ALWAYS UP FOR A CHALLENGE: Airman, Soldier, Officer, Commissionaire, Fundraiser, Family Man

Esprit de Corps – November Edition

by Scott Taylor

Born in 1945 in St. Boniface, Hilaire “Nick” Nicolas is a proud Franco-Manitoban. He joined the Canadian military at the age of 17 as an aircraftman 2nd class, the RCAF equivalent of a buck private.

Nick’s trade training was completed at the No. 1 Radar and Communications School at RCAF Station Clinton, Ontario, where he graduated as a Group 1 Communications Operator (radio and teletype).

This was of course at the height of the Cold War and the U.S. was in the process of building the Distant Early Warning (DEW) and Pinetree Lines of radars to protect North America from Soviet aggression. The idea was that the U.S. would make the radar sites operational while the RCAF trained recruits to eventually take over the operational responsibility. As a young single airman, Nick was faced with the challenge of being posted to RCAF Station Barrington, a tiny, semi-isolated station in Nova Scotia.

Following a stint at RCAF Station Namao just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, Nick lucked in with a posting to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Command Operations (ACO) in Belgium. Oddly enough, it was his departure from cowboy country that led Nick to take up the challenge of horseback riding. By the time he left Belgium, Nick was enjoying English-style show jumping at a competitive level.

Back in Canada, Nick found himself toiling in Carp, Ontario at the Diefenbunker, the Cold War facility that would have housed the Canadian leadership in the event of a nuclear attack. Seeking a challenge that involved fresh air and sunshine, Nick volunteered for a tour in Egypt in 1975 as a peacekeeper. The battlefields of the 1973 Yom Kippur War were still fresh. As Nick recalls, “The shooting had stopped but you could still see the sunken ships in the Suez Canal.” In 1983, Nick was a 37-year-old sergeant looking for yet another challenge. Despite his age, he opted to take his commission from the ranks (CFR) and become an officer.

As he was only a sergeant, Nick had to go through the full 12-week basic officer course at CFB Chilliwack, along with his 19 and 20-year-old fellow cadets. Always having enjoyed the outdoors, Nick chose to switch from Air Force to Army. Following his phase training in Kingston, Nick became one of the Army’s oldest second lieutenants at the age of 38, and he was posted to the 1ST Canadian Signal Regiment in Kingston. In 1994, he was promoted to major and just four years later he started preparing for life outside the military as he was just over a year shy of 55, which was the compulsory retirement age at that time.

Having worn a uniform his entire adult life, and being too young to fully retire, Nick secured a position with the Ottawa Division of the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires. “I had never obtained a university degree and I did not have a lot of technical qualifications,” explains Nick. “But Commissionaires valued the qualities that came with military service experience, so it was a natural fit.”

For the past 17 years, Nick has advanced up the management ladder at Commissionaires Ottawa to become Senior Business Operations Manager. Looking for yet another challenge, Nick decided to create the charity initiative Boots 4 Pups.

“When I turned 50, I decided that I would run a marathon,” says Nick. “I skipped the 60-year milestone but wanted to do something significant for my 70th.” That something was the quest of hiking from Kingston to Ottawa in just 10 days. The distance of 350 kilometres itself was not the challenge, it was the fact that Nick followed the daunting Rideau Trail. “It really is a diverse and difficult terrain,” explains Nick. “There are some steep climbs and rough trails. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever done.”

When Nick and his fellow walkers arrived in the capital on Canada Day, he learned that they had made history by completing the Rideau Trail two days earlier than anyone else on record. Crossing the finish line in the middle of a monsoon-like downpour and with spirits undampened, Nick and his colleagues celebrated at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, taking him back to his early RCAF roots. In total, the venture raised $12,550 for Citadel Canine Society, an organization that specializes in providing service dogs to soldiers and first responders suffering from PTSD. The Canadian charity is already using these funds to train four new service dogs, one of which is already paired with a veteran.

“I had heard about the great work that Citadel Canine Society was doing for our veterans,” says Nick. “That is why I created Boots 4 Pups and made them the benefactor of our fundraising.”

At the moment, Nick has no immediate plans to retire, That means he’s already thinking up his next challenge.