By Lethbridge Herald on November 9, 2023.
Theodora MacLeod – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
J.R Fox lives his life with one objective; “protect the ones that cannot protect themselves.”
It’s a motto that has guided him from his time as a student in Alberta, aspiring to enter the law field, through his journey with the United States Marine Corps and on the battlefield in Iraq, and back to the Blood Tribe lands where he was raised and lives today.
One of the very few Indigenous people from Canada to serve as a marine, Fox spoke at The Iikaisskini Gathering Centre at the University of Lethbridge on Wednesday, fittingly the same day as Indigenous Veterans Day as part of the newly launched program for Indigenous mental health and wellness.
Fox was 24 years old when he enlisted, having redirected from his dream of entering law school. He says he chose the marines because of their intense training and high standards.
“The marines are like the world’s 911 police force, they’re the best,” Fox said. “If something happens…who are they calling? They’re calling marines. So, I wanted to become one of the best.”
Fox said that in many ways his career as a marine, and later as a police officer, was part of a family tradition, his father having also been on the Blood Tribe police force.
“Our clan, our family, we’re considered peacekeepers…peacekeeping and police officers go hand in hand, it’s the same thing. My grandfather was a peacekeeper, my dad was a peacekeeper, I became a peacekeeper.”
Enlisting in 1999, Fox trained at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, celebrating his 25th birthday at boot camp where he said he underwent rigorous training that saw him lose 50 pounds in a matter of months. Later, as a premiere marksmanship instructor, he was writing his primary marksmanship instructor’s exam when news that would change the world came.
“We were sitting there waiting, our gunnery sergeant comes running in the room and says, ‘put your pencils down right now, come here.’ ”
Fox said he and his classmates went into a room where there was a television broadcasting live; the day was Sept. 11, 2001.
“Someone had run into the World Trade Centre, it was the first plane that went in. They were trying to figure it out, it was breaking news. While we were standing there watching it was like, holy cow, I can’t believe that just happened. Next thing we see the second plane hit the second tower.”
Fox said he clearly remembers the words of his gunnery sergeant that day.
“(He) looks at us and says, ‘well boys, we’re going to war.’ ”
Fox said the hair on the back of his neck stood up. While he was known in his company for taking his job seriously and executing tasks with precision and care, everything became real in that moment.
Shortly after the United States embarked on Operation Enduring Freedom and in January of 2003, Fox was deployed to Iraq. He doesn’t discuss his time overseas, a reasonable boundary given the realities of war, but he said the prayers of his family in Canada are one of the reasons he made it back home. Throughout his time with the marines, his Indigenous spirituality and beliefs were well accepted by those around him, and even during his time serving in Iraq he kept his pipe bag with him.
Like many involved in the military, Fox’s return and eventual honourable discharge came with challenges. Adapting to civilian life after the trauma of serving overseas was a long process and at the time little was discussed about mental health. He recalls an instance while still serving when he sought out mental health care.
Directed to a chaplain, he was told that if he disclosed his struggles with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he risked administrative separation, essentially being fired from the marines. With that he would lose any benefits that came with being a veteran, including any funding for further education.
At the guidance of the chaplain, Fox chose to keep his mental health struggles to himself and continue in his role. He said he didn’t learn about PTSD until he returned to Canada; it wasn’t something talked about in the marines until later when an endemic of domestic violence and spousal homicide involving marines returning home from active duty came to light.
Throughout his transition from active duty, Fox worked at a ranch in Las Vegas where he trained horses. Working for another veteran allowed him to learn how interact with people again and adjust to civilian life.
Struggling with alcohol abuse, he continued to endure the effects of what he had witnessed in Iraq. Despite the prevalence of mental health issues among veterans, Fox didn’t access any kind of counseling through the military. He only accessed care after returning home and learning about the services for children of residential school survivors offered through the Government of Canada.
Today, Fox owns and operates both a catering and security company and hopes to someday run a program that teaches women in the community how to handle firearms and hunt. Open about his struggles with mental health, he does what he can to guide others in similar situations and act as a pillar of guidance and support for those around him. While Fox didn’t encourage his children to follow in his footsteps career wise, he said if he were to do it all over again, the only change he would make would be to have enlisted sooner.