The Chat with Kelly S. Thompson

Kelly S. Thompson served as a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces and writes about her experiences as a female soldier in her compelling debut memoir, Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces (McClelland & Stewart).

Lauren McKeon, author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, writes, “In Girls Need Not Apply, Kelly S. Thompson presents us with a masterclass in resilience. With equal parts strength and vulnerability, Thompson navigates what it means to find belonging—and success—in a hyper-masculinized culture that was never built for women. A must-read for those of us who make it our daily habit to smash through age-old, sexist barriers.”

After several years of service, Kelly S. Thompson retired from the Canadian Armed Forces after an injury. She has an honours BA in Professional Writing from York University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and is a PhD. candidate in Literary and Critical Studies at the University of Gloucestershire. Her work has appeared in MacleansChatelaine, and Maisonneuve, as well as in various anthologies.

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girlsneednotapply
THE CHAT WITH KELLY S. THOMPSON

Trevor Corkum: Girls Need Not Apply is a riveting account of your time serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Why was it important for you to write the book?

Kelly S. Thompson: The short answer is that without speaking out, change will never come.

Initially, the book started as a fictional account of a female soldier’s experience in Afghanistan, which was written as part of my master’s degree, but something wasn’t working. My agent suggested I try the same themes as nonfiction—why not, she suggested, be honest, and create resonance through a real-life account?

I quickly realized that what had stopped me from writing about my female military experience was that I felt I didn’t have a right to—I caved to that old masculinized adage that to be a veteran, I had to have been in a war zone or have served for thirty years. But so many of the important issues surrounding women in the Forces are rooted in events that take place in our own country. So, the more distance I had from my own life in the military, the more prepared I was to tell those stories in the hopes that the organization can thrive in terms of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance.

I quickly realized that what had stopped me from writing about my female military experience was that I felt I didn’t have a right to—I caved to that old masculinized adage that to be a veteran, I had to have been in a war zone or have served for thirty years.

TC: In the memoir, you chronicle many profoundly challenging experiences—physically, emotionally, psychologically—as you completed basic training and moved on to your first postings. Was there a pivotal moment (among the many you describe) when you realized that your time in the military was going to be more harrowing and complicated than you’d imagined?

KT: What a great question!

The physical elements of training, while difficult, are often a situation of mind over matter, even when I struggled to keep up. So while I had some physical challenges that certainly foreshadowed my military future, it was the emotional battles that undid me.

I remained rather chronically naïve throughout my military career and I often hoped, even when I was being blatantly harassed or physically assaulted, that I was simply misinterpreting the situation, and it was the loss of that hope that affected me most.

I remained rather chronically naïve throughout my military career and I often hoped, even when I was being blatantly harassed or physically assaulted, that I was simply misinterpreting the situation, and it was the loss of that hope that affected me most.

In the book, I describe a scene in which a Lieutenant Colonel called me a bitch in front of colleagues. When I tried to address that situation—informing him and my boss that I felt uncomfortable and harassed in my workplace—this guy told me I’d have to get used to his sense of humour. I was to chalk it up to; “This is who I am. Get used to it.”

And what could I say to yet another man who held my career in his hands? I’d just had another knee surgery, the joint was infected, and I knew I was teetering on the edge of losing my job for medical reasons. Life felt so very precarious. So I sat there, being told that I was just “too sensitive,” and I realized I’d clawed my way through countless procedures, surgeries, and courses (in which I often was top student, so I had the mental acumen for the job), and here was this neon sign that I had fought so hard for something I no longer wanted. I didn’t feel strong enough—after years of being worn down—to effect change in order to make space for myself, and I knew I would be perpetually undervalued simply because I was injured, I was a woman, and I was young. I would age, eventually, but I would not and could not change the rest of who I was for this lifestyle. I was resigned.

That’s when I knew I would embrace a medical release and let go of this career I was clinging to, which I think I clung to because it was the only life I knew as an adult and a child.

On a lighter note, that moment was also when I knew I’d be just fine as a civilian because I approached work from a place of respect and kindness, and finally, that didn’t have to be a bad thing.

