Corporal (retired) William Ayotte and I go back to The PPCLI Battle School in Wainwright Alberta in 1981. Bill was a brand new recruit and I was a brand new, easily excitable and overly enthusiastic recruit platoon commander. Bill did not have the outward appearance of a war-fighter, so I tried my hardest to break him. It wasn’t anything personal, it was just that if he wasn’t cut out to be a soldier it was better to discover that in training than in combat somewhere. Every time Bill screwed up, which was often in the early days, he owed the staff push-ups, probably around 25 for each infraction. As a raw recruit he could barely do the requisite minimum, but he certainly build his capacity for them, and his strength. Bill had a strange penchant for doing his push-ups on his fingertips, a brutal test of strength if you have ever tried to do them that way.
That is not to say that we just bullied him, his instructors put in extra hours to get him through. One of Bill’s Section Commanders at the Battle School Grant Treger reminisced about Bill, sharing the same respect for him that I did. Grant remembers getting Bill ready for the final drill test, marching Bill around the drill hall for hours in the evening, holding 2 broom handles between the two of them so Grant could get Bill to swing his arms properly when he marched. Sounds funny, but “Bear Walking” is a common affliction amongst new recruits, it just took a little longer to break Bill of the tendency.
As we neared the graduation parade, Bill was making the grade but had the appearance of still needing some polish. I found myself being set-upon by my Section Commanders, telling me in no uncertain terms that I had to fail Bill Ayotte because there was no way they were going to have their names associated with him back in the Battalion. It felt like I was facing a near mutiny. I threw it back in their faces. I reminded them of how hard we rode Bill Ayotte, and when we reviewed Bills file and it was clear we had plenty of opportunities to fail Wild Bill, but we didn’t. Not only did Bill pass every practical TOET (test of elementary training) and overcome the many challenges that we threw at him, in fact he had the highest marks on all the theory tests. Moreover, it was obvious not only that Bill would do anything for members of the platoon, but they were constantly watching his six too and would never hesitate to help him out when Bill was in a bind!
In the Battalion he became a competitive marksman, ran like a gazelle, and liked to party hard with his comrade. Bill had his own table staked out full time in the Work Point Junior Ranks Club. He was, without a doubt, one of the hardest working team players I ever had the pleasure to work with, he would have done anything for his comrades. One of my fondest memories in the Battalion was during a field training exercise in Fort Ord California. At the time we were using the very first generation laser engagement simulators which, when we engaged in a gun fight gave us an idea of how many casualties the enemy inflicted on us, and vice versa. We all took this training very, very seriously as it gave us a vivid rendering of our personal field craft skills and tactical prowess.
The US troops, our enemy force, were more familiar with this piece of kit and we were taking our licks early on. At one point Bill was participating in a Section attack when they became pinned down in the enemy’s kill zone. Bill’s Section Commander couldn’t get the momentum of the attack re-started and Bill’s comrades were getting picked off, one by one. You will have no idea of how intense this kind of training experience, even though it pales in comparison to a real gunfight, unless you have been part of a MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement simulator) exercise. Up sprang Bill with his FNC2-A1 rifle and ran head-long at the enemy position. Firing from the hip at a full gallop Bill cleared the enemy to allow his comrades to press on, but became a casualty himself. This event may seem trite to some, but it left me with no doubt that Bill would have done as much in an actual engagement.
We parted ways in 1986 when Bill left with A Company 3PPCLI to augment 2PPCLI who had just relieved 1RCR in Germany. We never saw hide-nor-hair of each other until 2003 when we bumped into each other completely out of the blue. Bill had left the CF shortly after his deployment to Germany, became a psychiatric nurse, and took over the stewardship of the APPLE (A Post Psychiatric Leisure Experience) Drop-In Centre. As the Director he kept the doors open by applying for grants and soliciting donations, created a sanctuary and organized special events for people who really need the help of a kind soul, and even invited some of his Drop-In Centre guests along on vacations with his wife, Judith. As such, Judith was much more than a wife, she was Bill’s soul mate, his partner at the APPLE Centre, and his Residential Sergeant Major. Bill used to ‘snicker’ when he would tell me how she kept him on the straight-and-narrow. As compassionate and courteous as Bill was, he was a hard, hard charger, so much so that in our younger days I used to call him “Wild Bill”. It took a special lady to tame that stallion!
We all know, looks can be deceiving. Bill’s skills, knowledge and attitude were what soldiering is all about, and he was the embodiment of the Mission-Team-Self ethos that characterizes the military. In a way I am not proud of having made life so difficult for Bill back in Wainwright in 1981, but I am as proud as hell for having had the privilege of working with a man of Bill’s character. He never became Chief of Defence Staff, was never elected to public office, and wasn’t the CEO of a company being paid gobs of money but, that notwithstanding, Corporal (retired) Bill Ayotte was a Gorilla Leader of the highest order. He saw a need in the community that needed filling, and through his heart and soul into it. He was as proud of his APPLE Centre and his clientele as any RSM is of the Battalion and the troops.
“Wild Bill” passed away in his sleep 2 May 2014, at the young age of 57. Thank you Bill, for your service to Canada both in the CF and again as the director of the APPLE Centre, and for the example you offered of what leadership is all about. You were truly a bright light in my journey to become a combat leader myself, and you will be missed by many.
Stand Easy, my Friend!