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July/August 2006 Issue

Woman Offers Inspired Leadership in Two Armies
By Debra Fieguth

Brigadier-General Linda Colwell knows how to serve her country and minister to others

On a Sunday night at Gladstone Community Church in Ottawa, a volunteer named Linda is busy wiping down tables. The weekly outreach at the Salvation Army church draws the homeless, the mentally ill and others on the margins of society. Linda helps out faithfully each week – serving, chatting with visitors and cleaning up afterwards.

But on a Monday morning, she trades in her Salvation Army uniform for a Canadian Forces one and goes to work as Brigadier-General Linda Colwell.

One of only three women out of 73 people with the rank of general in the Canadian Forces, Colwell commands a staff of 250 as director general of personnel generation policy.

Moving between the two armies as a servant and leader seems to come naturally to Colwell. “They both require commitment,” she observes. “I’m not a stranger to commitment.”

Indeed, her commitment to the church goes beyond serving soup and cleaning up. Sunday mornings she attends the Ottawa Citadel, where she is the corps sergeant-major, the senior lay position in a Salvation Army church.

“She donates hours and hours because she’s also a member of the choir and senior brass band,” says Major Kathryn Trim, the pastor. “She leads Bible study every second Friday.” And she sits on committees and has represented the church in city-wide events.

Colwell grew up on a mixed farm near Fredericton, where she learned a strong work ethic. Raised in a Christian home, she began to search for her own faith as a young university student in Charlottetown, asking herself questions such as “Who is God? What is my relationship with God?”

During a “church shopping” period, she heard a preacher in the Salvation Army speak on the verse “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”

“That was my conversion point,” says Colwell. That was when she realized “it’s not the church but God whom you need a relationship with.” Colwell stayed with the Salvation Army.

MERCENARY REASONS

She joined the Canadian army for, she says, “pure mercenary” reasons. She needed work experience and thought, if she put in five years, she could move on to something else.

“Before I knew it 10 years had passed by, and I just loved it.” A patriotic Canadian, “I just felt that this was the place I could serve and I could make a difference.”

Her commitment to Canada has always been surpassed by a commitment to Christ, though. She claims Deuteronomy 10:12 as her “strategic plan” for following Christ: Fear God, walk in His ways, love Him and serve Him with heart and soul.

And her faith informs her approach to the job. “I think people have expected me to have integrity in what I do, and I try to live with that,” she says.

Since she joined 32 years ago, the Canadian Armed Forces (navy, army and air forces) has made huge strides in accepting women. In the early 1970s, women who got married or pregnant had to leave the Forces. Now there are 650 people on parental leave, “and 70 percent of them are men!” When she joined, most women were in medical or support roles. Now they work in every one of the 103 occupations in the military.

Colwell is happy for the advances made by women but she doesn’t identify herself as a feminist. “I want to be recognized for what I do, not because I’m a woman. I call it equal opportunity.”

Colwell has been posted to different parts of Canada as well as to the Middle East. Her second tour in Egypt and Israel with multinational forces was highly successful because both nations wanted peace, but it was also difficult personally. She was far from home in a different culture and it was lonely.

“Frankly, there have been times when, if I had not had that faith, I don’t know if I would have survived.”

Being single in a high pressure environment can contribute to the sense of loneliness and alienation, but Colwell has learned to keep things in perspective. “Living the kind of life I have would be very difficult if I had to ‘look after’ a spouse as well. Children would create even more demands.” But through friends and extended family, “I have the very best: lots of children I can spoil and love.” Last Mother’s Day, during the church ritual of bestowing flowers on mothers and mother figures, a 16-year-old who sits next to her in the band gave her a flower and said, “You’re a mother figure to me.”

NEVER PUT ON the WRONG SKIRT

Words like “unassuming,” “supportive,” “humble” and “amazing” flow from those who know Colwell in the Salvation Army. “At her very high rank, she is so down to earth,” says fellow cornet player Martyn Hodgson who has known Colwell for 32 years. “She fills in wherever necessary and gets the job done very efficiently.”

“She’s so organized. That’s why she’s a brigadier-general,” says Major Erin Verhey Johnson, pastor of Gladstone Community Church.

“She has an amazing amount of personal energy,” adds Trim, Colwell’s own pastor. “Sometimes I just shake my head and wonder where she gets it from.”

But along with the no-nonsense, get-the-job-done approach there is an open heart and a readiness to listen. “If I need to talk about anything, she meets with me,” says Johnson. “She’s a huge support.”

With all the busyness of her life, dashing from one army to the other, does Colwell ever get her roles confused? “So far, I’ve never put on the wrong skirt!” she quips.

Her loyalties are clear, however. In her office at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, the tiny figures of a miniature Salvation Army band sit atop the television that gives her news updates when she needs them. And on the wall is a large portrait of Evangeline Booth, once a general of the Salvation Army worldwide. “I used to say, ‘There’s my hero, the general,’ ” says Colwell.

No doubt the brigadier-general who wipes down tables and mingles with the homeless has herself become a hero.

Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.

Other Articles
July/Aug 2006 Issue

Cover Story
Stand Up for Jesus: Canadian Christians Get Serious About Being Funny

Feature Article
Woman Offers Inspired Leadership in Two Armies

From the Editor
A Time to Laugh

The Gathering Place
An Integrated Faith

Ask a Theologian
Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

   
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