.