On a lighter note, that moment was also when I knew I’d be just fine as a civilian because I approached work from a place of respect and kindness, and finally, that didn’t have to be a bad thing.

TC: You also describe the visceral sense of pride you felt serving for Canada, and how growing up in a military family shaped your sense of duty. If you could go back in time and speak to your nineteen-year-old self, what advice would you offer? Would you still have signed up?

I’m so glad you recognized that, as I think this can be a hard thing for some people to understand: How—I’m often asked—can I feel loyalty and pride to an organization that hurt me so badly in so many ways? I’m not someone who believes in things happening for a reason, per se, but despite all of it, I’d still enrol every, single time I try to imagine my life in another direction. I learned so very much, I travelled, I met my husband, and heck, didn’t I get something to write about? And I still believe in our soldiers, our veterans, and our good intentions. So it’s hard to imagine me without the coordinating label of veteran. It doesn’t compute in my mind.

That said, I’d have a few words for younger me.

Nineteen-year-old Kelly,

Please go in with your eyes wide open.

Ask questions.

Demand answers to questions that are relevant to your safety and security.

Remind yourself, regularly, of why you enrolled, and allow that reasoning to guide you.

Trust your gut. It will tell you who to trust and will (for the most part) be right on the money.

You are allowed to be sad, scared, worried and angry. Many others feel the same way, even when they don’t voice it.

Your body belongs to you and only you.

Have some fun. There’s fun and love and kindness here, too.  

TC: Your writing is so honest, as you explore both the culture and traditions of Canadian military life, but also your role within the culture. Do you have any reservations about how the book will be received by your former colleagues, or the military in general?   

The military, my colleagues and my friends’ responses are by far my greatest stressor in releasing this book, as that’s where torn loyalties come into play. I am loyal to the military and I believe in what we do here and abroad, but I am also loyal to the other parts of myself—the feminist, the wife, the daughter, the writer. That’s where some bravery comes in, I think. The book is honest about some ugly parts of the Forces and people within it, but Girls Need Not Apply also casts light on my own ugly parts and mistakes. How else do we learn and grow?

But back to your first question, that’s why the book is important and that’s why I’m putting it out in the world despite these fears.

In 2010, when I was still in the military, I wrote a blog for Chatelaine magazine about life as a woman in the Forces—twice-weekly posts about how the uniforms make women feel dumpy or joking about passing out on parade. Lighthearted stuff, not like the subjects I examine in Girls Need Not Apply.

Most of my male colleagues quite literally rolled their eyes when the blog launched, saying they didn’t understand why I felt that as a woman, I needed some kind of platform. It went to show the ignorance of what it’s really like for anyone who feels like an “other” in a homogenous organization. Meanwhile, I got countless emails from currently serving females all over Canada who wanted to thank me just for giving them a voice. I wasn’t talking about mental health and suicide and harassment but finally, women felt HEARD. That’s a powerful thing.

Most of my male colleagues quite literally rolled their eyes when the blog launched, saying they didn’t understand why I felt that as a woman, I needed some kind of platform. It went to show the ignorance of what it’s really like for anyone who feels like an “other” in a homogenous organization.

So, to be honest, I’d be very surprised if many of my former male colleagues would ever pick up the book. Some, in fact, have flat out told me they won’t bother reading it for that reason. As for my female colleagues, I imagine the vote will be split, but to an extent, I imagine they will see parts of their own experience in these pages. And being seen, well, don’t we all want that?

TC: Finally, in what ways have you seen the military respond to some of the very systemic examples of sexism you document in your book? What still needs to change within Canadian military culture to make the Forces more welcoming and safe for women?

There have been changes, certainly, and many of my currently serving female friends feel safer than I did, but then again, many don’t. The military has created Op Honour, which is meant to give a safe reporting space and provide education, and there’s even a new program that offers women a ten-day military trial, in which they get to speak to other female soldiers about their experiences. It’s a start, but the latest Op Honour statistics released a few months ago show that incidents of harassment and assault have not changed. There have been changes, certainly, and many of my currently serving female friends feel safer than I did, but then again, many don’t.

