Maintaining helicopters, playing the bagpipes … one piper’s life in Canada’s military

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“As a poor kid from Esquimalt, British Columbia I can tell you, I never thought I would travel to the cities, countries or continents I have been sent to, just to play bagpipes.” So says Canadian serviceman, Sergeant (Sgt.) Steven Drinkwalter, pictured, during a chat a few weeks ago with Bagpipe.News. We caught up with Steven to discuss his recent deployment on the Canadian warship, HMCS Calgary, which has just finished Operation Artemis, a successful counter-terrorism and maritime security mission in the Middle East. Steven is also the ship’s unofficial bagpiper. Our chat brought home the varied global experiences open to many pipers today.

Steven Drinkwalter grew up in the small town of Esquimalt, British Columbia [on the southern tip of Vancouver Island] where his father worked at the naval base. Aged 12, his mother encouraged him to learning to play the pipes. “We were watching the Victoria Day parade and the pipe band walked by and she said, ‘You’re doing that’,” he said. The band was possibly the regimental band of the Canadian Scottish Regiment 16th Battalion (Princess Mary’s).

Steven joined the 2136 Canadian Scottish Cadet Corps and that’s where he learned the bagpipes. He loved it from the off, then transitioned from cadet to an Infantry Reservist in the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) Primary Reserve infantry unit in Bay Street Armouries, Victoria, B.C. He said: “I started to learn in the cadet programme. Throughout the year I would learn from senior cadets who taught the cadet bagpipe level program (Level 1-5), which was developed by Archie Cairns. During the summer months I attended cadet summer camps at Vernon Army Cadet Camp, located in Vernon, British Columbia. My first summer course was basic band, which was three weeks long and the next summer I attended the six-week band course. By the time I was 18 years old I achieved piper Level 5 and was Pipe Major for the cadet band [2136 Canadian Scottish Cadet Corp].

Steven toured the world with the 2136 unit as part of its regimental band. He fondly recalls experiences touring the United States (sometimes getting picked up by the United States Air Force just for a performance) and going to Europe. His most memorable trip was to Scotland when his band participated in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. In 2004, Steven moved from the reserve force to the regular force. He joined as an Aviation Systems Technician because he is mechanically inclined and heard that they frequently deploy on ships.

Sergeant Steven Drinkwalter plays during the Battle of the Atlantic ceremony on May 2, 2021 in the Arabian Sea during Operation Artemis (Photo: Corporal Lynette Ai Dang).

Since joining, he has been on six deployments on four different warships as part of their embarked air detachments. To the delight of all on the ships he has sailed with, Steven always deploys with his pipes and winds up being the ships’ unofficial bagpiper. He said: “One of my favourite activities on board ships, when the opportunity is there, is that I like to go around to each mess (our ships’ have three messes: the junior ranks’ mess, the chiefs and PO’s mess, and the officers mess, called ‘the wardroom’) and play a set in each one. This gives me a chance to meet everyone on board and even get a free pint or two!

“It’s been my experience that my shipmates appreciate having a piper on board. In fact, I have acquired a new student during the recent sail. A young sailor engaged in conversation with me early on, telling me he used to be in a cadet pipe band as a bass drummer and indicated a desire to learn to play the bagpipes. So I offered my services as an instructor, went online found the cadet Level 1 curriculum and began teaching him how to play. I started teaching him music theory, breaking down sheet music and understanding what time signatures mean, note identification, note values, stave lines, bar lines, proper fingering techniques, simple scales etc.

“I wear the RCAF tartan, issued by the 443 (MH) Sqn. Pipes and Drums, another band I help out from time to time. Any time the squadron has an official parade I will always help them out.”

Another photo of Steven taken during the recent Battle of the Atlantic ceremony. (Photo: Captain Jeffery Klassen).

On HMCS Calgary, Steven’s piping abilities were used at celebration of the RACF’s 97th birthday, at a mess dinner, and at a Battle of Atlantic ceremony and during a memorial ceremony for the anniversary of the crash of the helicopter Stalker 22. He is part of the ship’s embarked air detachment. He is the Weapon Systems Releaser and senior maintenance advisor. His job is essential to ensuring the ship’s embarked CH-148 Cyclone Helicopter meets all its regular safety and maintenance protocols.

Operation Artemis is a counter smuggling and counter-terrorism mission in the Arabian Sea and ensuring the servicability of the helicopter was crucial to the success HMCS Calgary had on this mission. “This mission is particularly rewarding,” he says “because, so often your military career is preparing — ensuring that capabilities are ready at all times. On this mission, we are actually doing the work we are trained to do, and making a fairly direct contribution in the fight against terror.

HMCS Calgary.

“I manage to practice at least three or four times a week. I use an electric chanter with earbuds in order to keep the noise down, and I will practice my bagpipe at least once a week, depending on operations, of course. I will take my pipes out onto the flight deck and play to the ocean for around 30-45 minutes.

“I’ve had so many experiences through piping I wouldn’t even know where to begin. As a poor kid from Esquimalt, British Columbia I never thought I would travel to the cities, countries or continents I have been sent to, just to play bagpipes. The highlight of my piping career is playing in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2004. I was in heaven – so much so that I nearly joined the Royal Scots! The Pipe Major for the Royal Scots heard about my interest so he took me to a British Army recruiter one afternoon during the trip. At the end of the summer, we went back home to Canada. Shortly after, I received a call from the recruiter asking if I was still interested, and once I completed basic and infantry training I would go right to the Royal Scots pipes and drums. Sadly, my wife wasn’t so keen on the idea and I had to respectfully decline the opportunity.”

Steven still resides in Esquimalt where he lives with his family.

• Bagpipe.News wishes Steven all the very best with his future piping experiences.