Thirty five years ago, (on June 2, 1979), I married my best friend. He’s still my BFF (best friend forever)! Charles and I met in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves in Victoria, B.C. As a lieutenant, he had been told that he would be commanding a platoon of girls for the summer. (It would be the first time in reserve history in Victoria that there would be a large enough contingent of girls registered to warrant creating an entire platoon made up of girls.) I learned from him after that summer that this potentially exciting “history making” news had been withheld from Charles by his superior officers until the very last-minute and despite his protests to be involved in making history (for reasons I will relate later), he had no choice but to accept this command despite the fact he was treading on unfamiliar and uncharted territory here.
The Canadian Armed Forces in the 70’s was primarily a male-dominated force. Women in the military was an extremely controversial and a widely debated issue amongst those who thought women had no place serving alongside men on the battlefield. That summer of ’77, there were few women officers and perhaps a handful of women who served as clerks or secretaries at the Bay Street Armouries in Victoria. An entire platoon of girls who would train side by side with boys in basic training was not only a novelty, it was an oddity. Charles’ fellow officers teased him about his new command and bets were placed amongst the leaders of the boys’ platoons that the “girl squad” would never be able to handle the physical demands of basic training and that they would all “cry and run home to their mamas” the first time they got yelled at.
I was getting ready to go into my second year of university and desperately needed a summer job. Jobs were scarce then and my mother encouraged me to sign up for the Student Summer Employment Activity Program (SSEAP) at the armouries. Now to say I was naive as to what I was signing up for was a huge understatement! I knew I was signing up to spend the summer with the army reserves but let’s face it with a name like “Student Summer Employment Activity Program”, it sounded to me more like summer camp. I could almost taste the smores and picture the camp fire sing alongs!
Yeah, I was THAT naive!
I showed up the next morning and was summarily handed a starched uniform that I took one look at and immediately complained to a young corporal that it was the most awful tacky green colour I had ever seen and I didn’t think it was very stylish and certainly wouldn’t suit me at all. A very tall, husky girl recruit who followed behind me in line, whom we later nicknamed, “Moose”, frowned when the standard black purse she had been given disintegrated in her hand when she tried to grab hold of the handle. To this day, I have no idea what she did or how much force she must have used to do that since MY army-issue purse was like a mini tank in my hand. A howitzer wouldn’t have made a dent in it.
I quickly realized as I looked around at the 30 girls who had signed up for this “summer camp” that I was only one of three girls who had some post secondary education behind me. The rest of our motley crew was made up of mostly high school girls and the chances of half of them completing high school was slim at best. (Thankfully the Canadian Armed Forces has raised their recruiting standards considerably since that summer…at least I hope so.)
We spent the rest of the day having a kind of orientation about what our summer would be like and truly the young officer made it sound like lots of fun. We’d go on hikes, go orienteering, go out on a field trips, and we’d get paid doing it…sounded great! The next morning I lined up on the parade floor with the rest of the recruits, proudly wearing my tacky green uniform. I tried my best to stand at attention while the young lieutenant and the drill sergeant went up and down the ranks inspecting the new “troops”. There were three platoons of recruits, two boy’s platoons and our girl’s platoon. Considerable giggling was going on amongst the ranks as the high school girls tried to catch the eye of the boys and finally the drill sergeant roared out an expletive along with an “Eyes front!” command.
I felt a wee bit intimidated when the officer and this same sergeant spent a considerable amount of time looking me up and down during inspection. If you’ve ever watched the movie “An Officer and a Gentlemen” you will know that there must be some kind of sick, twisted tradition in the military to make an example of someone on the first day. Guess what? The officer pointed out to his drill sergeant that I had shown up on parade without first having ironed my shirt properly. A tell-tale crease at the back was to be my disgrace. The officer then left his sergeant to deal with the infraction. Unfortunately the young officer did not realize that once he had left the parade floor to go into his office, his sergeant would use that opportunity to mete out his own brand of fit punishment for my unpressed uniform infraction. I’m sure the sarge was thinking about the comment she’ll “cry and run home to mama if yelled at.” He was about to test that theory. Once the lieutenant was out of earshot, the drill sergeant spent the next few minutes with his nose pressed as close to my face without actually touching it, yelling at me about my incompetence. He shouted obscenities, he insulted me, my father, my mother, my unsavoury upbringing, my lack of intelligence. It took everything in me to not collapse in a heap on the parade floor, curl up into a fetal position and suck my thumb, but I stood there and allowed that man to call me names I had only thought foul-mouthed truck drivers would use. I came from a very sheltered home, and never, ever had I been talked to in that manner. He continued to berate me while the other recruits, boys and girls alike, quivered around me afraid that they would be next to feel his wrath. When he was done, leaving me standing with stinging tears in my eyes, I wasn’t sure I would be able to survive the embarrassment or the humiliation. (In fairness to our lieutenant, he reprimanded his sergeant later when he heard about the tongue lashing I had received. He told all his leaders, “The recruits, both boys and girls, will rise to the level of respect they are shown”. Although the drill sergeant continued to yell at us for any infraction throughout that summer, he did not use as many demeaning profanities from then on.) Instead, he mercilessly barked orders at us, teaching us how to march, how to salute, the proper way to stand at attention, how to shoot a rifle, pushed us to our physical limits in combat training, and as that saying goes, “I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” and definitely not in summer camp!
