Speaking out on sexual assault in the military

From 1998: A pioneering fighter pilot added her story to the growing disclosures of women in the Canadian Forces
Jane O'Hara with Brian Bergman, John Geddes, Brenda Branswell, Shanda Deziel, Stephanie Nolen and Cindy Harnett


This story was originally published in Maclean’s June 1, 1998 issue:

They ranged in rank from an ordinary seaman to a naval lieutenant, and had spent anywhere from 20 months to 26 years in the Canadian Forces. But the 11 women who sat in a boardroom overlooking Halifax’s naval dockyards last Friday morning had one thing in common: they were dismayed and disgusted by the cover story that appeared in the May 25, 1998 issue of Maclean’s, entitled “Rape in the military.” Earlier in the week, six of the women had come forward to make their views known to several Halifax-based reporters, after securing permission from their commanding officers to speak out. And when they and five other colleagues met with Maclean’s, their message was unequivocal. While the women had no doubt that the accounts of sexual assault described in the magazine are true, they said that, in all their years of service, they had never seen any direct evidence of such crimes. They also deeply resented the suggestion that sexual assault and harassment was rampant in the Forces at a time when, they say, the situation for women is dramatically improving. “It’s so unfair of the men to be thought of as predators and us to be thought of as playthings,” says Cpl. Karen Westcott, a 15-year veteran who has served on both army bases and aboard naval ships. “We don’t deserve this. As for the morale of the military, I think that Maclean’s has really set us back.”


Rape in the military
Of rape and justice

But others also spoke out last week—breaking the military’s code of silence with further tales of abuse and assaults. Among them was Maj. Dee Brasseur, who spent 21 years in the air force and in 1988 became one of the first women in Canada to pilot a CF-18 fighter. In an interview with Maclean’s, Brasseur, who left the military in 1994, revealed that she had been subjected to rape, assault and harassment during her distinguished 21-year military career. And even Canada’s top soldier, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Maurice Baril, admitted at a news conference in Ottawa that a problem existed—and had to be addressed.

Baril, who declined to be interviewed by Maclean’s, stopped well short of conceding the trouble is so widespread that some sort of special inquiry is needed. “I dare to believe that the majority of people in the Canadian Forces are good people, good leaders and solid leaders,” he said. “I’ve said it before that we have a problem in the leadership, but not all of it—a slice that we’re trying to correct.” But, he acknowledged, “we do have a problem of attitude in integrating women in the Canadian Forces. I’m beyond being patient—those who cannot quickly change their attitude are in the wrong uniform, and the wrong profession.”

The wrong profession. Many military women, faced with an often hostile reception, have certainly wondered about their career choice. Last week, a total of 11 women—many of them still frightened and insisting on anonymity–contacted Maclean’s with their stories of sexual assault in the Forces, while former male servicemen also called with stories of abuse. Among the new allegations:

– Two separate military sources say that Canadian Forces brass hushed up the brutal gang rape of a mentally handicapped woman by a group of men in the Enhanced Singles Quarters at CFB Gagetown, near Fredericton, in 1988.

– In the summer of 1994, military police had to conduct 27 sexual assault investigations at Blackdown Army Cadet Summer Training Camp at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont., 90 km north of Toronto. “Investigators got burned out with all the work they had to do at that camp,” says one source. One mother is now in the process of suing the department of national defence in connection with the sexual assault of her 13-year-old daughter at Blackdown last summer.

– In 1994, at the Wainright battle school in Alberta, the base was considered so unsafe that women recruits were given a curfew—then locked inside the all-female barracks. Sentries patrolled inside and soldiers with pick-axe handles stood guard outside doors, some of which were shackled shut.

– In the mid-1980s, a military doctor at Borden was suspected of sexually assaulting at least 12 women patients. After military police began to investigate, superiors intervened and the investigation was halted. No charges were laid; instead, the doctor was quietly released from service. He went on to set up private practice in Edmonton, where in 1992 he was investigated by the College of Physicians of Alberta after complaints were lodged against him. His licence was suspended for six months after he was found guilty of three counts of “lack of skill or judgment.”

– A former reserve member of the military police at regular Forces bases in Dundurn, Sask., and Vernon, B.C., told Maclean’s he was aware of more than two dozen cases of sexual assault, rape and sexual molestation from 1991 to 1994. All too often, he was told by superior officers to look the other way. “We stood around like idiots watching terrible things happen,” says George Lamont, who in 1994 quit the military in disgust. “We were told to shut our mouths, that these things would be handled by the chain of command.”

