Captain Laura Kissmann (Barr), 16395, (RMC 1984-86, RRMC 1986-88) (photo above) With Captain (Ret’d) Laurie Gibbon, 16545, (RRMC 1984-88)
Captain Laura Kissmann (Barr) joined RMC in 1984 and then transferred to RRMC in 1986 where she completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Physical Oceanography. She spent eleven years in the regular forces in the North Bay Fighter Group / Canadian NORAD Region HQ; Air Command HQ in Winnipeg; Wing Operations in Cold Lake, AB; and the CF Aerospace Warfare Centre in Ottawa. She remains a full-time air force reservist and lives in Carleton Place, ON.
The following are excerpts from an oral history interview held during Homecoming in September 2008 where Laura Kissmann (Barr) and Laurie Gibbon describe their cadet experiences to Royal Roads University oral history coordinator, Karen Inkster (Karen.Inkster@royalroads.ca). This is the first installment of the interview and primarily focuses on Laura’s experiences. Next week will feature more of Laurie’s part of the interview. The Ex-Cadet Oral History project is part of an initiative at Royal Roads University to preserve and document its military heritage.
Karen: So the military was part of your life growing up?
Laura: Absolutely. My dad was a colonel in the infantry and it was everything – you know we traveled, moved, all over the world actually and in grade 12 everybody was coming out with all these wonderful ideas on what to do and I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t want to be any of these things. I just had watched all my brothers go through military college and you know, maybe naïve at the time but I just wanted the challenge. To me it was the ultimate challenge in university and it was – it really was.
I would have gone to Roads but all my brothers went to military college and one was actually at Roads when I was applying and my third brother had been in the last class with what they called “LCWB” – have you heard that saying before? Last class with balls? and anyway he saw how rough it was for the first year of girls at RMC so he said if you’re going to go to military college, just promise me you won’t go to Roads because it’s the first year of girls. So I purposely asked for RMC even though in my heart I’d heard all about Royal Roads from my brother Chris and wanted to be here. So I ended up coming in third and fourth year.
Karen: So how did that work then – RMC started in what year with women?
Laura: I actually am not certain of the date but I think I was the fourth or fifth class of girls. And people often ask me because I graduated in the first class of girls with Roads, how hard was it at Royal Roads or RMC and I’ve always felt girls were more integrated here at Roads. And part of that was because you had Royal Rodents who had come in and stayed in fourth year at RMC and they weren’t ready for girls so they’re our seniors and certainly I had a few experiences myself where they had that bitterness and lack of acceptance. And my year they’d made a pin – I don’t know if you ever heard of this – it was a pin and it was a picture of Miss Piggy and it was the “NO” symbol – and she had the pillbox on – she was dressed like a cadet and I don’t know what it said on it but the symbol at the time was girls at military college were considered SWEAT– “stupid women eating all the time”.
Laurie: Sweat busters.
Laura: It was a sweat buster pin, that’s right. That’s right it was the year of the Ghostbusters. I was telling you about the stress – they went around the college and woke us up in the middle of the night and showed us this pin and yeah… you know that wasn’t fun. In first year I was trying my hardest and you felt like you were keeping up with the guys and being accepted and then – just to have that little reminder that you weren’t really as well accepted there… was hard.
Karen: So how else did it manifest itself?
Laura: See in our year we were all a team so you didn’t feel it from your year or even the second years. I felt it from the third and fourth years and – well here’s a story – and this is classic through the military college system is that there’s the reputation that women would go through basic training, come to military college, go to recruit term and expend all this energy and then slowly after a term we’d all gain weight and so we were told that over and over – you know, you’re going to gain weight and I think I under-ate after recruit term was over, to make sure I didn’t gain weight because I didn’t want to be one of those women.
Laurie: They called it “the popcorn effect”.
Laura: The popcorn effect, thank you for the memory (laughs).
Karen: And what about in terms of punishments – did you have the same?
