Captain (Ret’d) Laurie Gibbon, 16545, (RRMC 1984-88)
Captain Laura Kissmann (Barr), 16395, (RMC 1984-86, RRMC 1986-88)
Captain (Ret’d) Laurie Gibbon joined RRMC in 1984 with the first class of lady cadets where she completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Physical Oceanography, graduating in1988. She spent nine years in the regular forces serving in CFB Comox, BC; BFC Valcartier, PQ with the Base Hospital and 5e Ambulance de Campagne; and (then) DCIEM in Toronto, ON, leaving the military in 1997 to pursue a 7-year corporate career with General Electric (Healthcare) in Mississauga, ON and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is married and now a full-time mother of two young children, currently living in Oakville, 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 second installment of the interview and primarily focuses on Laurie’s experiences. This is the third and final installment 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.
Laura: Laurie, can you describe the official announcement of the end of recruit term unique to Roads. When I arrived in third year, I was blown away when I first witnessed it from a rooftop. It seemed to me that it could be used to demonstrate to students of psychology the result of extreme conditioning…
Laurie: Oh, I know what you mean.
Laura: The planned day of the announcement, all day long the second, third, and 4th years prepare for this event by making water balloons out of anything they could use.
Laurie: You see, as recruits we had such tunnel vision that we had no idea any of that was going on – let me back things up a little because that day had a lot packed into it. As I recall, the last day of recruit term started with the ‘free for all’ exit through windows and doors and mad run over to breakfast at Grant Block, as I’d mentioned earlier. The first recruit who arrived was then invited to sit at the 4th year’s breakfast table – seen to be a big reward, though having a smelly, sweaty recruit was little reward for the 4th years at that table! Then the day proceeded as a regular academic day, with classes through the morning. As was the norm, prior to lunch we would have to form up for an inspection, and if I haven’t mixed things up, it would be inevitable that at least one of us would be ‘a disaster not worthy of being a junior cadet’ and we were yelled at by the senior barmen as if they were wholly disappointed with any of our four weeks of progress – apparently they did this every year but you don’t know that. We were told as recruits – and that day everyone is already on an emotional ‘edge’, thinking I’m going to graduate, the worst will be over – and we were told: “Your barmen are so disappointed and we have got the approval from the castle staff to extend recruit term. You recruits just aren’t performing, you can’t cut it, we need more time to train you right, you’re not going to make it, you know we can’t let you loose on the campus without this!”
Laura: You are ‘Not to the standard of the college’.
Laurie: Right – Not to the standard of this college – not to ‘our’ standards – so we’re going to extend recruit term. It’s like telling you you’ve got fifty more miles to run after you’ve just run fifty. Ohhhhh our morale sunk like a boulder; but we had no idea until you’re looking back in later years that there were faint hints of smirks on their faces. Our excitement was totally deflated. I now know that they did it from a psychological experiment perspective to try to draw us even closer together. At that point we were collectively furious: how could they say that to us? We knew that we had worked hard – but then there was also some sort of discussion that we had all earned so many uncompleted circles that we would need to start running them off as a group to reduce it for some of our peers. It was suggested that perhaps we could begin reducing that backlog right then and there if there was any hope of not having to extend recruit term much further. I many not have it just right, but this was very near the protocol, and apparently it was repeated every year.
Laura: All the other Roadents were all on the roofs or in rooms of the castle, Grant Block and Nixon Block and that even included the staff. It was a historical annual moment worth watching – I don’t know how many years it went on. Certainly in the eighties it transpired. The Cadet Wing Training Officer (CWTO) – the college “tough guy” would stand on the Upper Circle and deliver this speech – I am not sure if the speech Laurie described isn’t passed on from year to year. The message is the same -that the recruits are not up to standard and that recruit term would be extended. You could clearly see the body language of the recruits, the shoulders collapse etc as they take in this news as they have worked so hard and thought they were done and they’re not. They are instructed to begin running circles…
Laurie: Oh the mood probably started as shock after all the fun of the beginning of the morning, then evolved through feeling completed defeated and hopeless before shifting into all out anger towards our barmen and resolve that we damn well did train hard and deserved to ‘graduate’ into proper cadet status. So run we did, around the circle, in clicking drill boots, if I recall – ever determined that we would pull it together with everything we had. We just kept running circles until the rest of the college cadets, hidden and watching from the roofs and classrooms couldn’t stand it any longer and started yelling “You’re done – Its over!” and throw these water balloons down on us while we run in formation. The impressive psychological part is that we keep running, at least a couple more circles. We are so conditioned to do what we’ve been told… and so determined that we Can Do It, we Will, we will impress them.
I remember the fury and indignation we all felt and muttered amongst ourselves when on a part of the circle where there were few barmen within earshot – We will not be told we cannot graduate. We will do it today. We are not postponing the obstacle course. We are going to prove them very wrong!
Laura: It then takes one cadet somewhere in the midst to see clearly and suddenly realize: oh my goodness, it IS over. This is all a ruse to ‘mess with our heads’. And someone will break rank and then eventually they all break rank and get the idea to yell out to each other to grab the CWTO and carry him on their shoulders down to the Japanese pagoda and throw him in the pond.
Laurie: It was easy to target him because his role through the whole of recruit term, starting as the first person to board the bus and begin the yelling and discipline over the four weeks. He was the bane of all our existence, at the root of all the hardest parts of those first weeks of military college life. He was the one that oversaw all the drills and he was meant to be ‘the disciplinary heavy’.