In the end, says Art Hanger, the Reform party’s defence critic, the incidents of abuse are probably the result of a small, undesirable element within the Forces. “I’m not prepared to tar everybody in the military with the same brush,” he says. “There may be some bad apples in there and you deal with the bad apples.” But Ottawa lawyer Lucie Laliberte, who was married to a soldier and has spent much of her working life as an activist for military women, maintains that the problem is more extensive. “In my 30 years’ experience with the military, I’ve found a profound hate of women,” she said last week. “And when you come to combat training, I would go so far as to call it a form of terrorism and power to keep women out and to say women just can’t make it here.”

Many women coming forward with their stories are afraid of being identified. Kim Murphy (a pseudonym) is among them, withholding her real name because her husband is still in the military and they fear reprisals. In 1989, Murphy was one of the first women to join a Canadian combat unit. But two weeks of battle school at CFB Gagetown left her feeling as if she had been captured by an enemy army. “I felt like a prisoner of war,” she says. She and the five other women in the course, she says, were sexually stalked by both fellow soldiers and superiors. And the instructors, she recalls, took sadistic pleasure in singling them out. “One urinated in our gas masks,” she says, “and then made the women put them on. Another took a can of cigarette butts, threw them on the ground and made us pick them up with our teeth.”

The women, she says, feared the instructors by day—and the officers by night. “Three of us were decent-looking, so it was a contest for them to see which one they could get first,” she says. “You’d get 10 feet inside the mess and you’d have 20 guys pawing you. They circled you and tried to push you up against the wall, or into a back room. We complained to a woman superior once and she told us if we didn’t want it to happen we shouldn’t go in the mess. She called us ‘babies.’ We learned not to be in the mess by ourselves, not to go for a run by ourselves, and to watch what we drank.”

Her 1989 posting to CFB Petawawa, 125 km northwest of Ottawa, only worsened Murphy’s situation. One sergeant, she says, would come into her room and stroke her hair at night. One evening, two officers asked her to play pool in the back room of a mess hall. “I went in—and they pushed me onto the table and started tickling me,” she says. “Then they held me down and started taking off my skirt. The only thing that saved me was the bartender walking in to tell them it was closing time. He didn’t say anything else–but I think it shook them up and they let me go.” Murphy quit the military in 1992.

Tracey Constable was a gung-ho 20-year-old from a military family in Grand Falls, Nfld., when she joined the air force in 1986 as a medical assistant. That November, she began training at CFB Borden—the busiest training base in Canada—amid rumors that a serial rapist was preying on women on the base (members of the military police have confirmed that story to Maclean’s; the rapist, they say, was never caught). Constable felt safer when she was posted to Ottawa’s National Defence Medical Centre in the spring of 1987. But one day, while she was sitting at the bedside of a diabetic veteran and cleaning his lesions, a doctor came up behind her and began fondling her breasts. “That wasn’t OK,” she says, “but I tried to laugh it off. He was a captain and a doctor—he had all this authority and who was I, a little private.”

On another occasion, she says, the same doctor came into the women’s locker room as she was showering and watched her. “There wasn’t a soul around,” she recalls. “I grabbed a towel and my flip-flops and ran.” About two weeks later, that doctor asked her to come see him in the interns’ quarters on the seventh floor—an area off-limits to her. She went—and he took her into a room and raped her. “He said, ‘Come on, you’re going to like this,’ ” she says. “I felt so humiliated, I went home and had a long shower and a bath. I felt so dirty and ashamed.” Nine years later, when she confided what had happened to her father, a proud military man who served in the 1950s, “he cried and cried,” she says.

Another woman, who requested anonymity because she has never told her husband what happened to her in the Forces, was attacked twice. In 1991, as a 17-year-old reservist, she attended a base party and ended up in a small room with a male acquaintance. He violently forced himself on her. But before he succeeded in raping her, she says, “someone heard me screaming and barged in and beat the crap out of him.”

The second time, after participating in a drunken party on a ship two years later, she was not so lucky. She was separated from her friends, she recalls, and one sailor offered to “take care” of her. She awoke in the morning, bloody and bruised, a victim of rape—and blaming herself because she had been drinking. She told a padre about the assaults, then informed her commanding officers (both women). That, she says, was the beginning of the end of her military career. Over the next three years, she was bullied and intimidated until she quit the Forces. “There were all these whispers and little jokes,” she says. “No one would talk to me, they denied my request for a transfer—and there is just so much you can take.”

With the opposition poised to attack the Liberal government over the issue this week when the House of Commons resumed sitting, the question of abuse in the military has become a major challenge not only for the Canadian Forces but for Defence Minister Art Eggleton. Last week, one of his senior aides told Maclean’s that the minister had been “disgusted” by the tales of sexual assault revealed by the 13 women interviewed for the May 25 report. But in public, his initial reaction gave way to a more detached, studied response. “I have no information that would lead me to believe that [sexual abuse] is any worse in the military than it is in society overall,” he told reporters during a visit to CFB Bagotville in Quebec. “So this is a problem in Canadian society overall.”

