Book Review – Out Standing in the Field

“It’s worth noting that Sandra Perron has few kind words for the products of RMC, as during her infantry training, cadets from the College were, according to her, some of her most malicious and persistent tormentors.”

Book Review – Out Standing in the Field – By Sandra Perron

Published by Cormorant Books – 315 pp.  $24.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

“Hazing is a poor substitute for leadership.”

–          Admiral John S. McCain Jr., 1911 – 1981     

Growing up as one of four daughters in a service family, Sandra Perron probably never set out to make history. Nonetheless, she did just that in August 1992, when she joined the 2nd Battalion of the storied R22eR as Canada’s first fully-qualified infantry officer. As a woman seeking to make her mark in what has always been regarded as the hardest of the hardcore military occupations, by all accounts Perron proved her mettle in the field, first on infantry training and subsequently commanding troops on operations.

Even so, her efforts to gain acceptance were frequently rebuffed with hostility and derision by her male colleagues, and beneath her seemingly unshakable exterior, she was often left feeling isolated and vulnerable. In Out Standing in the Field, Perron recounts her journey through the world of the combat arms, and describes the events that eventually led her to give up her lifelong dream of being an airborne soldier, and seek alternate opportunities in the civilian world instead.

Perron’s first taste of military life came at the tender age of 14, at which time she joined her local Army Cadet Corps in Edmonton. By all accounts she relished it, excelling in her training and earning jump wings at the Canadian Airborne Centre. After high school she signed up for a full-time career, initially planning on becoming one of the first women to enter RRMC. In a peculiar twist of fate, she was advised midway through BOTC that she would be attending civilian university instead. In 1988, with a degree from the University of Winnipeg and an officer’s commission in hand, Perron was ready to join the ranks of the Regular Force.

Perron’s initial attempts to pursue a career in the combat arms were stymied by the policies that were in effect at the time, and consequently, she began her career as an Army transport officer. Not long thereafter, a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights commission lifted the restrictions on women in the combat arms, and by the summer of 1991, she found herself in Gagetown, one of four female candidates seeking to begin infantry training. Her three compatriots eventually fell by the wayside, leaving Perron as the sole survivor who would become the first woman to go the distance. It proved to be a difficult road to hoe, as apart from the rigors of the actual training itself, Perron frequently found herself the target of various forms of petty and vindictive harassment by officers and male candidates who made their resentment of her presence very clear.

Notwithstanding the indignities she suffered, Perron soldiered on, and by all accounts did very well in her training. She earned the respect of a group of male colleagues who were fellow trainees – the “Pepperoni Lovers” – and became very close friends with a number of them. Later, after she joined the battalion, even though she continued to encounter resistance from certain officers who believed that women had no place in the combat arms, she was nonetheless successful in apparently gaining the confidence of her NCO’s and soldiers.

What would undoubtedly become the most memorable and celebrated incident of her career occurred exactly 25 years ago this month, as Perron and her colleagues were nearing the end of their Phase 3 course. On the night of May 6, 1992, as part of a mock POW exercise, Perron and several of her fellow candidates were taken prisoner. Over the course of that night, she spent several hours tied to a tree, wearing only her grey wool socks in the late spring snow, and was subjected to a brutal interrogation during which she was repeatedly struck by her captors before eventually being “executed”.

What no one anticipated at the time was that several years later, the story of what happened in the POW exercise would eventually find its way into the media. When a photo of an obviously exhausted Perron, slumped over and tied to a tree, appeared in the newspapers in late December 1996, it caused a national scandal, and one that probably could not have come at a worse time. It was yet another black eye to an Army that was already badly reeling from the Somalia fiasco and the unsavory revelations that emerged in its aftermath.

As a serving officer, Perron performed very well, and probably the highlight of her career was a tour in the Balkans in 1995. But despite her obvious aptitude and potential, she was often relegated to menial duties, and repeatedly denied the same opportunities for advancement that were offered to her male peers. The final straw came after her return from Croatia, when she learned that her next posting would be one as a junior instructor on the Phase 2 infantry course in Gagetown. When Ottawa refused to budge despite her vigorous protests for a more suitable job, Perron finally decided she had had enough of fighting the system. Submitting her release at the end of 1995, she has since moved on to a successful civilian business career. Even so, her book makes it clear that she continues to feel a powerful emotional attachment to her regiment, as well as tremendous pride in what she accomplished.

If there’s any larger theme in Out Standing in the Field, it may be that even in the “liberated” world of the late 20th century, the Canadian Forces were still waging a major struggle to come to grips with the complex and often thorny issue of gender integration. As Perron’s experiences vividly illustrate, it is one thing to modify rules and policies, but quite another matter to try to change a culture that’s rooted in time-honoured and deeply ingrained beliefs. Clearly, a lot has changed since the events that are the focus of her book took place over 20 years ago, and it is encouraging to see that in the years since then a number of talented women have risen to senior leadership positions in the CAF. At the same time, however, it should also be remembered that these women owe much of their success to Sandra Perron and other trailblazers like her, who had the courage to navigate a very difficult and uncertain path at a time when there were great risks to be confronted, and absolutely no assurance of success.

It’s worth noting that Sandra Perron has few kind words for the products of RMC, as during her infantry training, cadets from the College were, according to her, some of her most malicious and persistent tormentors. If that was in fact the case, then these individuals, whoever they were, dishonoured the College, and everything it stands for. And for that, we owe Sandra a collective apology.

Out Standing in the Field is a book that deserves to be read by everyone who has commanded, or who aspires to command, soldiers in the Canadian Army. The book is a compelling testimonial to the courage and fortitude of a young officer who was willing to challenge the traditional thinking about the role of women in the military, and who in the process became a real game changer for other members of her gender who followed in her footsteps. At the same time, it also serves up a troubling exposé of the perils that can arise when a hidebound culture that is strongly resistant to change is allowed to drive out the talent that is the lifeblood of the armed forces’ most precious commodity – LEADERSHIP !

On a more personal note Sandra, I salute you. You succeeded where I failed 40 years ago. You are not an Ex-Cadet, and you never had a College Number, but nonetheless, in my opinion, your actions exemplify the best of the best of what the College is really supposed to be about. I commend you for your courage, your leadership, and your exceptional dedication to the Canadian Army. God bless you, and your family.

And thank you for your service.

TRUTH, DUTY, VALOUR !

12570 Mike Kennedy

12 Comments

  • MAJ (ret) Roy Thomas, MSC, CD

    May 15, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for leading the way and sharing details of the journey! RMC and the Armoured Corps may be an option for my three granddaughters!

  • André Branchaud

    May 15, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    By way of a meaningful gesture, I feel RMCC ought to at least award her an honorary College number. And make the presentation public, in front of the entire Cadet wing. The message would be clear: the College neither ignores, nor condones nor stands for her treatment by former College cadets who inflicted her with malicious and persistent torment. This College gesture would recognize her outstanding exemplary leadership as a Canadian army infantry officer while under despicable ill-treatment by former College cadets. Preserving the sacrosanct integrity of the College motto Truth – Duty – Valor demands such a gesture in my view.
    7166 André Branchaud

  • Mike Kennedy #12570

    May 15, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    I am in 100% agreement with Andre. It would be great to be able to do the presentation on Ex-Cadet weekend of this year.
    What do other readers think ?

  • Doug (Shag) Southen

    May 15, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    I have met this remarkable woman and regret that she is still not serving. I hope that in her book she named the sadistic psycopath that tied her up in the PW excercise: the disgraced former R 22eR officer Captain Michel Rxxxxxxxxe whose CF history is infamous. But she did not serve a single day at a military college and has no right to a CMC number. No offence to those folks who think otherwise. Including my friend Mike the book reviewer!

  • Mike Kennedy #12570

    May 15, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    The book does name the officer Doug is referring to – Captain Michel Rainville, late of the R22eR, now apparently living in Sherbrooke. This information has been public knowledge for many years.
    With respect to his comment about the College number, as my review notes, it should be remembered that Sandra was originally slated to enter Royal Roads. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this plan was apparently changed partway through BOTC, and she was told she would be going to civilian university instead. So technically one might argue that had she been permitted to follow through on the original plan, she would definitely have had a College number.
    It seems to me that the larger issue here is, according to the events related in her book, Sandra suffered some grievous indignities at the hands of military college cadets who were supposed to conduct themselves like “officers” and “gentlemen”. This clearly is not acceptable. Because of this, there must surely be something that we as an organization can do to at least make partial amends for this injustice.
    I would invite other readers to weigh in with their thoughts on this. If people feel the awarding of an Honourary College Number is somehow inappropriate, I would certainly be open to alternate suggestions that may be deemed to be suitable.

