Book Review: “Girls Need Not Apply,” by Kelly Thompson
Published by McClelland & Stewart, 308 pp. $24.94
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Growing up as the youngest child in a military family, Kelly Thompson originally yearned for a future as a writer, not for one that involved wearing a uniform. But when as a teenager in high school she watched the horror of the September 2001 terrorist attack, she made the fateful decision to sign up for officer training in the Canadian Forces, hoping that somehow she would be able to make a contribution to serving her country. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the promise of a fully paid-for university education was also part of the deal. Eschewing the chance to pursue a career in an operational specialization, Thompson aspired to serve in the more mundane but nonetheless important field of human resources. In Girls Need Not Apply, she tells the story of her triumphs and tribulations during her years of service in the CF.
The saga begins in the spring of 2004, when Thompson made the trek from Barrie, Ontario to the legendary Megaplex in St. Jean, to begin her training as a newly-enrolled Officer Cadet in Thirteen Platoon. At the time, she was two years into her studies at York University, sincere in her desire to serve, but in some ways wholly unprepared for what lay ahead. Like many young Canadians who had gone before her, at times Thompson felt intimidated and overwhelmed by the demands of the strange new world in which she found herself.
Over the course of the two summers that followed. Thompson completed her basic training. Much of her book deals with her experiences at St. Jean, and while the details she recounts will no doubt be highly offensive to tender civilian sensibilities, they are for the most part fairly predictable to those who have served. Thompson struggled with certain aspects of the training, especially the physical components, but she did well enough in other areas to successfully pass the course, albeit with final evaluations that placed her well within the lower depths of her platoon. Her time at St. Jean was for the most part fairly routine, but it was also punctuated by a couple of tragic incidents. One involved the sexual assault of a female cadet; the other, the suicide of a male candidate. Both would leave a lasting impression upon Thompson and her colleagues.
It was during a final exercise in Farnham that Thompson would also experiencing an injury that years later would bring a promising career to a premature ending. After suffering agonizing knee injury that became progressively worse over the course of the week, Thompson finally brought herself to ask for medical assistance. She was hastily dispatched to a makeshift MIR, where her injuries were misdiagnosed as tendonitis, and she was returned to training with nothing more than a handful of painkillers and a thanks-for-stopping-by. Determined not to show any weakness – and desperately afraid of the prospect of being re-coursed – Thompson gritted her teeth and tenaciously soldiered on. It was not until much later that it came to light that the injury was far more serious than had been initially thought. But by that time, the damage had been done.
Fast forward to the spring of 2006, when with degree and commission in hand, Second Lieutenant Thompson received her first posting, to the administration section of the CF School of Military Intelligence in Kingston. By now on medical restrictions, Thompson was prevented from attending further training in her chosen field. Consequently, she was relegated to spending the next three years laboring under the unforgiving gaze of her new boss Captain Murphy, a relentlessly demanding supervisor nearing the tail end of her own career who continually criticized the young officer for all manner of trivial mistakes, both real and imagined. Determined to be successful, Thompson buckled down and attempted to make the best of a difficult situation, while at the same time seeking consolation in various youthful indiscretions, one of which involved an ill-advised affair with a married Captain nearly 20 years her senior.
Thompson’s chance to shine finally came when at long last she was permitted to proceed to the logistics training she had originally signed up for several years previously. Six months later, she emerged as the top candidate on her course, basking in the praise of glowing evaluations from her instructors. From there, her next move was to become EA to the Commander of the Joint Support Group assisting with preparations for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It seemed like her military career was finally on the move, and ready to take her places that she had longed to go.
Alas, it was not to be. Her new job required Thompson to deal with some very difficult personalities, notably the Commander’s Chief of Staff, who habitually belittled his co-workers with demeaning sneers, only to try to justify his behavior with the explanation that he was “just kidding”. The situation eventually got so bad that Thompson felt compelled to lodge a formal harassment complaint, an act that brought little redress from the senior leadership, but that earned her the undying enmity of the guilty party.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the chronic knee injury she had been nursing ever since basic training refused to go away, and eventually military doctors concluded that Thompson no longer met the Universality of Service requirements. Now finding herself faced with an inevitable medical release, Thompson requested, and was granted, one last posting, this one to a newly-established Integrated Personnel Support Centre. The new job finally accorded Thompson the chance to realize her long-held dream of helping people, specifically by assisting soldiers returning from Afghanistan, but the reprieve lasted for only a few short months. Finally, on September 12, 2011, with eight years of service under her belt, Captain Thompson turned in her kit and reluctantly returned to the civilian world.
Perhaps the saddest part of this story may relate to the fact that, not unlike a greatly many other young people who sought to somehow improve themselves by joining the military, Kelly Thompson ultimately became of victim of the stupidity of the same system she so desperately once wanted to become part of. For reasons that will never be known, the course staff at St. Jean apparently failed to understand that her knee injury was a serious one that needed immediate medical attention, and left her to soldier on as best she could. The eventual result was that an otherwise promising young officer was forced to ensure years of unnecessary pain and suffering, and ultimately lost her career to a lingering injury that likely could, with proper treatment, have been alleviated.
Equally troubling are the accounts of the blatant harassment Thompson endured as a young woman attempting to make her way in a traditionally male-dominated profession. It is rather shocking to note that the anecdotes recounted in Girls Need Not Apply took place not in an era now long gone by, but rather, within the first decade of the 21st century. At various points in the narrative, Thompson describes the overt sexism of some her male colleagues, and her experiences in being regularly hit upon by older and more senior officers who were obviously eager to take advantage of the young Lieutenant. Possibly the most egregious example of misconduct she describes took place after a night of drinking to celebrate a colleague’s upcoming retirement, when a heavily inebriated Petty Officer took the liberty of fondling her breasts in full view of everyone at the party.
Even so, this is a story that does have a happy ending. It was during her basic training that Thompson met the man who was later destined to be the love of her life, Joe Shorrocks, a fellow candidate from the University of Calgary who went on to pursue a career as a military pilot. After a decade of being separated by geography and an on-again, off-again romance, the couple reunited and tied the knot in the fall of 2014. Today, they are happily ensconced on Canada’s west coast, where Kelly is now pursuing a new life as a writer, the calling that she originally envisioned for herself many long years ago.
As the book’s title so clearly implies, Girls Need Not Apply isn’t intended to serve as a recruiting ad for the Canadian Forces. However, that’s not to say that the book should be viewed as a damning indictment of the military institution either. One of the main themes that reverberate throughout this book is the notion that fundamentally, there are a great many decent and hardworking people serving in our armed forces. It’s clear that some work still needs to be done to stamp out unacceptable behavior, and create a working environment where military members of all ranks and backgrounds are treated with the respect they deserve. However, that being said, it is also encouraging to note that in recent years the senior leadership of the CF have acknowledged the seriousness of this issue, and have begun taking action to deal with it.
Notwithstanding the very disturbing nature of some of the events it relates, Thompson’s book is one that deserves to be read by Canadians, especially those who are serving in leadership positions in the Forces. The difficult experiences she had to endure are indeed regrettable, but at the same time, it is also heartwarming to see that she has found success and happiness in a new life and career. And by shedding new light on some of the flaws and imperfections that the military continues to struggle with, let’s hope that Girls Need Not Apply will be remembered as a book that offers some valuable lessons which all of us can learn from.