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WiDS

BY LISA VANDEHEI

LISA VANDEHEI

“the Girl”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be “the girl”…. and I did everything in my power to avoid it for as long as I could.

When I joined the Canadian Army in 1997, I wanted to drive the big green trucks. I wanted to learn how to use weapons and be tough and swear a lot. I loved it. Like, really loved it. After a few necessary rude awakenings in basic training, I came into my element. I could run fast and do the obstacle course like the wind. I was a marksman, outshooting the vast majority of the other soldiers, and I am unapologetic in that I loved the way the cold metal and smooth plastic of the rifle felt in my hands. I drove big diesel trucks and those poor ILTIS’s up sand hills, through mud holes so deep I have no idea how we made it though and jumped them over massive ruts (sorry maintainers… I lied about what happened). I worked hard to learn my trade and was damn good at it. Not at first, but after a while. I got to jump out of helicopters on ropes and feel like a superhero. It was f-ing awesome. I am 43 years old and my father still says I sound uneducated when I swear, but there is no other way to describe how much I loved it.

When it was time to become a Corporal and then grow into being a Master Corporal I took this very seriously, because it was serious. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) taught me what I needed to know about leadership, and these remain invaluable skills I use now in high-level boardrooms and Embassies around the world.

At the time however, I decided for myself that there was an additional aspect to it. No one asked me to, but I spoke with a lower voice and carried more weight in my gear to show off that I could. I was aggressive and yelled frequently, though I have to admit that I enjoyed it. Eventually I became so accomplished in this regard, that I earned the nickname Man-dehei. I thought “I made it, I am recognized as a good soldier, and not for my gender”. I have to stress that no one was asking me to do it. I just wanted to.

But now I was in charge of people. Soldiers for whom I was responsible to train and keep safe. How I did that was very important to me, and I took the responsibility seriously. When teaching basic training I was a little harder on the women, because I wanted them to succeed. I modeled what traits I thought were keys to my success.

It wasn’t working. One of the course serials’ group of girls resented me so much that at the end of the course they devised a plan. At the course party after graduation, each of the sections of students was asked to put on a skit, emulating one of the six course instructors and their mannerisms. It was meant to be funny. When it came to me, they showed me exactly what I had looked like to them in front of 200+ students, staff and instructors, including the Commanding Officer. All men. It wasn’t good. I had been unprofessional, and it wasn’t creating leaders. If any of you are reading this, I remember you and I am grateful to this day for that hard moment. I changed how I taught and created better leaders. Just by being a woman and being professional, I was showing them that they could do it too.

When I deployed to the Syrian Arab Republic, it happened again. When outside of the camp working with the Syrian people and soldiers, they approached me differently than the uniformed men. After a few interesting questions they spoke to me more, told me more about what kind of security and protection they needed. Women would talk to me about their families and what their children needed. They had identified me as “the girl” under all my gear because my braid kept falling out of my helmet or from under my cap. We changed a few aspects of the mission as a result.

I deployed multiple times as a civilian to Afghanistan, working and living mostly in the Forward Operating Bases (FoBs) with the Canadians and the Americans. Arghandab, Shah Wali Kot, and sometimes Panjwaye. You would think that being a woman there was a disadvantage, but it was the opposite. As a foreign woman, I and my teammate were invited to the Shuras and the highly coveted closed-off meetings held by local leaders and power-brokers. At first, they were curious and wanted to ask me personal questions, which were actually well-meaning and sometimes humorous. After a while we had established a relationship and as a result, we were able to get our work done, addressing a root cause of the conflict (resource distribution) and helping JTF-A to hold and then build.  

I am not going to throw facts and figures at you. If you already know, that’s wonderful. If not, you can look up the information for yourself. It’s all out there, and you will either believe me or you won’t anyway. All I know is what I saw. That I trained better soldiers because I was the girl. We met the needs of the peacekeeping mission better because I was the girl, and we were able to establish some wins in Afghanistan because I was the girl, working in partnership with men.

You will come around eventually when we think about what this means for modernizing our capabilities, addressing root causes of conflict, adding to our effectiveness as a fighting force and potentially saving the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Or what this means for profitability, sustainability and competitive differentiation in the Canadian defence marketplace.

I know you will come around because I did…and remember, I didn’t even want to.

 


Lisa Vandehei, CD, M.A., MSc. is the Executive Director of the Gender Equality and Intersectional Analysis (DGEIA) group in National Defence. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, the National Security Programme and the Royal Military College of Canada. She uses the term “girl” facetiously.

 

 

 

 

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