Sergeant Kurtis Virtanen, from Manitowaning, is currently an instructor at Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering (CFSME) at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick. He instructs on all rank qualification courses that apply to being a combat engineer. Sgt. Virtanen has served now for 16 years.
“Kurtis has two great-grandfathers that served in the war in Finland,” said his mother, Annette Virtanen. “My husband was a Scout leader and I was a Girl Guide leader, so the service things have always attracted us. Kurtis started in Beavers, Cubs and Scouts and from the age of 12, he always wanted to be in the army. He has always wanted to be a soldier.”
The day after he graduated from high school, the Virtanens drove their son to the recruitment centre in Sudbury. “That’s how fast it was,” she said. “From graduation right to the recruitment centre, and the rest is history.”
It was 2006 when he joined the Canadian Armed Forces and completed his basic training at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean, Quebec. Once he completed that 12-week basic training course, he was moved to CFB Gagetown to complete his soldier qualification course. Following that, he spent four-and-a-half months training to become a combat engineer, earning the qualification and right to be called a ‘sapper’ (engineer’s equivalent to a private). Once he graduated, he was posted to 4 Engineer Support Regiment at CFB Gagetown. After 12 years, he was posted to CFSME.
Since graduation, Sgt. Virtanen has continued to further his knowledge and skills development and has completed several additional courses, including Close Quarter Combat and Advanced Combat Engineer Search.
“I have been lucky with my army career to have seen a lot of the world, from most of Canada to the USA, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Israel, to name a few,” said Sgt. Virtanen. “I have also been on a range of courses on vehicles like the Husky and the Buffalo, ranging from medium to heavy load vehicles.”
“I will say, the people I have served with and beside have made my career, for the memories we’ve made and for all the great experiences I have been lucky to have had,” he said.
Ms. Virtanen and Colleen Castleton, whose son is also an officer in the army, have always laid a wreath at Remembrance Day services at the school or the cenotaph. “We’re called the Mothers of Soldiers, and we lay the wreath for the present,” Ms. Virtanen said. “For the young fellows that died in Afghanistan, for the troops that died over there.”
“We represent the present,” she added. “I think when people think of veterans, they think of the older gentlemen who served in World War II. They don’t realize that Kurtis is a veteran. He has served overseas so he’s a veteran. He’s lost friends to war.”
Remembrance Day means something a little different, perhaps, to Ms. Virtanen and to all parents and family members of those currently serving, because it’s personal. “It means more to us, yes, because our son’s serving,” she said. “But we try to represent all of the present and the mothers or the parents that are standing by. When your kid joins the army you worry, you support them.”
Ms. Virtanen and husband Wes own Cedar Chalet and Loco Beanz in Manitowaning. For years, she donated tips and gathered money for troops in Afghanistan. “We sent boxes and boxes,” she said. “At that time, Richard and Cathy owned the grocery store here and would sell me things at cost. I feel for what they (troops) do. They’re selfless. They just go and do what they do.”
The Virtanens are very proud of their son, and worried sometimes, too. “Any parent would be,” she said. “Any parent worries about their child.”
Remembrance Day and the red poppy represent all people from all walks of life, Sgt. Virtanen said. “I have had the honour of serving with the best soldiers I have ever met that have become an extension of my family and will always have a place beside me.”
“Remembrance Day means we as a country have stood and will always stand together and answer the call to fight, protect and help when we are called upon, from war to humanitarian missions,” he added. “Remembrance Day is for all soldiers, from the ones that gave all to the ones that, to this day, choose to wear the uniform and represent this beautiful country and flag that gives us so much.”
Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor