“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