I think a place for change would start with leadership. We need leaders who are willing to speak up and act when they witness harassment issues, not simply brush them under the rug because they make the unit bad or make the harassed person appear to be whiners, making women feel safer to report in the first place. I literally can’t count the number of women I know who told their bosses they were being harassed and instead of repercussions for the harasser, saw themselves posted out of the unit. Who would come forward with odds like that? Until women feel safe to report, they won’t feel safe at work, and we want these women to protect others while simultaneously protecting themselves, especially in war zones where they already have to be aware of a different sort of enemy. It’s exhausting, that kind of hyperawareness.

Until women feel safe to report, they won’t feel safe at work, and we want these women to protect others while simultaneously protecting themselves, especially in war zones where they already have to be aware of a different sort of enemy.

I also think we need to start appreciating what each individual person brings to the table in terms of their strengths, their talents, and their abilities. In the Forces, we expect people to slot into generalized roles, which makes sense considering the overarching nature of our work. And yes, typically, soldiers need to be in good physical condition, but we are living in unique times technologically speaking, in which war isn’t always waged from a front line. We need more than just “manpower.”

And yes, typically, soldiers need to be in good physical condition, but we are living in unique times technologically speaking, in which war isn’t always waged from a front line. We need more than just “manpower.”

For that reason, I think our Forces would be a more welcoming and safe space for all if, instead of complaining about all the things that are perceived to be difficult for women, the Forces highlighted and prized qualities that fall outside of physicality and competitiveness. That would make for a more inclusive space not just for women, but for the LGBTQIA++ community and minorities too.

Above all, we need women and anyone else who feels like they aren’t on the “inside.” That’s why I still encourage women to enroll because without those brave few willing to enact change, we don’t transform the current culture.

Excerpt from Girls Need Not Apply

It was the day after Rubino’s tasking, four days into the field exercise, and I had long since run out of analgesics. Now my knee ached so badly that I wondered if this second-last week in basic would finally be my undoing.

“Don’t go,” Scotdale said, cautioning against the field mir. “If you complain too much, they’ll haul you back to Saint-Jean and make you re-course.” Since Meerin’s assault, women had no longer been allowed to partner with men as fire buddies, so thanks to an odd number of women in our platoon, three of us were assigned to one another like awkward musketeers, our three ground sheets woven together into a hooch so big we called it the Palace. My hoochmates and I had settled into our sleeping bags for a blessed few hours of sleep. Four at the most, and I was on sentry duty from three to four in the morning. Snoring already echoed from various corners of the biv.

“She won’t have to re-course,” said our other hoochmate. “Not if she passes her tasking.”

“No,  I’m serious,” Scotdale said, grasping for my hand, which was buried in the sleeping bag, rubbing my sore leg. “A friend of mine got re-coursed when she missed a full twenty-four hours in the field. They call it ‘incomplete.’” When pressed, Scotdale’s knowledge of this loose rule was the result of a military game of telephone, like most of our knowledge of the inner workings of basic.

The course staff had refused to answer me when I asked what the ramifications of going to the mir would be, like they were testing my willingness to put up with the pain, as if that were the real test of the week. It’s up to you, they’d say, shrugging their shoulders, a hint of a smile. If you think it’s bad enough.

“How’d you hurt it?” Scotdale asked, wiping camouflage off her face with a baby wipe. We had just returned from an evening exercise spent marching around Farnham—which was what we’d done all day too.

“No idea.” I couldn’t mark the exact moment my knee had started to ache. I only knew that the sharp pain was beyond the usual shit we’d come to expect—the blisters and bruises, bites and aches. Inexplicably worse.

“Here,”  Scotdale said, dropping some ibuprofen in  my hand. “I brought it for my period, but you use it.”

“You’re a goddess, you know that?” I swallowed them dry but struggled to sleep, even as my hoochmates were out within seconds. When I was woken by a fellow cadet for sentry duty, I stumbled through the woods and took my post at the head of the biv, weapon at the ready. At 4 a.m., my shift technically over, the pain was so intense I offered to stay at my post, just to avoid walking back to my hooch. Sleep, I knew, would evade me.

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

August 20, 2019
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