Mission creeps: New memoir details the harassment faced by women in Forces

Kelly Thompson. Photo: Dorian Widling

Kelly S. Thompson comes from a military family. Her father and grandfather both served in the Canadian Forces. Kelly was determined to follow in their footsteps, even though she really longed to be a writer.

She did serve for eight years and rose through the ranks and reached her goal of becoming a logistics officer. She excelled in the classroom but struggled with the gruelling physical training all recruits must endure

But the hardest part was what she perceived as almost constant sexual discrimination and harassment. She would be hauled on the carpet for dating a married fellow officer, yet the man involved was not reprimanded. She was often judged on her appearance rather than her abilities.

In the end, she left, in large part because of a physical disability. A leg injury during training was misdiagnosed and left untreated for years. She was no longer the combat-ready soldier all members of the military must be, whether they are office workers or jet pilots.

A memoir of Thompson’s military service is being published this month by McClelland and Stewart. Girls Need Not Apply is a gripping read. Some may find the details of her harassment shocking and wonder whether girls (or women) can ever find a welcome home in the Canadian Forces.

Thompson, in the midst of a move with her military husband to North Bay from Trenton, stops in Ottawa Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. to promote her book at the Rideau Street Chapters. Here is a transcript of an interview with ARTSFILE that was edited only for brevity.

Q. Why did you want to write this book?

A. Honestly, I’m not sure if I did want to write this book, as I didn’t feel brave enough. Girls Need Not Apply actually started out as a fictional account of female military life, until my agent said she thought I should give it a try as non-fiction. Re-framing from my personal experience made for a richer, more powerful story that I think will hold more resonance for readers. As I wrote, struggling through sections that caused me angst or brought back difficult memories, I tried to remind myself of the discussions that might arise from discussing these tricky subjects, because even in the new millennium, women and marginalized people are still subjected to abusive and harassing behaviour. I want to be a small vehicle of change.

Q. The book’s title does not exactly encourage women to join the forces. Would you discourage (or encourage) women contemplating signing up?

A. I think joining the Forces is a choice that needs to be made with eyes wide open, and I definitely was naive in my own enrolment. In hindsight, I wish I had spoken to other women, gathered information on their experiences, and then examined my own character to decide if this was the life for me — because the military is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. That said, I don’t regret my own choice to enrol. So I wouldn’t discourage women from joining, because change will not happen without women in military jobs.

Q. We frequently hear about discrimination against women in other male-dominated occupations, including firefighters, construction workers and bus drivers. Is there something about the Armed Forces that is different from those other occupations in terms of the treatment of women?

A. It’s hard to say, since I’ve not worked in those occupations, although any time there is a hyper-masculinized environment not used to accommodating others outside that sphere, there are potential problems waiting. But where the Forces does stand out is that in the military, we can be asked to die and to kill. For that reason, being a soldier necessitates complete trust in the people you work with, and so, we’re often asking women to work with their abusers, to put their lives in the hands of people who sometimes make them feel fear or maybe just nervous in their gut. How is a woman to be effective operationally if she’s terrified of the guy next to her, who is also carrying a weapon? In all of these careers, physicality is often prized above all, and although there are exceptions, many women cannot physically match a man’s capabilities. But is that so bad? I’d love to see male-dominated professions choose instead to embrace the qualities that women and others bring to the table instead of focusing on their perceived impediments.

Q. What is the solution to eliminating, or at least reducing, the amount of systemic discrimination in the armed forces?

A. Is there one solution? Sigh, I don’t know. I do know that we need policies in place that not only protect women, but also, policies that support reporting assaults and harassment and highlight the benefits of having women in the Forces. Already, when I speak to currently serving female friends, they have noticed positive changes over the last 10 years. The military has started programs like Operation Honour, designed to bring awareness, knowledge and solutions to sexual misconduct, and the Women in Force program, which serves as a 10-day trial of military life for women. But as we receive progress reports, like the latest issued in February, we see that incidents of sexual misconduct have stayed the same. I’ve heard countless men crack jokes, calling it Operation “Hop On Her,” and other crass things, and they laugh because it seems menial and innocent. But for women, their laughter degrades our trust in the system that we count on to protect us.

One of the biggest changes I think we need to see is more leadership willing to take a stand when they see poor behaviour, without fear of being labelled someone “unable to take a joke.” I used be a harassment advisor at my unit, in charge of providing the harassment lecture to all incoming students on course. Interestingly, I was routinely harassed while giving these lectures, yet I said nothing. So here I am, a trained advisor, learning all about reporting and protecting others, and I just clicked through my slides silently. I was the youngest person at my unit, was routinely seen as too young and girly and smiley (as though these were bad things), and I knew that I would be told I was making too much of nothing. I knew this because I saw it play out a million times before. 

I think that as we see more women come into greater positions of power, we’ll also see that females can be brave, strong and effective leaders, which is key to changing the stereotype of hysterical women making decisions based purely on emotion. We also need actual punishments for perpetrators. One woman I interviewed for an article on military sexual harassment saw her rapist fined $2,000. A fine. What does that tell women who come forward?

Q. How do you feel looking back on your military career? Presumably you have  both good and bad memories. What is the lasting, predominant memory?

A. What I’ve found funny is that my perception of my military career has mutated as years pass. While I was serving, I had many civilian friends ask me if I was harassed in the military, and I was so adamant that I hadn’t been, like it was a badge of honour to prove I could be one of the guys. Once I retired, I slipped into depression because I felt so unfamiliar with civilian life that I didn’t know how to work within the medical system, job hunts, or social media — things my friends had been managing for years. I missed the Forces, even when it didn’t miss me.

So it wasn’t until I left the military and started into my writing career that I saw my experience for what it was — constant, pervasive harassment, even from some people I called my friends. Every success I achieved was attributed to my breasts, my bubbly nature, my femininity, rarely for my intelligence. I was the top student on several of my career training courses, but some of my male counterparts only seemed able to appreciate what was underneath my uniform, not the things I accomplished while in it.

That said, I’m also someone who appreciates the joy, experiences and challenges the military brought to my life because I learned so much about myself, and about what I was willing to do for others. And really, that’s a gift many of us don’t ever receive.

In town: Kelly S. Thompson will be in conversation with Natalie Morrill, author of The Ghost Keeper, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m., at Chapters, 47 Rideau St.

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