Laura: Absolutely. No everything was the same. Yeah. I’ve got you know my own sort of personal stories and demons… just being singled out. That for me particularly I found hard at RMC. There was a Rodent, senior, and it was just constant you know – who’s Recruit Barr going to the ball with and it was just this singling out all the time and you just wanted to hide in the hallway with all of the other flight members and that was challenging. Some people liked the attention but there’s times when you don’t want attention and recruit term in first year you don’t want the attention and that was hard.
Karen: How did you get through it?
Laura: Well actually I had a phone call to my dad at one point and I must have got really upset and my oldest brother was in infantry, airborne at the time and he made a visit to the college and actually was given permission to go speak to this individual in particular and it ended. And I never knew – I didn’t hear the story ‘til about five or six years later – from another brother. I had no idea. But it completely made sense because one day it all stopped and life just got better. It’s funny, the little things.
The other story and this one came up last night and at the time was so personal for me. You know now as an older woman – over 40 – I can talk about these things having had babies but…for me, my lowest point was – we used to have these drills called “panic drills” – where you had a song and it was always one particular song and in our year it was Van Halen’s “Jump”. We had a morning song that woke you up – you had a panic song and then you had a good night song which was a very soft song. And our panic song was “Jump” and at the end of the song they’d give you a list of things you had to wear or do and then you’d have to come out of your room and then they’d compare and it was just a memory game and of course you know you get singled out for not doing the right thing. And this particular time we had our PT gear – physical training gear – and we had just recently had our names stenciled on our shirts and of course three or four of us came out with the old shirts – without our names and so we were singled out. And I was singled out to the fact that they said, “Well that’s it – we’re going to fix it right here and now”. And – you see it’s hard for me to even talk about it – they held a stencil and my section commander had to stand there and stencil my name. And you know of course where it was and at the time I was horrified – absolutely – you know very naïve. And it was interesting because you know everybody’s watching – everybody was standing and watching and that night it just all came to me and I had a girlfriend who was across the hall and as soon as we got put to bed and I realized it was all quiet – I mean you never left your room unless it was to the bathroom in the middle of the night but we didn’t go visiting anybody in recruit term, that was not on. And I broke the rules and I crossed over – I needed to talk to Elizabeth – I just needed that female companionship and I got caught going across – by another section commander and he looked over and he just gave me this look: Go. Like he knew, he knew and – not everybody had wanted this stenciling thing to happen and I remember just being so upset and crying and I couldn’t talk about that for… (Speaking to Laurie) – you probably never heard the story.
Laurie: It would not have happened here [at Royal Roads].
Laura: Sometimes I think it was a bigger college [at RMC] and more things could happen and not be seen – like I think here [at RRMC] everybody was watching.
Laurie: [At Royal Roads] they had to ask us permission – I’m going to touch your uniform – I don’t think they asked us – it wasn’t a question of permission, it was just a statement of fact to brace yourself: I’m going to touch your uniform. And I’m going to pick off an Irish pennant off your shoulder! And sort of tell you ahead of time. They were very conscious of any sorts of touching the person issues.
Laura: And they were for the most part at RMC too, absolutely.
Laurie: But I don’t know whether it happened [due to] the fact that we had two lady cadets who came from RMC to come out to sort of be on line with the second years and the section commanders – if they ever had any of those kinds of questions – they had no one else to go to but staff so they went to the, the two, Charlene and Dorothy, the lady cadets, to be able to ask them certain things like that. So I’m not sure what sort of things Dorothy and Charlene may have cautioned them on ahead of time to be careful of.
Laura: That was a good idea I think at the time.
Laurie: I think that was a good idea. Yeah I think it did help. It had benefits in that respect but it’s not like they were big sisters or they were close and friendly and girly-like with us at all. No, they definitely kept their distance.
Laura: The senior girls did –
Laurie: Yeah you don’t mix that stuff up.
Laura: No, the years were very stratified.
Karen: And did you still naturally gravitate towards other women?
