COVER

BREAKING RANKS

A brother comes to his sister's defence

JANE O’HARA May 25 1998
COVER

BREAKING RANKS

A brother comes to his sister's defence

JANE O’HARA May 25 1998

BREAKING RANKS

A brother comes to his sister's defence

Sean Cummings remembers pleading with his sister Ruth when she called in September, 1992, to tell him she had signed up with the Canadian Forces and was heading off to boot camp. “Jesus God,” he told her. “Don’t do it. You’re a smart girl. Do something with your life—don’t join the military.” Cummings had reason to be worried. He knew firsthand the hostile battlefield his sister was entering, and that her gender alone would mark her as the enemy. For seven years, he had served as a crack infantryman with the ruggedly macho Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at CFB Calgary. In that time, he was immersed in an atmosphere of open hostility towards women, an attitude that, he says, was not only accepted—but expected. “We were taught to refer to women as splitarses and gutter sluts,” says Cummings, who resigned from the military two years ago and now works as a divorce educator in Calgary.

“I’m not going to say the other words because they are so horrible.”

The behavior of the “foaming at the mouth, testosterone-powered” men his sister would be coming into contact with made Cummings fear for her safety. As an instructor at Calgary’s Wainwright battle school in the late 1980s, when the military began its first push to integrate women recruits into the infantry, Cummings had learned that boot camps were sexual free-for-alls. “I can tell you,” he says, “there was illicit sex going on in the shack [barracks] between male and female recruits and between recruits and instructors. If it was ever made public, it would have brought the government down.” And his fears for Ruth were realized on June 19, 1993, when he received a telephone call from the military padre at CFB Halifax, where both Cummings—by then an ammunition technician—and Ruth were then stationed. His sister had been raped by a fellow recruit in A Block, the co-ed barracks.

Arriving at the barracks, Cummings, a corporal, ran into a wall of military interference from superiors who wanted to handle the situation quietly. His first run-in came when he saw an officer in charge being interviewed by television reporters. He marched up to him and asked: “Where’s my sister? Is this about my sister?” The officer replied: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Knowing full well he was risking a courtmartial for insubordination, Cummings blurted back, ‘You’re a f—g liar.” He was then forcibly taken away by two military personnel to the petty office cer’s office, and later sternly < reprimanded for his unbecom§ ing conduct. He was also ques| tioned by the military police, ^ who feared he might harm the I rapist. What went through his g mind, Cummings recalls, is that ° “they were more concerned with the person who assaulted my sister than with her. I felt that if they could, they were going to try and hide this thing.” Cummings challenged his superiors a second time when he tried to take his sister home

with him to his apartment—against the wish of the base accommodation officer, who told Ruth to go back and sleep in the barracks with her peers. “I said to him, You want her to stay in the same room she was sexually assaulted in? No way—she’s leaving with me.’ ” And he broke ranks again when he complained that the military police had mishandled the investigation by not removing as evidence clothes the rapist left behind in Ruth’s room.

His attempts to help his sister, Cummings says, marked the beginning of the end of his military career. He began suffering from what is known in the military as “reprisals”: secretive yet systematic punishments and penalties, from extra weekend duties to poor performance reviews, that cannot be redressed in a military court because they are not formal charges. “Reprisals are the unwritten rule of the military,” says Cummings. “In my case, they kicked in when I put my rights and my sister’s needs ahead of the military process. I could never prove it, but I wasn’t going anywhere after that.”

Two years ago, Cummings voluntarily resigned from the Forces—but the treatment both he and his sister received still rankles. Ironically, after 11 years of serving in a system designed to enforce conformity, he has become a radical nonconformist. Cummings has begun writing a book on the inner workings of the military, an organization he now characterizes as a secret society with an unwritten code of conduct—much like the Cosa Nostra. And he wants to become an advocate for people in the military who are prevented Irom speaking out about the injustices they see. Even by talking to Maclean’s, he notes, he will be persona non grata with his former colleagues. “My name will be dirt when they read this,” he says. “Even though they know what I’m saying is true, I will have broken the code.”

JANE O’HARA