My Experience As A Female Captain In The Canadian Armed Forces

An excerpt from Kelly S. Thompson’s memoir ‘Girls Need Not Apply.'

I started my Basic Officer Training Course, or BOTC, in 2005, at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. It offered more freedom than the initial assessment period of basic training, allowing us officer cadets to explore the other floors of the Mega (the school building’s nickname) and attend the mess whenever we saw fit. And we saw fit often. Drinking was the way to belong, to celebrate, to commiserate. And the military did all sorts of things to promote this—forced-fun events with cheap liquor costs; unwritten rules that promotions meant buying a round for the whole platoon—later wondering why a disproportionate number of soldiers and veterans ended up alcoholics. The mess was the place many of us women felt equal, if not a bit superior to our male compatriots, thanks to our ability to handle our alcohol. As a result of our antics, most of my platoon-mates spent Friday to Monday in various states of hangover.

One Monday afternoon, the male cadets were shuttled somewhere down the hall while the females were ushered into a different training room. The sheer volume of womanhood present was almost too much to take in.

Officer Cadet Meerin sat at the front of the lecture room on a tall stool next to the dais as if she were about to make a presentation, her eyes sunken and bloodshot. Although she was a platoon-mate about my age and lived in the female pod across from mine, I barely knew her. But Meerin was a fellow female in a male world, so for that alone, we were kin. She nervously picked at her cuticles. Whatever discussion we were in for, it hadn’t been on the schedule the night before, and other than in our pods, we’d never been separated from the men.

“Are we about to get a lecture on feminine hygiene in the field?” I joked with my podmates.

“That was last week, remember?” Trafford responded. Trafford took everything in basic training with a humorous grain of salt. “Nothing like hearing some 40-year-old man directing you to clean between the folds. Couldn’t even say the word labia, for Christ’s sake.”

Meerin choked out a nervous cough. Military Police sat officers next to her, and I assumed she was tired, hungover, frustrated with the whole BOTC experience, and about to be verbally flogged for over-imbibing. But a flicker of the fluorescent lights overhead revealed fingerprints on her neck—perfect circles highlighting a wide grip. Whoever it was had big hands. I flooded with compassion, tears rising to my face. We knew before we were told.

The course warrant cleared his throat, silencing us without his usual barking command. “I’m sure you’ve been wondering what brought you all here,” he said, glancing at Meerin with a raised eyebrow. She did not lift her head to acknowledge him. “In the interest of disclosure and cadet safety, we inform our soldiers when there are issues that are pertinent to their well-being. Unfortunately, Officer Cadet Meerin was the victim of an alleged sexual assault last night in her pod.”

There were no gasps of surprise. Many shook their heads or leaned towards Meerin in solidarity; she was now bright red, eyes focused on some invisible point on the floor. Tears brimmed, and she swallowed over and over like a cow chewing cud. Then she looked up from her perch and our eyes connected, for barely a moment, before we both turned away, inexplicably ashamed.

We murmured amongst ourselves, questions shooting into the air, knowing they’d go unanswered. For once, we were not hushed by the staff. Instead, the warrant watched us, his expression unchanging. I couldn’t make sense of why Meerin had been ordered to sit at the front of the room, her privacy apparently not an issue. Did she want to be there? Had she been ordered to? If she had, it wouldn’t have occurred to her to suggest otherwise, since we unequivocally obeyed staff orders the moment we arrived at the green doors.

“The alleged incident occurred last night at approximately 2300 hours, when as you know, after 2000 hours, members of the opposite gender are not permitted inside one another’s pods.” The warrant paused, as though this disobedience of the fraternization rules was the worst offence of all. Meerin stared blankly at the floor again and I found myself willing her to speak, yet also terrified of what would happen if she opened her mouth. Tears. Bizarre laughter from the strangeness of it all. Or a voice not at all her own, damaged from the hand around her throat. “Officer Cadet Meerin was followed to her pod after an evening of drinks in the Officers’ Mess and was assaulted, although we won’t be revealing details of the assault itself. Officer Cadet Meerin sought medical treatment this morning and proper policies are being followed that deal with situations such as these. Are there any questions?”

