One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they’ve been up to since graduation.
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
When he came to Royal Military College in the fall of 1979, Fred Kaustinen figured he’d play a little football, get a degree, put in his four-year commitment to the armed forces and go back to working in his father’s pipeline business.
Becoming a combat diver, specializing in underwater demolition, would have been an unlikely detour in the career path of a young man for whom aquatics wasn’t exactly a passion.
“I couldn’t swim worth crap,” Kaustinen said the other day on the phone from Toronto. “Thank god the wet suit floats.”
Sure enough, however, Kaustinen mastered the craft and became the senior army diver for three years, his expertise in demand all over the world. Not bad for a vocation to which the former Redmen quarterback — and the man who scored the last touchdown in RMC football history — came quite circuitously.
“I became a combat diver because I was the only officer that passed the medical in our unit,” Kaustinen said. “The CO said, ‘You’re going to go on this course and you aren’t going to fail.’”
It was an arduous process. First came a screening program, which each candidate did at his home regiment. Then people were selected to go to British Columbia, where every morning “the fittest guy in the West Coast Navy runs your ass off, and then you’ve got to get into your wet suit in under five minutes and jump in the ocean.”
“The work day hasn’t even started and you’ve got to swim a kilometre in these open seas, and everybody has to do it in under 20 minutes or nobody gets to wear gloves — and the ocean’s cold. It took us three weeks to get everybody to finish under that. The first week, I was one of the slowest, for sure, because I wasn’t used to the water at all.”
“It was great, though. Those soldiers, the corporals and sergeants, man, they were salt-of-the-earth, tough, tough guys.”
The trade made for some interesting duty. Kaustinen dove with a number of special forces around the world and did a couple of minefield-clearance tours, in Kuwait after the first Gulf War and in Cambodia in 1994.
“A lot of that diving, that’s a great way to get out of headquarters and back with the troops. How could a guy not love that?” he said, although “work in the minefields stresses the crap out of you.”
“You always wonder at the end of the day if everybody’s going to get the next day. It’s high casualty rate work. When we were in Kuwait, there six international soldiers killed every day from unexploded ordinance and mines. We didn’t lose anybody. We had one accident, but he was fine.
“In Cambodia, where I was embedded with the unit, I was mentoring the Cambodian guy to be a unit commander. They were losing 10 people a day in minefields. We didn’t lose any in our unit. Most of the casualties were not minefield-clearance people. They were people gathering firewood or trying to clear a field for planting. The Khmer Rouge were very adept at planting new minefields overnight.”
Kaustinen’s military career arose after an ex-cadet saw him play football for Trafalgar high school in Oakville in the autumn of 1978. “I basically got a letter that said come play football.” The day his team won the championship, he was approached by a coach from RMC, who convinced him to come to Kingston. “That’s why I joined,” Kaustinen said. “Out of the blue, to play football at RMC.”
That summer, he was off to Chiliwack for officer training and before long, Kaustinen was wondering “what the heck I’d gotten myself into.”
“Some sergeant major is screaming at us, ‘Double up,’ ‘Dress up.’ To me, double up meant bend over and dress up meant straighten your tie.” Ten weeks later, Kaustinen was at football camp, about to embark on an undefeated season that culminated with what was known at the time as the Canadian small college championship.
Playing in Lennoxville, Que., RMC scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to defeat Champlain College 38-25. “That was just awesome,” Kaustinen said. “We had a fantastic team.”
Being a rookie that year, however, meant that four years later, a touchdown Kaustinen scored in a game against Sheridan in his home town would prove to be the last ever scored by an RMC football player.
“Following Lee Rogers’ block,” Kaustinen said. “It was a trap. I was playing running back that game, maybe around 10 yards. The blocking was just perfect. I went in untouched.”
News that the program would be discontinued had circulated that fall and became official in the spring of 1983. “It wasn’t overnight. We knew there was a move to get all of the varsity sports into university leagues,” said Kaustinen, who played rugby his final year at RMC and also was a member of the wrestling team.
“We knew it would be a struggle. Football is one of those games, there’s a ton of emotion with it. It was tough on all of the guys when that ended prior to graduation, but I got four good years out of it, and school. A lot of us went over to varsity rugby, anyway, so it wasn’t like sports ended.”
Kaustinen, who won the Tommy Smart Cup as the college’s outstanding athlete in 1983, studied in a program known as fuel engineering and management. A combat engineer who rose to the rank of major, he retired in 1999 and now works as a management consultant based in Toronto, specializing in risk management. His main client is the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards, which he serves as executive director.
“I assumed, somewhat falsely, maybe, that I’d be spending the last 20 years of a career riding a desk and I wanted to try something different.”
As a self-employed management consultant, Kaustinen pursued a number of different opportunities. His first was with Durham Region, which was looking for a governance advisor with a strategic planning background. That led him to working with police boards.
“Post-911 I had lots of counter-terrorism work,” he said. “Because I was an underwater demolition guy in the army, lots of people were looking for advice, mostly bridges and dams but then it morphed into critical infrastructure and transportation systems. I morphed that more into business continuity for all hazards risk.”
There’s a simple reason, Kaustinen said, why he chose a military career instead of returning to civilian life sooner: “I loved soldiering.”
“After graduation I got posted to Gagetown and got my first command at age 23. It was 65 guys and a bunch of armoured vehicles and it was great. Oh, god, it was fun.”
Kaustinen also saw domestic duty fighting forest fires and pre- and post-flood work, “because engineers have all the tools.”
“It was fun. We did all kinds of different things, and I owe it all to starting at RMC.”
He savours every minute of it.
“Time in the regiments was fantastic,” he said. “It was like living with a sports team, in terms of the challenges, the physical demands and the camaraderie. It was like being on a big football or rugby team. It was great.”
Kaustinen retired on Remembrance Day, in honour of the friends that he’d lost. He didn’t get around to attending a retirement dinner until 10 years later, but he recalls vividly what he said that night.
“I said when I was serving, all I could think about was all the cool stuff I was doing and all the cool places I was going to but I’ll tell you, 10 years later, what I really remember is not so much what we were doing, but the people I was doing it with.
“That is the highlight. It’s just like the sports things. It’s the guys I played with. I don’t remember the scores or the plays, but I can remember the smiling faces in the huddle, or at the beer-up after the rugby game.”