  • David M Hall

    May 16, 2017 at 9:01 am

    Isn’t it remarkable how the College is STILL embroiled in sexual harassment issues 25 years after her 1992 incident. It speaks to the spineless officers at our College today as much as it does the Cadets that think this is acceptable behaviour. My wife, LCdr Rosemary Park was tasked with studying the role of women in the armed forces well before Sandra’s military service. She like Sandra, was exposed to harassment issues on her postings to the North Pole, Germany and various naval exercises.
    And today, the Globe and Mail writes that the RCMP can’t handle their own sexual harassment issues and that civilian oversight may be needed.
    Wow. A generation of ignorant service/military men (no, clearly not all) who believe that “sensitivity training” or another study will solve the issue. This is just defer and deflect. Plus ca change..
    I’m attending this year’s Grad parade. The first one since mine in ’77. (no, not 1877). There is a cadet who I coached (hockey, is there another sport?) here in Newmarket, and who is graduating this week. He is a fine guy with good character, and a good family. I am hopeful – no, pretty sure – that he’s the kind of guy who’s going to help change this pathetic mindset.
    Oh yeah, and I’m buying the book for my daughter too.
    10950 DM Hall

  • 16986 Don McLeod

    May 17, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    Great review Mike, and I definitely plan on buying the book. The Perrons were next door neighbours of ours when my Dad was stationed in Winnipeg in the mid-eighties. I knew her sister Nancy better, but I ran into Sandy when I was on OJT in Calgary in 1987, and again when we were in Croatia at the same time in 1993 and she was with the Vandoos. As a male it’s not for me to say whether women from milcol had it any easier on phase training than those from civy U, but I’d like to think that while at the College we looked to each other as equals trying to get through the gauntlet together. Sandy was an “outsider” on two fronts: not a Red Coat, and not welcome into the literal fraternity of the combat arms. A sad commentary when we were all part of the same special “insider” group who chose to serve our country. RMC could do a lot worse when it comes time to find the next deserving recipient of an honourary degree.

  • Mike Kennedy #12570

    May 17, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Thank you, gentlemen, for your most appreciated comments. I would be very interested in hearing the feedback from any women cadets or Ex-Cadets who have seen the review.

  • Marc Potvin 13523

    May 18, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    I applaud Sandra for her courage and willingness to share her story. I was at staff school with her. She was an outstanding officer and person. I was shocked to hear what she experienced. I knew that her journey had been tough but not the full extent of it. She hid it well. Her book certainly made me reflect on the kind of officer I was while serving. Was I fair? Was I just? I also happened to serve with Michel Rainville in the Cdn Ab Regt. Nothing more needs to be said. I fully agree that RMC should recognise her, at least with an honorary degree. Her courage to let the truth out gives all current and future officers pause to examine their attitudes and impact on others, especially women. There was a time in the 1990’s I was ashamed to wear my graduation ring. Should I still?

  • Gwyn Griffith

    May 22, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    Near the conclusion to her book, Sandra mentions that she served on the Board of Governors at CMRSJ. I suggest that’s another reason for making her an honorary member
    of the RMC Club.

  • Sandra Perron

    June 27, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Having sat on the Board of Governors for the RMC St Jean, I have the utmost respect for RMC graduates – they work extremely hard for their degrees, and their commissions. I would have never agreed to serve for 6 years on the Board if I didn’t value the colleges’ contributions to the officer corps. They represent a great source of pride for our country, and our military. True, my experiences with some of the graduates from the college were hurtful and sometimes traumatic, with long lasting repercussions on my career. However, they were not a reflection of all the cadets from military college and I am adamant that we should not paint all of them with the same brush. I have some very precious and long lasting friendships from former graduates of the colleges. This said, the colleges are an important institution to our military, and they must constantly challenge themselves to evolve, to be a welcoming place for diverse groups, and to champion the uniqueness that every individual brings to the college. Truth, Duty, Valour. Je me souviens.

  • Telah Morrison 17595

    July 4, 2017 at 11:24 am

    I had the distinct pleasure of serving with Sandra, and know her for over 25 years. I was fortunate to go to 3e R22eR (where many of the Pepperoni lovers were) as the QM (Log officer) in 1995, the summer she left. Joining in 1986 at CMR, there were bad apples everywhere who thought women didn’t have their place either in the colleges, or in the trades that would open bit by bit in the years to come for women. Life was not easy for women in those early years. I have personally seen some of these same men who were so adamant that women do not belong change their attitudes completely. It was women like Sandra, that proved not only her ability to do the job, but to excel that helped shift these attitudes. The culture has shifted significantly. Not to say there is not maybe some work to do, but in general, we have made great strides. It is great to see so many general officers, in trades that were not even open in 1986 to women. I applaud Sandra for taking the time to write about her experience, and to share such deep emotion with everyone. She is a true leader, in every sense of the world. A pioneer and trail blazer and I have no doubt she helped pave the way for me and many many other women in the CAF. We have a lot to thank her for. Bravo Sandra for all that you have done and continue to do.

Leave a Reply