Assault. Investigation. Nothing to see here. Move along. All the female cadets eyed one another for strength, for resolve, for the willingness to speak. And yet two summers in a row had been dedicated to mastering the art of taking direction, listening to and executing lawful orders without question. For months we’d been encouraged to follow the pack while simultaneously leading it, to stand up for what was right by military standards, not by our own family-imposed values. I no longer knew to whom or what I pledged allegiance. I wondered if Meerin felt the same way.

A cadet in the front row raised her hand. “What’s being done now, Warrant?”

Earlier in the course, we’d been given SHARP training—Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention—taught by our course captain, who we otherwise saw little of. We’d joked and laughed with one another about the artsy-fartsy nature of this educational time slot—we had more important things to learn, surely. Weapons training or leadership tips. Who needs this?!—even from those of us who needed these conversations sparked oh-so-badly. We are in a new kind of military, the captain said. Women make up about 12 per cent of our workplace, and we all need to learn to respect one another. During the lecture we were shown lame videos, like the recruitment productions but without any of the sexy weapons or warfare. A boss, and the boss was usually a man, placed his 1980s suit-styled arm around a female co-worker and made untoward advances that persisted, even after the woman said no. But the woman said no, a word that had never left my own lips in response to unwanted touches and comments. I thought about the time my ass had been grabbed on the obstacle course. During swim training, my body eyed hungrily like a sundae on a hot day. Meerin, here in front of us. SHARP appeared to have had little effect on our platoon and the military as a whole.

“Officer Cadet Meerin is somewhat hazy on the details of the altercation due to her alcohol consumption, but we can assure you that a full investigation is underway and the Military Police have been alerted and are probing for more details.” He gestured towards one of the police officers, who looked up from his notebook and nodded for effect, red beret bobbing like an apple in water. The police presence in the information session seemed unnecessary, unless they had been sent to muzzle Meerin, ensure she didn’t blame the Forces. Or perhaps the MPs were there to assure us that something was being done, procedures followed. A police officer is meant to bring comfort to people who put their faith in public service, and if we—a group of military members who technically reported to the prime minister, our ultimate boss—weren’t part of that group, then who were we?

“So,” continued the cadet who had posed the original question, “what exactly are the proper policies, Warrant? I mean, what’s the protocol for sexual assault allegations? I’m curious how they’re handled.”

“We don’t have the time to get into such details, but you are welcome to follow up with your directing staff to ascertain the necessary information, or consult the Harassment Handbook.” We’d been provided with this document after our SHARP training, and despite being directed to consult handbooks whenever a question existed (there was, we discovered, a handbook for everything, all styled in confusing bureaucratic language), the policies themselves served as nothing other than generators of further concern—meanings and solutions tied up in upper-level language and legal military jargon.

I weighed Meerin’s options as I imagined she herself had done after waking, her mouth papery and body sore: speak up for what was right, or stay quiet and accept that making noise would only draw the wrong kind of attention—the kind of attention that the military didn’t seem to want us women to draw. The protocol of a handbook seemed comically out of place next to Meerin’s cracking exterior, her bruises, her shame.

“Any other questions?” the warrant asked, as though he didn’t really want an answer.

My hand shot up into the air. “Excuse me, Warrant, are you saying that the guy is still out there? Do we need to be on the lookout for someone in particular?”

“Again, all protocols are in place, Officer Cadet Thompson, and your safety is of prime importance.”

“But not even a description so we can protect ourselves? Meerin, you don’t know who it was? Was he in our platoon?” I asked her, but she didn’t look up, my cheeks burning with regret for having put her on the spot.

“Questions will not be directed at Officer Cadet Meerin,” the warrant boomed, his teeth clenched.

