Military provides engineer dynamic way to serve

Major Travis Kelley, P.Eng., comes from a long family tradition of military service. But it’s his views on combining the professional engineer and army roles that give special meaning to serving the greater social good.

As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, Major Travis Jay Kelley, P.Eng., technically does not have to hold a licence to perform engineering work. The federal government’s position is that provincial engineering licensing statutes are not binding on federal employees engaged in activities strictly under federal control, including professional engineers in the armed forces. There may be an expectation that federally employed engineers be licensed if practising in Ontario, but it is not a hard and fast rule.

Despite this, Kelley is a proud P.Eng. and firmly adheres to the longstanding engineering ethic to safeguard public health, safety and the environment as he carries out his multitude of roles. It’s an ethic he picked up early on when he recognized engineering’s potential to do more than maximize corporate earnings or improve the bottom line.

“I became an engineer because it seemed like a combination of my interest in science and my desire to do things to help people,” Kelley told Engineering Dimensions. “I believed in high school that any one individual’s contribution in modern pure science is difficult to connect to improvement of the human condition. Rare is the scientist today that people could point to and say, ‘He or she changed my life.’ But engineers, whether the public know it or not, do exactly that.”

Kelley—often known as TJ—believes a combined engineer-soldier career can serve the public interest in more than just economic or profit-driven ways. “I became a military engineer because I found that the details of actually doing that (changing someone’s life) were abstracted away behind a lot of corporate levels and priorities—at least in the six co-op jobs I did in six different industries during my undergrad. So, with my familial exposure to the military and experience with a former Scout leader who was a military engineer, I decided to give it a shot in the reserves, liked it, and made it my career.”

And while he’s still only 35 years old, Kelley’s career has been full and varied in the 13 years he has been a part of the armed forces. And it’s still unfolding.


Kelley recently took up a staff position focusing on counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for the Canadian Armed Forces. An IED is the military term for homemade bombs of various sorts, similar to those that constituted the primary threat on the Afghani battlegrounds. Canadian Armed Forces personnel had been involved in the Afghani conflict from 2001 until withdrawing in 2014. Kelley is now part of the Canadian Forces Joint Counter Explosive Threat Task Force, which is a high-level coordination arm for various aspects of military activity to stymie weapons of this sort.

“My new work will involve planning and coordination functions, working with Canadian specialists and our allies to coordinate a coherent national action against the IED threat, emphasizing priorities of the Canadian government, especially those recently released in the defence policy review,” says Kelley.

Although this new role is outside Kelley’s normal area of specialty, it will still allow him to use his engineering skills and mindset. “A lot of it will be less directly engineer focused than some of the previous work I’ve done, but still in an engineering milieu,” he says.

Kelley has spent the bulk of his 13 years in the armed forces attached to the Mapping and Charting Establishment (MCE), which is part of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa. During his military career, Kelley has taken part in command and combat roles in Afghanistan, served in a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and taught reservists and new recruits about geometrics, cartography, and optimizing engineering services in various areas of deployment.

Kelley graduated from systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo in 2005. Prior to graduation, he had become a member of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve. “My last year of undergraduate studies was spent as a part-time member of 48 Field Squadron of 31 Combat Engineer Regiment, a reserve unit in Waterloo,” he recalls. “I spent another year with the reservists after graduation while transferring to the full-time regular force.”

He enrolled full-time in the military in March 2006, and was licensed by PEO that same year.

While Kelley is the first of his immediate family to become a professional engineer, he comes from a proud family military tradition. His father, Michael, was a military police officer with a long career of service in Canada. His mother, Anette, while not a member of the service, for several years served as civilian manager at the base restaurant and store at Canadian Forces Base in Meaford, Ontario.

Kelley’s sister, Trisha Morgan, recently completed basic training and now serves as a military supply technician, while his brother-in-law is a soldier in the Canadian infantry.

Kelley was a good fit for his mapping and charting assignments, thanks to his engineering education—systems design focuses on project management and how different components fit together to make a grander whole work. It also considers cognitive ergonomics, an important aspect of cartographic science.

Kelley was one of nearly 40,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces deployed in Afghanistan since strife erupted there in 2001. He served in a deployed task force headquarters between May 2008 and February 2009.

Kelley’s job title in Afghanistan was engineer intelligence officer, with responsibilities to co- ordinate the flow of information in both directions between intelligence and the various engineer entities in the Canadian Task Force.