Laura: First and second year at RMC the building was far away from each other… so you really hung around with only one or two girls you might have had in your flight or squadron. It was interesting carrying on in life because all your friends are guys and it was almost a cultural shock to then enter the military and suddenly be at parties with all your co-workers’ wives and then wondering why you’re buddy-buddy with all the guys – because it’s all you knew… that was so natural to be that way because they were all your friends.
Laura: Okay, here’s another personal story. For me in first year, my section commander I had a lot of respect for – ended up a fighter pilot – he took me aside one day – knocked on my door and said “Recruit Barr, I’d like you in my office” – which is really their room. Sat me down in this big chair and he said “I want to talk to you about morals!” (Laurie laughs) Sat me down and he said, “A lot of girls come to RMC and they think they have to be one of the guys you know and they’ll start to swear and just act tougher and become tougher” and he said, “I just want you to know that you don’t have to do that. You can be yourself and you can graduate and finish and keep your femininity and not lose your morals – keep your values.” And all I could think of was, you know, have I changed? And I was reflecting back on something that happened in Chilliwack where I had seen some morals degrade in other women and I thought: that wasn’t me! What is he inferring? And at the time – always stayed with me the whole four years, that I wanted to stay a girl. I had one brother that said, keep your hair long. When we got to basic training – [speaking to Laurie] you did the same thing right – didn’t you cut your hair?
Laurie: Oh I didn’t until second year when I cut it really short cause I was in military engineering and all the guys went and got their hair shaved short for this big four-week exercise in northern B.C. and the girls thought, well in solidarity to the guys – and just from a pure hygienic reason we were going to be without showers for a good period of time – we all got our hair cut really short – the shortest it’s ever been. But I remember at the time regretting, thinking, oh no I don’t want to look like a boy. But at the time it was pragmatic and it was a solidarity decision.
Laura: I just couldn’t – [I had] loose hairs you know and the sergeants at Basic Training were you know: Fix that! And so I did go short but I eventually grew it longer because he always said, “You know at the end of the day you can let your hair down and feel like you’re still a woman and have fun” and that always stayed with me as well. But you know I think there was a way to go through the college and still stay a girl. And have a lot of fun with all these guys and such terrific, great, friends you know. For me I wouldn’t have – without all the friendships – the male friendships – would not have survived. Absolutely.
Karen: So how did you transfer then to Royal Roads? Was that always the plan?
Laura: It actually wasn’t always the plan. I was two years in engineering and kind of at the end of the second year I realized: I’m not a natural engineer – this is not what I’m dreaming to be. I was struggling you know with some of the courses and oceanography was the degree here. I felt like I could touch and feel it and then of course I knew about Royal Roads, had heard so much from my brother that it became a dream – I just really wanted to come and it was a dream – absolutely.
Karen: So you were able to come in and transfer right into your degree?
Laura: Actually I had unfortunately a lot of injuries at RMC and I fractured my kneecap so I came here the summer before and worked as a research assistant for a chemical oceanographer and so had a little insight over the summer but still was still not prepared for when it started because the two colleges were very different. You know we wore all the same uniforms but there were so many traditions here and so many ways was more military – just more intense and a lot of what I noticed was the cadets had far more responsibilities at an earlier year. So I jumped in as a third year along with another cadet and we couldn’t give drill – we had no idea – so luckily my new classmates, one by one, came and tutored me and just to get to the standard that they were at which was a very high standard. The drill at Royal Roads was really something – it was really impressive – it was something.
Karen: And why do you think there was that difference?
Laura: Smaller college, more parades, more – I don’t know – it just was more intense.
Karen: And what about the leadership – was there a different atmosphere too?
Laura: There was – just like I say, because they all had all these leadership opportunities younger you know, in earlier years but by fourth year they were really good at it and oh it was just impressive to come in from RMC and see that. A little intimidating actually, we had to catch up. And of course I had missed a lot of drill from crushing my knee and I had to catch up with that as well.