Officials insist that guarded tone does not reflect Eggleton’s true feelings. His main concrete response will be to announce within two weeks the long-awaited establishment of an office of ombudsman to handle complaints, including reports of sexual harassment, from within the ranks of the Canadian Forces. That official, Eggleton told Maclean’s in an earlier interview, is being recruited from outside the military and the federal bureaucracy—to bring an unbiased, fresh, outsider’s perspective to the new role, and work outside the Forces’ chain of command.

For Reform, the sexual assault issue is problematic. The party has a long record of ambivalence towards fully integrating women into the Forces—which makes it difficult to now position itself as a champion of women in uniform. Defence critic Hanger said new concerns about sexual harassment and assault only strengthen his previous skepticism about putting women into fighting roles. “If there are problems arising where officers cannot maintain adequate discipline, if they cannot maintain their focus on the job at hand and are having to wonder about what kinds of relationships are building between men and women in a unit,” Hanger said, “then how effective and cohesive is the unit going to be? In combat arms in particular, those are legitimate questions to be asked.”

In fact, concerns about sexual assault have rippled through the senior ranks of the Canadian Forces before. Cmdr. Deborah Wilson, who is in charge of overseeing the integration of women into the military, told Maclean’s that last year, during a visit to Borden, a colonel was told by the soldier assigned to drive him around that sexual assault was a persistent problem on the base. Alarmed, the colonel telephoned Wilson to report what he took to be a serious allegation. Wilson told Maclean’s how she followed up: “I spoke to the senior leadership in Borden and I said, ‘Are you aware of it, are you concerned?’ And they did do an investigation into it. They looked at whatever evidence they found, and subsequently wrote an open letter in the base newspaper saying they had also heard those allegations and they did not find that there was a particularly high level of sexual assault cases.”

Case closed? Not all misgivings were put to rest. While Wilson said she is confident the leadership at Borden would not intentionally cover up a pattern of sexual assault, she also conceded that rapes that never reached the stage of a police investigation would have been all but impossible for the base commander to assess. And Wilson suggested that Borden, with its campus-like atmosphere, remains a focus of nagging suspicions. “One of the things about Borden is that it is a large base and a training base—a lot of people walk through it,” she said. “So, if I was going to guess, just in terms of where the opportunities for larger numbers [of sexual assaults] are, I probably would guess Borden.”

Wilson also suggested the pattern of response that followed the visiting colonel’s warning about Borden is typical: DND trusts base commanders to look into allegations about their own operations. “When the concern is raised, we feed it back into the system and we say, ‘Deal with this issue,’ ” Wilson said. But the assumption that the chain of command at Canadian bases is competent to investigate sexual assault allegations—and can be relied on to bring any serious problems to light—is coming under fire. Hanger says the cases reported by Maclean’s should not be left to the Forces’ hierarchy and military police to investigate. “Where is their experience in this type of investigation?” he said. “I think it will have to be the RCMP.”

But Baril insists there is no need for outsiders to examine the issue of sexual assault in his army, navy and air force. Last week, he urged any women who have been assaulted or harassed to report their allegations through the normal military channels. (At week’s end, Baril said that two or three women had called him directly.) Earlier, he touted the newly formed National Investigation Service, which has wider power to investigate and lay charges of sexual assault than ordinary military police, as proof that the military is “not only changing the attitude of the investigators, but we have outright changed the way we are investigating.”

If that is true, it is long overdue. And even some members of the military police wonder whether substantive changes will result from the reforms. One military policeman, who asked not to be identified, says that during his career he has regularly encountered interference from higher-ups in sexual assault investigations. “The grassroots, the rank and file, are dedicated,” he says. “It’s the chain of command that throws us—there’s blatant interference in laying charges.” And, he added about the Maclean’s report, “you haven’t even scratched the surface.”

That damning indictment was echoed by other military sources who described case after case of superior officers routinely obstructing investigations and trying to keep sexual assault charges out of civilian courts, where they would become highly publicized. In some cases, perpetrators were simply removed from the base where the assault took place and quietly went on with their careers. That, apparently, is what happened in Gagetown in the summer of 1988 when at least five combat soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment repeatedly raped a woman described as “mentally defective.” They also took photographs of their exploits. These were later seized by the military police and were evidence enough, says one source, to get a conviction. But a senior officer intervened and no charges were laid. “The investigation was stymied from the get-go,” says the source. “A lot of people walked away from that one.”

Investigating misdeeds of infantry battalions pose special problems for the military police. In these tightly knit units, the “code of silence” prevails as the highest form of loyalty. Outsiders trying to crack that code are usually unsuccessful. And, according to one infantryman, military police assigned to investigate combat units often end up “as protectors of the unit, not enforcers of the law.”

