Out Standing in the Field: Vet shares story of abuse, misogyny and hope in Canada's military

Out Standing in the Field: Vet shares story of abuse, misogyny and hope in Canada's military

It's taken 25 years for Sandra Perron to speak out about the abuse and misogyny she experienced while wearing the uniform of the Canadian Forces.

As Canada's first female infantry officer, a decorated and highly commended member of the legendary Van Doos and a veteran of peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, Perron had much to be proud of. 

And yet, as time passed, the retired captain began to add up the personal cost of her military career.

"Throughout my whole career there were blips of indications that things were not right, but I accepted them knowing that I was in an environment that was male dominated and that it was just [a gap] I had to bridge, a road I had to pave as I went. It never struck me until I left the military that there were so many things that happened to me that were wrong."

Now the 51-year-old Perron has unburdened herself with a memoir of her military years, Out Standing in the Field. 

In it, Perron traces a career that was by turns exhilarating and horrifying. From a military family where both her parents served, Perron never had a second thought about what a life in a combat unit would be like for a woman.

"I wasn't even thinking about, well, I am a woman in a male-dominated field. That's just what I wanted to do. So I had no second thoughts about my gender. I had been in cadets for many years — I was not aware of any discrimination that I would suffer."

Carried on

From the beginning, Perron's pursuit of a military career faced almost unimaginable challenges. While training in Camp Borden she was raped by a colleague and became pregnant from the attack. Unwilling to give up, she had an abortion and somehow carried on.

"It was nothing less than traumatic, I will admit. But at the same time I had a mission to accomplish, so I was able to compartmentalize, put that aside, deal with it in my own way and just keep driving forward so that I could graduate from university and go on to be a logistics officer and when they opened the combat trades to women, that's what I ultimately wanted to do.  

So it scarred me but I had a mission to accomplish."

That mission took Perron through CFB Gagetown for several tours of duty and training. It is a place she still regards with mixed emotions.  

"My experiences in Gagetown were both heart-wrenching but they were also the best days of my life because that's when I got to practise being a real soldier, an infantry officer," she said.

"I was tormented because Gagetown represented all the rejection and the abuse I had suffered. But it also brought me the nostalgia of my best days in the infantry out in the field."

National fame

It was in Gagetown, 25 years ago this May, that Perron experienced a training exercise that would eventually vault her to national fame. 

Kidnapped as part of a POW exercise, she was tied to a tree in her bare feet and held there through a frigid night of threats and beatings. Photos of that exercise later made it to a Quebec newspaper.

"That incident ... was touted as the reason Canada's first female infantry officer left the Forces," said Perron. "But it was really one of the reasons I stayed in for so long. 

"During that incident I discovered seven colleagues who tried to defend me, who tried to save me from being tied to a tree. And I discovered their friendship, which I would need for the next phases of my infantry training, where the harassment was much, much stronger."

Perron stayed in uniform until 1996 before realizing she would not advance beyond the rank of captain in the regular forces. After two tours as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, where her platoon had been hit by three anti-tank mines, lost one soldier and was commended for its service, she didn't feel as if she had anything more to prove to those who still questioned the legitimacy of a woman in arms. 

"I left because I realized at some point that I had no more tolerance for anybody who was not embracing what I represented, which was women in combat arms. I had no more patience and I was being sent to Gagetown, where I would have to start all over again convincing men that I could be in the infantry."

After eight years in the reserves as a major, she now consults on diversity to the the private sector. Her book launch, she said proudly, was attended by 20 generals, several of whom are women — proof that the culture of misogyny in Canada's military is changing.

Just not quickly enough for Perron.

Taken too long

"The progress has been painfully slow in the last 25 years," she said. "And they are far behind where they should be. Careers are being lost, trauma is being suffered and this has taken too long."

So why has she waited 25 years to tell her story? It's a question Sandra Perron has clearly wrestled with.

"People have told me many times, you were so courageous for everything that happened in your career, and I don't agree with that," she said. "When you suffer abuse, it doesn't take courage to keep on suffering. It takes strength and resilience, but the courage is coming forward and reporting it. And that's when things change. When people come forward.

"It took me 25 years to find that courage."