“Didn’t exactly answer the question, did he?” Trafford whispered.

“What I can tell you,” our warrant continued, “considering this is an active investigation and we do not want to manipulate the process, is that the padre is here should any of you like to seek counsel or have experienced similar situations at any point in your lives. Occasionally, these kinds of events can serve as triggers.” His voice was robotic and practised, and I tried to keep my eyes from rolling. The padre? Really? He was a nice man in his fifties, and we welcomed his presence because he was the only Saint-Jean staff member who smiled and asked how we were coping. But still, he was a man. An officer. A higher rank. What good was all that to this room and this audience?

I briefly considered sharing my own harassment scenarios, openly discussing stories of unwanted touching and comments we’d experienced in our limited weeks of soldierhood—and civilian life before that, too—but then what would be the point, when even assault didn’t seem to warrant further action? The responses from those in charge were why so many of us didn’t speak up. What’s the point? a fellow cadet had mumbled once. It never changes.

Back in IAP, one woman had claimed that one of her course staff had harassed her. When she submitted an official complaint, the male staff member came around to us, his cadets—the people whose careers he could end before they started—and asked if any of us were willing to write him memos of support, since, you know, we knew of his character, that he would never harass someone. I didn’t know shit about his character or the facts about the charge, other than the reality that I couldn’t imagine how hard it had been for her to come forward, knowing the backlash she’d receive, the isolation from her platoon-mates and the coinciding reputation for whining. But I wrote a memo of support for the male staff member, signed my name below words I didn’t mean.

“Officer Cadet Meerin, do you have anything to add?”

Meerin looked up and straightened her spine as if calling herself to attention. She could barely open her eyes, though whether that was because of her nasty hangover or the situation at hand, it was hard to say. “Just that, um, it was really scary, and I’m sorry that it happened.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” someone said from the front. One of her roommates. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” We collectively nodded, murmured our assent, but Meerin looked back down at her boots. I felt sick to my stomach, that same anxious feeling I’d nurtured since childhood but which had been dissipating with my newfound military confidence. I pressed my fingers together in a steeple and flexed them back and forth, my leg bouncing with jitters.

“I don’t know what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have . . .” She trailed off, eyes to the ceiling. I wondered if the perpetrator was currently in a room surrounded by male cadets, having to atone. I ran through the known list of males in my head. Or maybe it was someone else from another platoon? I pictured the faces that had sneered at me, the eyes that had assessed my shape, the hands that had touched. It could have been nearly any one of them, and yet we were expected to trust these men with our lives.

“In the meantime,” injected the warrant. “I’d like all female cadets to be extra vigilant in looking out for one another and to ensure that drinking activities are curtailed to a minimum, as this puts you at increased risk for being made a target.”

Perhaps it was his rank, or the reality that making waves would do nothing but highlight the troublemakers, but we let him—this man with arm muscles larger than my thigh—tell us that our actions were the cause for assault, for being vulnerable. Or perhaps no one argued with his victim-blaming because it all seemed to make sense, that drinking plus a hyper-masculine environment equaled a wanton woman begging to be taught a lesson. Whichever it was, the room of female cadets sat wide-eyed and blinking, accepting that our gender was to be the source of our own undoing. My mess-hall meal did somersaults up my throat.

“That will be all,” the warrant barked. “Dismissed.”

The warrant and MPs left the room and we burst into hurried discussion. I sat temporarily frozen, hands clenched.

“Well”—Trafford mimed checking her watch—“that had to have been done in record time. Now, ladies, don’t go breaking any rules and getting raped tonight.” She wagged a finger, then regarded her whole hand with disgust. “Makes you wonder what we’re in for, eh? A career of this bullshit?”

My podmates and I looked at each other, Trafford’s statement hanging weighty in the air. Scotdale bit her lip and squeezed my leg under the table. I shook her off and crossed my legs in the other direction. In that moment, all touch felt wrong, even the compassionate kind.