Soldiers, both male and female, say that much of the hostility towards women in combat units is a result of the instructors who run basic training and battle training schools. Although many are dedicated teachers, others are caricatures of screaming drill sergeants with antiquated attitudes–and the power to mould the minds of young recruits and create a climate in which women are reviled. Justin Chenier was a recruit at the Wainwright battle school in the summer of 1994, and remembers one instructor openly telling recruits that if a woman came on his course, he would “make sure she wouldn’t make it past the second week” (Chenier left the military soon after because of the abuse he suffered). And one of the first women to go through combat training at Gagetown describes one of her instructors as “sadistic.”

His openly abusive attitudes towards women, she says, were copied by other male recruits. “On the first day, he told the men they were to hate women and officers,” she recalls. Last year, at a military function, she encountered the same instructor—and was shocked to learn he was still teaching. “I couldn’t believe they’re letting this guy instruct,” she says. And another former soldier, a man who just retired after 20 years service, adds: “Some guys are really good, but when you get the power-tripping control freaks that gravitate to these jobs, terrible things can happen.”

Among ordinary servicemen and women, the allegations of sexual assault within the military brought a mixed reaction. One master corporal with 18 years service said outside CFB Halifax that she thought the issue had been overblown. But she was also critical of the women who had come forward to complain about the Maclean’s article. “For them to go on TV last night and say it doesn’t exist is totally wrong,” she said. And she added: “You wouldn’t catch me aboard ship.” Another male leading seaman with 12 years service said: “In my experience, I’ve never heard of women being abused—it’s another smear campaign to tar the image of the Canadian Forces.” But of the sexual assault victims whose stories were featured in Maclean’s, he said: “I’m sure it happens, but I’m also sure that some women invite it—by suggestions, or body language, or whatever.”

Krista Piche certainly does not feel that she was inviting it. A cadet since the age of 13, she entered the Forces as an ordinary seaman in 1991 at the age of 19. In November, 1994, three years into her service as a communications researcher, she was stationed at CFS Alert, the northernmost military installation in Canada. And there, she says, she was raped by a petty officer.

At a party celebrating the arrival of a travelling entertainment show, she recalls, the petty officer asked about her sexual orientation and put his hand up her shirt. That behavior escalated once they returned to the common room of her living quarters. “He had me cornered and kept trying to touch me and kiss me,” Piche recounts. “I said leave me alone–and I told him to think about his wife.” But in the end, her struggles and entreaties failed.

After the assault, a female friend took her to the medical warrant officer–who first joked that Piche should keep her underwear in a plastic bag and advised her to make the report when she ended her six-month tour and returned south in February. He then convinced her not to report the incident higher up the chain of command, warning her about the perils of going before court martials with panels of generals. But Piche did file a complaint, two months later, with a CFS Alert military policeman. That in turn led to 10-month military investigation, after which the case was turned over to the RCMP–something that, procedurally, should have happened immediately.

But civilian authorities, she says, could not decide where to try the case. Finally, a new district attorney took over and said there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial. “The assault part I have been counselled for,” says Piche. “The part that is the hardest for me is that all the people who said they were going to protect me didn’t.” The petty officer, she says, was ordered by a career review board to undergo six months’ counselling and probation. And after almost 2 1/2 years, during which time her requests for transfer were denied and she had to work with the man who assaulted her, she took her release, leaving the military last July. “I let go of my dreams and my hopes,” Piche says.

Among some women still pursuing their dreams in the Canadian Forces, there is a sense that, while the situation may have once been bad, attitudes have been improving. Sgt. Danielle Goulet, 40, recalls that when she joined the air force in 1975, she paid a visit to the base ophthalmologist who, she thought, had cheap contact lenses for sale. But the ophthalmologist seemed interested in more than her eyes. Finally, he told her she could get contact lenses–if she was “nice” to him.

She refused. Twenty-three years later, Goulet, now at CFB Esquimalt in Victoria, is still wearing glasses. But she says she has seen a lot of change in the military. As a young woman in the Forces, she admits she was sexually harassed–one corporal touched her constantly and a sergeant laughed at her when she reported the abuse. Now, she says, “I don’t see things as bad because I remember how it used to be. There were pictures of nude women, sometimes very explicit, everywhere. Now, it’s totally forbidden. I would tend to agree with someone who said, 20 years ago, ‘In the Canadian Forces they are a bunch of chauvinist pigs who treat women like nothing.’ But I am not willing to accept that today.” Goulet notes that things are not perfect–sexual abuse, she says, “is going to happen–it’s a fact of life.” But, she adds, “I have also witnessed a very sincere effort to change the mentality and attitude in the Forces.” There may well be reasons for some optimism among women now in the military–or considering a career in the Canadian Forces. But for the victims of abuse, the old attitudes are not dying quickly enough.