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‘One day I would be in the infantry,’ Perron on Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer

By Sandra Perron      

Sandra Perron is shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for her book, Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer, published by Cormorant Books.

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By early 1989 there were still no women in combat, but I started hearing rumours of trials being conducted to perhaps allow them to join or transfer to the infantry, artillery, and armour classifications. They were called Combat-Related Employment for Women (CREW trials). I was hopeful I’d eventually be transferred to the infantry regiment. In the meantime, whenever I had the chance during major army training exercises, I’d hop along the resupply convoys with my troops to see them replenish the front lines where infantry forces prepared for their attacks. I would watch them with the envy of a four-year-old kid looking at a litter of puppies, just dying to jump in to play.

My interest in the infantry was common knowledge, and on one occasion during Rendez-Vous ’89, an army-wide exercise in Wainwright, Alberta, I was invited to follow along a mechanized infantry assault as they performed their lead-up, dismount, and attack. Although I tried to stay calm and professional, I was giddy with excitement when I told my driver to wait for me behind the staging area and then followed the infantry platoon warrant officer to where the sections were preparing to deploy. Sitting in the tracked M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), I watched the soldiers prepare for the attack: refresh their camouflage paint, load the ammunition in their magazines, and take a few last looks at the map. I too refreshed my camo, just in case they’d let me tag along like an unwanted little sister. I guess they succumbed to my best brown-eyed-please-take-me-along look because the next thing I knew I was given hand grenades and they were slipping extra pyrotechnics into the headband of my helmet. The pounding of my heart could have drowned out the artillery fire in the background. I felt like I’d been transported to the helicopter scene in [i]Apocalypse Now[/i]’s Ride of the Valkyries. “Ta ta ta taaaa ta, ta ta ta taaaaa ta…”

We drove for maybe ten minutes, sitting in the semi-darkness of the APC, letting ourselves be rocked gently by the rolling terrain of the Wainwright prairies. The five soldiers facing me seemed so calm in contrast to my excitement. One of them was actually trying to snooze, while I was almost at the point of needing defibrillation. Two of them were staring at me and laughing at the oddity before them: a girl, wanting to play war games. I didn’t smile back. This was war, after all.

The order was given to prepare for dismount just as the APC came to an abrupt halt. I could hear the yelling of orders outside the vehicle and the smell of the smoke grenades that had been launched to cover our advance was intoxicating. The ramp opened for our own dismount, but, in an unsuspected denouement, jammed about six inches from the top, forcing us to get out from the top hatch of the APC, and that put us directly in the enemy’s line of fire. One by one we urgently exited through the hatch, but when I attempted to jump down from the top of the APC my foot caught in the camouflage net and I went flying off the vehicle in a somersault worthy of a Nadia Comăneci performance. I landed on my side and rolled like the recovery from a parachute jump. The muzzle of my FNC1 rifle gouged my cheek, but the adrenalin was so intense that I barely noticed the pain. I stood up and fell into pepper-podding, the tactical advance of half the platoon while the other half covers the movement, with the rest of the unit. Our section had fallen behind and we sprinted to catch up to the troops on our flanks. When we approached the trenches, one of the section commanders showed me how to light the grenade simulator and my heart skirted the edges of exploding with anticipation as I threw it just behind the trenches (so as not to hurt the soldiers role-playing the enemy). We jabbed our covered bayonets at the enemy, watched as they screamed, slithered down in the trench and pretended to die. I tasted the thrill of victory.

It was a glorious attack. Seeing the fighting unfold with seemingly little effort and perfect coordination of the battle group’s assault teams and their respective firepower … it fascinated me, it exhilarated me. The smoke began to clear as the teams regrouped, evacuated their wounded, caught their breath, and rallied in a circle for the debrief. There were soldiers everywhere, synchronized into a choreography that was unfamiliar to me; a scene that was chaotic, but graceful in its own way. Everyone but me seemed to know exactly where they needed to be, what they needed to do, and which way their rifle should be pointing. I, on the other hand, felt like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole in slow motion. Not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, I instinctively followed the section everywhere like a loyal puppy, fearing that I’d be left behind and hoping that they’d forget I wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe I could participate in the next attack too. No such luck. I was the odd woman out. Within minutes, the young platoon commander came over to where his section was regrouped, stared at me incredulously and gave me a look that said okay, you’ve had your fun, little girl, run along now

The soldiers from my newly adopted team slapped my helmet in a respectful, congratulatory fashion and the people-pleaser in me did cartwheels of joy as I reluctantly headed across the dry, grassy field towards the main road to see if I could find a lift back to my own vehicle. There was no wind, not even a small breeze, and the remnants of the smokescreen lingered heavily on the flat prairie training ground. I took in a good, long, intoxicating whiff of it, trying to anchor that moment into my memory forever. Before getting to the main road, I stood, spent, in the middle of that field, blood dripping off my cheek, smoke grenades dangling off my webbing and flares still sticking out of my helmet like some bad Hollywood movie. I felt invigorated, sated. Dizzy-happy. I stood in that field and all I wanted to do was scream at the top of my lungs, “I am goddamn made for this!!! This is what I need to do!!! I HAVE to be in the infantry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Reaching the main gravel road, I saw that my soft-skin cargo truck (which should have stayed well behind the front lines) was waiting not too far away, tucked as far as it could go into the gently sloping ditch on the side of the road. There were no places to hide on the prairies, especially for such a huge monster of a vehicle, but I was grateful that my driver had risked getting into trouble to come pick me up. Turning around, I glanced longingly at the infantry troops climbing back into their armoured personnel carriers and, for a fleeting second, considered the consequences of defecting to that combat unit, as if no one would notice me.

Yeah, right … There wasn’t enough camouflage in the world to hide me in a battalion full of men.

I ran over to my cargo truck, climbed in, and grinned widely at my corporal who sat staring at me from his driver’s seat. He pointed at my cheek and told me my face was bleeding. Ignoring his comment, I leaned my head back against the wall of the truck and sighed. Then I responded with a matter-of-fact confirmation that one day I would be in the infantry.

Laughing, he just shook his head and steered the truck back onto the dirt road towards base camp. “With all due respect, ma’am,” he said, “you are fucking crazy.”

Sandra Perron served 13 years in the Canadian Armed Forces and was the country’s first female infantry officer. She is a senior partner with A New Dynamic Enterprise Inc. and a past member of the board of governors for the Corps des Commissionaires du Quebec. She is the founder and president of the Imagine Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting a school that shelters Albino orphans in Tanzania. Perron lives in Gatineau, Que. Excerpted and adapted from Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer, copyright © 2017 Sandra Perron. Published by Cormorant Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 9. www.writerstrust.com

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