On paper, Sandra Perron was the perfect soldier: a fit, fearless warrior who earned top marks in training, was comfortably bilingual, unquestionably dedicated to the Canadian Forces, and rose to become the first female officer in the infantry, serving with distinction in the battlegrounds of Bosnia and Croatia.
But there was something wrong with Perron in the eyes of many of her military colleagues: she was a woman. Her superiors were reluctant to give her jobs at a level appropriate to her skills and experience because they feared that male soldiers would not accept being placed in a subordinate role to her. Worse was the daily sexual antagonism Perron was forced to endure – a litany of abuse that ran the gamut from obscene nicknames and disgusting frat-boy pranks all the way to bullying, shunning, and even rape. After 16 years, Perron left the military, having never lodged complaints against her fellow soldiers.
Now based in Gatineau, Quebec, where she works as a consultant, Perron reveals the years of abuse she suffered in an explosive new memoir. The title is something of a pun. Top military brass called her “outstanding” only after she resigned. But the words “out standing” also apply to an infamous photograph that circulated in the daily press in 1996 showing Perron tied to a tree at CFB Gagetown, having been beaten and forced to stand barefoot in the snow for four hours. The assault, which was part of an over-the-top training session, left bruises over her entire body.
Perron’s account of her years in the military reads like the travails of a hostage suffering Stockholm syndrome – she continued to admire the Canadian Forces despite the daily abuse she was subjected to. The author is a superb storyteller: she marshals abundant details to create cinematic scenes. The reader is brought in close to her pain, frustration, and obsession to excel. Perron holds little back, including accounts of two abortions. The frankness is, at times, overwhelming.
“I was in terrible shape, physically and emotionally,” Perron writes at one point. “The men in my section had not let up, still very much focused on doing whatever they could to harass, ostracize, or ridicule me. I had to keep constant watch over my equipment: they amused themselves by hiding my rifle, my helmet, my patrol orders. Whenever I’d go for a pee, I had to bring all my equipment or else it would have disappeared upon my return and I’d lose precious time looking for it.”
Military life is better for women now, Perron insists, but much still needs to be done. Top military officials – from the defence minister on down – publicly claim they want to end the culture of sexual discrimination and harassment. But changing the engrained misogynist attitudes of rank-and-file soldiers has proved an almost intractable problem. Perron still encourages women to join the military, but says they should not accept in silence the kind of abuse she underwent. Her optimism notwithstanding, Perron’s story is so raw and shocking that it is difficult to imagine any woman reading her memoir and wanting to subject herself to even a fraction of such grief.