“I built a database of culvert locations and helped to design and populate a simplistic web map service on the theatre intelligence database that showed roads, culverts and other engineering features of interest to the operation,” Kelley says. “I also worked with geomatics technicians to get data for engineer analysis, and to get analytic support for complex problems. While in Afghanistan I was not yet a cartographic specialist, although I was already interested in pursuing that specialty.”

Although the work might seem dry to the civilian or non-specialist, office work becomes engaging when the life-or-death results of your efforts are so proximate in time and space. Kelley found it a rewarding experience in Afghanistan: “The opportunity to deploy is stressful but also exhilarating in general. My work in the HQ exposed me to a variety of high-level activities, which were interesting to understand, and my actions there had a measurable impact across the area of operations,” he recalls.


For a six-week period in Afghanistan, Kelley took over as temporary troop commander in operations and combat, and provided some technical training to local residents struggling to raise themselves out of poverty and civil instability. “I also helped to establish a road, which may be part of Canada’s permanent legacy to Afghanistan,” Kelley adds.

Some time after returning from Afghanistan, Kelley was posted to CFB Valcartier, about 25 kilometres north of Quebec City, where he became second in command of an engineering field squadron. This work involved managing training of up to 100 soldiers about various frontline engineering work, such as de-mining, bridge building, demolition and construction.

While serving with the engineer regiment in Valcartier, Kelley’s group helped design erosion barriers for a temporary military bridge, and helped plan the tactical operation to establish the bridge under simulated pressure from the enemy.

After working with the field squadron, Kelley left for six months (June to December 2013) to deploy on a peacekeeping mission to Haiti. It was largely an administrative role in Haiti, but Kelley worked with local police, non-government organizations and military to try to bring economic improvement in some regions, particularly in the remote Îsle à Vache.

On returning from Haiti in early 2014, Kelley was assigned operations officer of a regiment of about 500 soldiers in Valcartier. He then returned to the Mapping and Charting Establishment, taking command of the Canadian Forces School of Military Mapping in 2014. A key role there was helping prepare master corporals to move up the rank of sergeant—a critical rank for senior technical leaders in the geomatics operation.

Now residing in central Ottawa with his wife Chrystal and five-year-old daughter Ember, Kelley is reflective on the two-sided nature of an engineering-military career. But it would be an exaggeration to suggest Kelley has divided loyalties between the two professions.

“I have never encountered a conflict of priorities,” he says. “It has always been clear to me when the standards of my military profession applied, and when those of my engineering profession did. There seems, philosophically, to be room for contradiction, but I have not experienced any.”

Kelley also had some unique insight on potential conundrum for engineers serving in the military. “Ultimately, the fundamental premise of engineering is preservation of life and property, and the basic mission of the military is to break that,” he says. “In theory, they are opposite. But when you go into the details, especially of the military profession, the managed and controlled application of violence distinguishes from the maximum application of violence, and opens the path to reconciling the two mandates.”

Kelley also cites the influence of one of his first engineering professors at the University of Waterloo in steering him towards the engineering-military path. “I became a P.Eng. partly due to an inculcated sense of duty inspired by Dr. Carolyn MacGregor, my first-year engineering principles professor at Waterloo, and partly due to a workplace incentive program for maintaining professional designations. I remember a time, after applying to join the army but before starting, when I was bicycling through the streets. Afghanistan had been in the news again, and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were topical at the time. I saw a couple of kids playing in a yard and I thought, ‘I can be good at the army, and that will keep [them] safe and give them a chance at a good life. This is worth doing.’ So, yes, protecting people—more generally, helping them to have better and more prosperous lives—led me to both engineering and the army.”

For her part, Professor MacGregor, PhD, LEL, of the University of Waterloo remembers Kelley from his first year of engineering design studies. “I could always count on TJ to lend a hand, especially if it involved helping younger students,” says MacGregor. “TJ was one of the first alumni to volunteer to be an alumni mentor when the professional design engineering program first got started. We were looking for alumni who would be willing to provide advice through online discussion on professionalism and ethics, and connect with students as needed. I knew TJ had gone into the military as I had written one of the letters of reference. I also knew that he was going to be extremely busy, so I really appreciated that he was still willing to make time to help out. Over the years, I have suggested to students who are considering military service to contact TJ to get an engineer’s perspective.”