“I wonder what tale was spun for the guys while we listened to this,” Scotdale said, unable to tear her eyes from Meerin, who was now surrounded by a collection of mourners. She’d broken into tears, her hands shaking. Those of us who didn’t know her well looked away, fiddled with loose threads or uneven nametags on our uniforms.

“Likely, to wear protection and make sure they don’t get caught,” I said.

“That isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I spat. “Who said I was joking?”

We were led back to the common room to meet up with our male counterparts, who were already seated as though they’d been lingering a while, waiting on us to finish up. I assessed eyes for shadiness or for heads bent low, but everyone looked bleak-faced. Joe sat next to me, resting one ankle on his other knee, hips splayed wide.

“So, did you guys get more information than us?” he asked. “Poor Meerin.” He shook his head.

“What’d they tell you?”

“That Meerin was assaulted last night. That’s about it.”

“No details?” To our left, a cluster of men slapped each other on the shoulders, laughing over some cracked joke, the discussion in the training room apparently already forgotten. My mouth felt acidic and slimy. “They didn’t say, ‘Hey guys, if this was you, come forward. Respect women.’ Nothing like that?”

“Nope,” Joe said, shaking his head solemnly. “My guess? They already know who did it. They’re likely just trying to figure out how to handle it, and handle it quietly.”

I twisted my beret in my hands and tugged at my bun. “Everyone protecting the fucker instead of the person who needs protecting. Would be nice to know who it was and if they’ve been kicked off the course. We haven’t heard of anyone being taken off course or charged, have we?”

“No,” Joe said, settling into a moment of silence. “No, we haven’t heard anything like that.” We leaned back in our chairs, anger burning until I felt sick and lightheaded despite the spring air that blew through the curtains.

“This is going to be brushed under the rug, isn’t it?”

Joe patted my leg and stood to fill his canteen at the fountain.

I went to bed but slept fitfully. After that day, we didn’t ask Meerin about who had attacked her. Either we didn’t want to know, or we were somehow aware that the answer was moot. The Forces’ method for rectifying the situation was clearly already in motion—or at least, that’s what we’d been assured. Toying with the woollen blanket between my fingers, I wondered how women could confidently slot themselves into a male-dominated field when the people they’re meant to trust most are also the most likely to betray them. The wars we would fight could be right at home, not only on the doorstep of faraway countries.

The next time our platoon visited the mess, we slurped back highballs and shots as though they were water, every liquid taking on the same oily sheen until they were indistinguishable from one another, our reprimand long forgotten. Joe and I sang Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of our lungs, swung around pillars with rosy cheeks.

So I didn’t notice when a male cadet followed me to my pod, the warrant’s warning apparently lost on both of us. I didn’t notice when he crept up the stairs behind me, or maybe he didn’t creep at all, maybe I was just too off on rum that my wits were focused on steadying myself up the stairs, not the potential for danger. I’d been flirting, after all. Flirting all night with shameless, wild abandon because I trusted most of these men, and those I didn’t, the alcohol convinced me I did. So I also didn’t notice that Joe and another platoon-mate noticed this, and their noticing led to them following me too, ensuring I got safely to my pod behind the locked door. The other male cadet had asserted that he was just going to bed, that me being there was a coincidence, since we were in the same platoon, after all, living on the same floor, and no, he hadn’t realized he was being so very quiet. And maybe we all felt this was a somewhat reasonable explanation, since Meerin’s experience had made us take stock of our separate roles in keeping the peace. It’s not a big deal, I insisted later. He was probably just going to bed. I told Joe not to worry about telling the staff; ignoring the icy feeling that crept across my skin whenever that male platoon-mate approached me throughout the rest of the course.

Joe ushered him back downstairs before he could make any mistakes. Meerin’s assault was never spoken of for the remainder of BOTC. We were already learning the importance of keeping our country’s secrets.

Excerpted from Girls Need Not Apply by Kelly S. Thompson. Copyright © 2019 Kelly S. Thompson. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.