HMCS Star delivers duff and a morale boost,
By S1 Bill Jethro Bagunu,
Festive dinners in the Royal Canadian Navy are ripe with tradition and holiday cheer. On Saturday, December 5th HMCS Star’s Festive Dinner tradition continued, albeit a little differently. Due to the ongoing pandemic, only a limited number of sailors were able to attend this year’s festivities. Canada is experiencing Covid-19 fatigue, but this didn’t prevent sailors at Star from making the most of the circumstances.
HMCS Star is a Naval Reserve Division located in Hamilton, Ontario. Its members fill diverse occupations including firefighting, real estate, teaching and engineering. Additionally, Star is comprised of a large number of students in college and university. Star sailors also regularly contribute their time to the RCN and have been deployed on various operations around the world.
The festivities began with promotions, awards and presentations. Well-earned medals were awarded for service in various operations including CARIBBE, REASSURANCE and PROJECTION. Commissioning scrolls and certificates of recognition were provided and acknowledged by LCdr Marie-Sonya Sowa, HMCS Star’s Commanding Officer. At the festive dinner, the Officers, Chiefs & POs would normally serve the Junior Ranks a complete turkey dinner prepared by Star’s Galley. Covid-19 restrictions prevented the unit from gathering for these festivities, leading the Command Team to adapt the plan and find a new way to continue the tradition of serving its junior sailors while following health regulations. So, the concept of Duff Boxes was born, with the unique catch phrase of ‘Duff No Duff’ (‘Duff’ being naval slang for desserts, ‘No Duff’ meaning it’s not a drill, it’s for real!). This included the Officers, Chiefs & POs delivering boxes of cookies and sweets with signed cards from the CO to the houses of junior sailors, staying true to the tradition of leadership serving its junior ranks during the festive season.
“I love it! For us the Festive Dinner is an opportunity for the sailors to be treated from the Officers, Chiefs and Petty Officers… to recognize their efforts and allow them to be seated while we do the serving”, said LCdr Sowa. She ensured each vehicle was equipped with hand sanitizer and that social distancing practices and mask etiquette were followed throughout.
During Duff box deliveries, S2 Labbé was promoted to S1 by LCdr Sowa. The rank of Sailor First Class is a milestone in any sailors’ career and having her promoted despite pandemic restrictions was something that Star’s Command Team viewed as the right thing to do. S1 Labbé, a musician at Star, expressed her gratitude. “I was so surprised that all I could do was laugh and smile as I wore my mask and watched them change my epaulettes; needless to say, it rendered me practically speechless”. She added, “I felt appreciated, valued, and happy to kick off the season with a new rank on my shoulders!”.
Additionally, the CO kept the tradition of switching ranks with the youngest sailor going and stopped by S3 Rupp’s front yard to briefly swap jackets. Throughout the day’s festivities, all members of Star were able to experience it live via Microsoft Teams from the safety and comfort of their homes. Surely, activities that boost morale and make this holiday season feel equally as festive as previous years is important for mental health, and was something that LCdr Sowa focused on. Senior leadership were also encouraged to reach out to their sailors over the holidays to make sure everyone felt included in the Star family.
These are indeed strange times. A large part of why people enlist in the Navy is to travel the world; now either impossible or very limited due to Covid-19 restrictions. This has been tough on all sailors. Many expected to go on promotion courses this year or be deployed and see new parts of the world. These prospects have been put on hold and many have experienced stresses in their civilian lives as well.
Despite these challenges, the sailors at HMCS Star have proven to be resilient. Many have recently been a part of Operation LASER, Canada’s domestic response to Covid-19. Moving forward into 2021, the federal government announced Operation VECTOR, the mission involving military personnel for Covid-19 vaccine distribution. When asked about Star’s potential contribution to Op VECTOR, LCdr Sowa indicated that Star is currently canvassing its members’ readiness and availability in order to best support the operation when it comes into effect in the New Year. No matter what the circumstances, Star sailors regularly step up to assist when called upon.
Star sailors are Naval Reservists and thus, also members of their communities. Its sailors remain committed to help support the military’s domestic and international operations. But for now, they’ve earned a much-needed break – which perhaps tastes sweeter courtesy of the Duff Boxes.