When I got home that first night I was exhausted emotionally and physically but something inside of me urged me not to quit. I took out my iron and spent the next three hours pressing my uniform so you could cut yourself on the seams and I spit-polished my boots so you could see your reflection in them. I took toothpaste and polished my cap badge so it looked like the finest army “bling” ever and I went to bed tired but satisfied that my appearance on parade the next morning would illicit praise instead of foul expletives from my sergeant.
The next morning all recruits, boys and girls, showed up on parade and it was obvious that everyone had spent a considerable amount of time pressing their uniforms the night before. No one looked as sharp as me though. Proudly I stood, prim pressed, cap badge a-sparkling and almost smiled when the young lieutenant went by me followed by his sergeant. I waited for the compliment. Surely they had to be impressed. They walked right past me…not a word,… barely a glance.
I learned that summer a lot about pride. I realized I had a lot of it and it took a whole summer and a lot of work to let go of some of it. You see, in the military, you are not praised as much for individual accomplishments as for team effort. The young lieutenant had one rule: “everyone participates and no one quits”. He had some challenging days getting that point across to some very whiney and complaining teenage girls who frequently showed up for sick call begging to be excused from physical activity because for the third time that month they were complaining of cramps and menstrual bloating. Finally Charles found a woman corporal who did not blush when the girls related to her their womanly “complaints”. Instead she kept track of all the girl’s cycles and laughed at them and put them immediately on KP duty (cleaning the toilets and bathrooms) if they used the excuse more than once. She was a rough-around-the-edges gal, swore just as much or more than any foul-mouthed truck driver. She was tougher than nails, small in stature but built like an armoured tank. We were absolutely terrified of her, and adored her at the same time because she had a tender heart underneath that gruff exterior. She became the girls’ confidante, to Charles she was a God-send.
After that first day of humiliation and then being totally ignored on the second day, I determined I would try to excel at everything they put to me. On the firing range I could take apart, clean, and put my FN (rifle) together faster than any of the other girls AND the majority of boys too. I was a crack shot and garnered a tweak of praise for marksmanship. I took the classroom work seriously and got the highest marks in all the exams. After the first day, my uniform was always perfectly cleaned and pressed. I learned how to march and do the drills and even with the physical activity I managed to keep pace. When we were told we were going to go on a five-mile march up a steep hilly course, everyone groaned (boy’s included), but I said, “Bring it on!” I was ready!
The next day I was at the head of the line jogging at an even clip and not even breaking a sweat. We were in our combat gear (a kind of camouflage-green coloured coveralls over a white t-shirt and shorts). We were expected to wear our socks and combat boots. While other girls were clearly struggling up the hillside path, I ran along thinking to myself, “This is too easy! I’ll get to the finish line before everyone else and then maybe do some sun tanning at the top of the hill while I wait for the other girls to catch up.” As I sped up and even passed the young lieutenant who was leading his platoon, he beckoned for his sergeant who grabbed my collar as I ran past him and yelled at me, “Private! Since you’ve got so much energy, how about you help the straggler’s at the back of the line so we ALL cross the finish line together?!” So I ran a considerable distance down the path that I had just ran up on and with the encouragement of a couple of misfortunate corporals who had been told to bring up the rear, I ran, pushed, coaxed, dragged and even carried some of the less “energetic” members of my platoon up that mountain. I came in dead last but every girl crossed that finish line. It was the first time I noted that both the sergeant and the lieutenant seemed well pleased with my last place finish.
It was a defining moment for me.