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Bittersweet time for outgoing Regiment Commander

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He has spent the last 33 years in uniform so it should come as no surprise that Lieutenant Colonel Brian Gonsalves will feel “actually sad” when he exits Warwick Camp on June 8.

The outgoing Bermuda Regiment commanding officer (CO) signed up for duty as a junior leader in 1980, when he was aged just 14, and he has stuck with the military ever since.

The last three decades have seen him achieve a number of successes and 'firsts' in the part-time army and fit in a civilian career in finance.

But taking on the role of CO in 2009 meant accepting what he calls a “double-edged sword”.

“It's one of those things which is great — (one thinks) 'I've made it to the top post because I've worked there for so long but at the same time it's kind of sad because I now know that I only have the two or three years left and then my time is finished',” he says.

“In any other military, there would be another staff job to go onto. Unfortunately, here in Bermuda, there's not.

“That's the unfortunate part: the Government spends a lot of money training and developing [and puts] a lot of time and effort into people like me to get to the post and then all of a sudden [it's] 'okay, thanks mate, good luck with all your future endeavours'.

“So it kind of sucks. But it is what it is. We know that coming into the job so we don't have to accept it if we don't want it.”

He says four years is a “long time” to stay in the top post — and he's ready to “hand off the baton” to new CO, British officer Lt Col Michael Foster-Brown.

The 46-year-old father-of-two admits the handover will leave him feeling “actually sad because the military has been a part of my life since 1980” but also looking forward to a break, before he decides on his next move.

“I have nothing [planned] right now but I have had a lot of good conversations,” he says. “I'm happy to take the summer off. I'm sure something will come up by September.”

The CO, whose father was a conscripted soldier and one of the Island's first full-time firemen, describes himself as a “type A” personality who likes to “get things done”.

He left Bermuda for college between 1984 and 1988 and completed the Reserve Officers' Training Corps in the US, achieving second lieutenant status, but couldn't join the army there because he wasn't American.

On his return to Bermuda in June 1988, he became a Regiment officer and headed to Sandhurst in 1989, where he was commissioned.

As a part-time officer at Warwick Camp, he prided himself on his “exemplary attendance record” — an accomplishment made easier by the fact he “just loved doing what I do”.

“I believe you can't get any better if you are not here,” he says. “You have to be here to practise leadership.”

He travelled to overseas camps and became a platoon commander, enjoying the chance to get his staff “focused in order to do their job”.

In 2001, Lt Col Gonsalves became the first Regiment soldier to do an operational tour of Sierra Leone — a six-month experience he describes as “simply amazing”.

That, along with being appointed aide-de-camp to Governor Lord Waddington between 1994 and 1996 and becoming CO, is perhaps his proudest military memory, he says.

He also remembers with pride how the Regiment quickly mobilised to help Turks and Caicos recover from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the part he played in persuading the US Coast Guard to transport 60 volunteer soldiers and their kit there in two C-130 Hercules planes.

“That was a real proud moment for me, to see the two aircraft land in Bermuda and to see our guys ready to go,” he recalls.

“Working down there was a bit crazy. That was definitely a truly expeditionary element of the Bermuda Regiment and it just proves that we can do a lot of stuff. We just need to be given the task and the opportunity to practise it.”

If he has a regret about his time as CO, it's that his “underutilised” soldiers haven't been given more to do by the country's leaders — particularly maritime security patrols (see separate story).

And although he believes he has “totally modernised” the army during his tenure, with improved training and far greater transparency, he feels more modernisation is needed through legislative amendments.

He has weathered several storms while at the top — including the bid by Bermudians Against the Draft (BAD) to outlaw conscription and

The Royal Gazette's investigation into historic sexual assault claims made by soldiers.

He links the two together, though this newspaper's inquiry was unrelated to BAD, because he says the lobbying group used the sexual misconduct issue to try to further its cause.

“That took a lot of time and energy,” he says. “The Regiment was definitely wounded at that time. However, and I have said this publicly before, everybody has a right to question something, to complain about it. I respect that right.

“That's why we are in a democracy. I would be lying if I said that the Regiment didn't learn from that episode and we have tightened our procedures.”

He adds: “The worst [experiences] are all part of learning, so are they really that bad?”

Every Regiment soldier now receives anti-bullying training once a year — and there has been another positive effect too.

Lt Col Gonsalves, who once claimed the public did not need to know statistics on sexual assault claims, has had a change of heart about access to information.

The army's website at www.bermudaregiment.bm now contains all the information it will have to disclose in law once the Public Access to Information Act comes into effect.

“We are the first government agency that has completed all our PATI stuff,” says the CO proudly. “Our PATI stuff has been done for over a year, a year-and-a-half.”

The highs and the lows of being CO have made it a truly satisfying job, he says, but he is ready for something else.

“Four years is a long time. I'm definitely needing a change. Four years in one post: okay, got it, done it, learned a lot here, done a lot of good here, time to move on.”

He'll be the Regiment's longest-serving officer, with 25 years under his belt, when he steps down next month.

“That's what the RSM tells me,” he laughs, adding of his future: “It's going to be a big change.”

Lt Col Brian Gonsalves reflects on his time as the commanding officer of the Bermuda Regiment.
Lt Col Brian Gonsalves reflects on his time as the commanding officer of the Bermuda Regiment.
Lt Col Brian Gonsalves reflects on his time as the commanding officer of the Bermuda Regiment.
Lt Col Brian Gonsalves reflects on his time as the commanding officer of the Bermuda Regiment.
The CO's last word on...

* Access to information: “My pet peeve is information. Organisations, particularly the military, have to ensure that the flow of information is flowing, it doesn't stop.

“As a human being if you know what's going on, you feel more comfortable.”

* Not getting the top job in 2006: “In hindsight that was actually the best thing. I was able to come onto full-time staff as the training officer. I got a totally full, in-depth insight into the Regiment.”

* Future goals for the Regiment: “When there's more money — I don't know if we'll ever get there — our soldiers should have the opportunity to do UN tours. That's a fantastic experience for our guys.”

* Historic claims of sexual assaults at Warwick Camp: “I'm very satisfied that we have brought this to the fore. We have cleared it up and we continuously state that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable.”

* Having a new non-Bermudian CO, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Foster-Brown: “It's going to be a challenge [but] I don't think it's problematic. It's something new for the Regiment, the fact he's non-Bermudian.

“However, the fact is he's a British Army officer. There are a lot of similarities between the Bermuda Regiment and the British Army. A lot of our best practices we have taken in from the British Army.”

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Published May 23, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 22, 2013 at 11:58 pm)

Bittersweet time for outgoing Regiment Commander

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