COVER

PAIN AND PRIDE

BRENDA BRANSWELL June 1 1998
COVER

PAIN AND PRIDE

BRENDA BRANSWELL June 1 1998

PAIN AND PRIDE

COVER

BRENDA BRANSWELL

For retired major Dee Brasseur, the subject hit all too close to home. In fact, when Brasseur, one of Canada’s first fe-

male military pilots, started leafing through the May 25 Maclean’s story about rape in the military, she felt the sting from her own wounds. “It was very, very difficult to read,” concedes Brasseur, 44, who retired from the air force in 1994. Although she has been involved in the Canadian Forces’ efforts to integrate women, Brasseur had kept silent about her own sexual mistreatment in the military. Last week, she spoke publicly to Maclean’s about being harassed, assaulted and raped during her distinguished 21-year career. “It’s very difficult for me because I loved the military,” explains Brasseur, who is single and now lives in suburban Ottawa. “I still love it and I won’t throw stones backward. As awful as it was, it was also phenomenal.”

As a female pioneer in the air force, Brasseur has ample memories from both ends of the spectrum. Of late, however, she has been sifting through the darker moments of her military career, which she suppressed for years. “I’m just four or five months into my own healing process,” says Brasseur, who recently sought the help of a therapist. The daughter of a lieutenant-colonel, she joined the air force in 1972, when women still wore skirts, blouses and, in the summer, white gloves. Brasseur, then 19, began as a typist and had to fend off sexual advances. She worked her way into an air weapons controller job, and in 1979, when the military decided to let women fly, Brasseur applied to be a pilot.

It wasn’t an easy haul. She maintains that she was pursued by a course instructor and eventually felt coerced into having sex with him. “My future was in his hands,” she explains. Other trou-

Dee Brasseur remembers the abuse— and the glory

bles followed. A few years later, Brasseur says she was raped by a drunken military boyfriend. Looking back, she believes that likening sexual abuse in the military to incest is an apt analogy. “When something you love betrays you in that fashion,” says Brasseur, “it is the deepest psychological wounding you can have.”

Being on the vanguard of integration caused other strains. After she got her wings in 1981, Brasseur started working as a flight instructor in Moose Jaw, Sask. The men were initially less than welcoming, according to Brasseur, who says they asked her questions like, What are you trying to be, a man?’ ” Brasseur says she eventually won their respect. “They’d finally come up to you and say, Women are OK in the flying business,’ ” she recalls. During her Moose Jaw posting, Brasseur applied four times to try out for the elite all-male Snowbirds jet team. Each time, her application was rejected, which Brasseur chalks up to her gender. But there was some consolation. In 1988, Brasseur got her longawaited chance to become a full-fledged fighter pilot when the military allowed women to start flying combat planes.

Brasseur insists that attitudes began improving as the number of women in the Canadian Forces grew in the mid-1980s. “The overt sexual harassment and resistance to gender integration all but disappeared and slipped into the covert range,” she maintains. (Combat units lagged behind because they only opened to women in 1989, says Brasseur, who from December, 1996, to November, 1997, served on the minister of national defence’s advisory board monitoring the military’s integration efforts.) But there were still unpleasant incidents. In 1990, Brasseur says, an inebriated colonel approached her in a bar and twice grabbed her backside with both hands. He later apologized profusely and Brasseur decided not to file a sexual harassment complaint.

Brasseur does not believe that resistance to women in the Forces is rampant. Part of the problem, she maintains, are “the old Cro-Magnon guys”—a dwindling number of senior-rank commissioned and noncommissioned personnel. “If you don’t have a commanding officer of a unit with a proper attitude, all his troops get his attitude,” says Brasseur. “It’s leadership by example that is the key.” Brasseur now works as a motivational speaker. She is also writing her memoirs. Although she retired from the air force suffering from what she calls “battle fatigue” as a result of gender discrimination, Brasseur remains fiercely loyal to the military. “I would recommend it to anybody, despite what occurred,” she says. Brasseur maintains that the military offers exciting career opportunities for women. “I would never have imagined myself starting out as a typist and ending up flying a CF-18,” she says, still enthusiastic as she describes the latter experience. “It’s mentally, emotionally and physically the most exhilarating challenge you can imagine.” For Brasseur, some of her military memories are definitely worth savoring.