It’s not surprising that graduating law student Alex Watson won a top award for his verbal skills at a prestigious national legal competition last month; when it comes to honing your powers of persuasion, little compares to liaising with Afghan warlords, which was just one of Watson’s duties during a 13-year stint as an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Motivated by “a lot of idealism,” his military career began in 1998 at age 23, shortly after earning a degree in political science (First Class Honours with Distinction) at the University of Calgary.
After parachute and reconnaissance training with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), Watson served his first overseas tour in Bosnia in 2000.
Upon his return, he was the lone Canadian officer accepted into the elite U.S. Army Ranger school. Out of a class of 460, he was one of only 37 to complete the most extreme training program in the American military, just months before the September 11th attacks.
His PPCLI battalion was deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002, where he played a dual role as liaison officer with “all the warlords and civil officials springing up after the fall of the Taliban” and also providing “rudimentary humanitarian aid” in the Canadian patrol sector near Kandahar airfield.
Degree in political science proved an asset in Watson's military career
He says his political science studies gave him insight into the complexities of the civil and political upheaval and “sympathy for the motivations of people in extreme situations.”
He also credits the writing skills and powers of persuasion learned at the university with helping raise money from what he calls a bunch of crazy schemes to construct eight schools and 18 drinking wells.
His second tour in 2006 involved further liaison with Afghan tribal leaders and media as the Taliban came flooding back into Kandahar province.
Promoted to major, Watson returned in 2009 to command an airborne infantry company and mentor an Afghan battalion. In early 2010, his unit comprised the only Canadian soldiers serving under U.S. Marine command in the ground assault on Marjeh in Helmand province, one of the toughest battles of the mission.
“We had to secure a road 10 kilometres in length, but only advanced 900 metres the first day the resistance was so fierce,” he says. After days of fighting and going without sleep, his battalion seized its objective. The battle cost him a blown eardrum and his sixth serious concussion after an Afghan soldier discharged a rocket propelled grenade while Watson was in the backblast area of the weapon.
Brush with mortality prompted thoughts about the future
The brush with his own mortality prompted him to seriously contemplate his future career options. After being accepted by three law schools, he enrolled at the University of Calgary under the sponsorship of the Canadian Forces.
After he graduates on May 8, the day before his 40th birthday, Watson will serve as a lawyer with the Judge Advocate General, which oversees military justice and provides legal advice to the Forces.
Watson says he’s grateful for the amazing and encouraging instruction of his professors in the Faculty of Law and impressed by the idealism and youthful energy of his classmates.
Professor Alice Woolley describes Watson as a top student in her legal ethics course, who brought his life experience to bear on his studies.
The hard-working, engaged student served as a role model for his classmates, she says. “He could make the class laugh and he could make the class think and that’s a pretty unusual combination.”