Karen: I’ve seen pictures and I was wondering what they were doing (all laugh).
Laurie: And then on the way down we’re all chanting: “Pagoda!, Pagoda!, Pagoda!”. It was a very uplifting day now knowing that it was truly the end of four weeks of emotionally and physically rigorous training; we could hold our heads high with pride of our accomplishment. Later that day would be the obstacle course, finally having a decent shower, finally wearing one of the proper college uniforms, finally being able to speak to some of our flight seniors as people, and it was when we were presented with our college cap badge instead of the generic CF badge, known as the ‘cornflake’. We had ‘arrived’.
Laura: With the surreal beauty of the grounds and the castle in the background, this entire event seemed like a scene of a movie we were all living out.
Laurie: And I also recall other traditions, different for each flight and squadron that involved parts of the beautiful college grounds. I remember that our flight had a tradition involving running after dark down through the gardens, down into the pagoda, jump off the pagoda, run around, come back. I don’t remember the premise of why we had to do it or what kind of game this was. It was all part of bonding us together as a year and within our flight.
Another recruit term tradition was picking apples from the apple tree in the Commandant’s garden. It was in recruit term that one of the seniors would ‘happen to’ whisper to one of the recruits – did you know the Commandant had an apple tree? And the challenge was to try to get out of your room, after lights out, scale out of the wall or sneak out without being caught and go pick apples for some of your seniors – I think we put them outside their doors and snuck back into bed. As we looked back on it, it should have been obvious that the usually light sleepers that they were never seemed to awake at some of the noise that was made in this endeavour. I can look back on it now and see how all these traditions served to bond us together, to get creative about working as a team. The aim was to bond you together to achieve a goal, to learn to communicate in creative ways, and to think out of the proverbial box.
We had to be creative as we had little time, especially prior to the academic year, to ‘stand easy’ and speak to our flightmates. There was no social time as such in which to make any of these sorts of plans, and even at meals we were not allowed to speak freely. It was only on a sports field or with our roommate inside our rooms that we could talk about anything in a normal voice. I remember that we had medicine cabinets in each of our rooms, which happened to be the thinnest part of the wall. If two adjoining rooms opened theirs at the same time there was a better chance of hearing each other and passing a message when needed to other recruits. It did have some elements of prison life, looking back now!
Another of my fond memories was the pride we took in our drill, especially at Roads, but also the ability to get out of it occasionally to ‘misbehave’ together. There was a tradition that every other weekend we had drill practice. On the weeks where we didn’t have the weekend ‘drill fest’, we had a mini parade on Friday mornings, called the ‘SOC and MT parade’ (reviewed by the Major whose appointment was ‘Staff Officer, Cadets and Military Training – SOC&MT). It may have only been this way in the eighties when a certain major – who I now look on as a very special man, with just the right balance of wisdom and humour. It was a simple parade early Friday morning, prior to classes, to delivery whatever announcements were pertinent. In my first two years there was much mocking of that parade by showing up dressed along one theme or another. We’d be given a ‘hint’ when it would be acceptable to ‘lark’ the parade and when he wanted it to remain serious. In later years another officer disapproved of all this and it was a great shame that it was stifled. It really served to build teamwork, pride, and creativity. One day it was a – 1950’s theme (playing on the fact that we called those Friday parades a ‘SOC hop’ (word play on his SOC&MT title). There were so many I can’t recall. A pirate theme, backwards theme, army/navy/air force theme and so many other creative ones were a few I recall. So often the reviewing stand would just play it out as if they didn’t notice and inspect us nonetheless … there was always a Royal Roads standard to uphold, of course!
There was one time that the tables were turned on all of us. I believe that we were asked not to deviate from proper military protocol and take this one seriously. So all was to the highest inspection standards in the preparation for the officers’ arrival until … it wasn’t the officers who marched up at all, it was their wives, in full uniform, swords and scabbards … and actually going correctly through the parade motions! It was terrific. We’d been had at our own game! They had one up on us that day.
Laura: My favourite SOC&MT parade was the farm one, we were farmers and the first years were farm animals – somebody even got a cow from right on campus grounds. This was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life – the cow, now on parade and standing by the SOC&MT, a refined army major at attention reviewing the parade … and then the cow…
Laurie: The cow did what cows do best.
Laura: Right, and it got on the Major! It was the first time, the only time in my 4 years at military college that everyone completely lost composure. We just fell apart and were laughing doubled over, some of us even crying from laughing so hard. It was a unique moment and luckily for us that the SOC&MT had a wonderful sense of humour.
Karen: What other challenges were there particularly for women cadets?
Laura: One of the things that was unique to RMC but affected that particular year of first year girls exemplifies some of the different challenges the women faced. It was decided by the college leadership that if the guys were going to wear their Oxford shoes for recruit term (note 6 weeks at RMC), the girls would wear their Oxfords as well. Unfortunately for us, these were affectionately known as ‘granny shoes’, kit that was still issued from WW II with big, chunky heels. In our year, it affected the women quite a bit and I wished I’d been at Roads because you the girls got to wear something flatter – was it combat boots?
Laurie: It was flat drill boots, but not the parade boots with clickers.
Laura: Right, that’s right. All recruits had to march everywhere – as soon as you left your room you marched everywhere on campus even in the hallways and even my favouirte, right to the bathroom door with a knee high halt- it was all considered drill practice. In addition, we had to run the parade square in these heels. We began our year in fall of 1984 with 18 girls of which approximately 13 completed the year and I believe approximately 11 of us had lower body injuries as a result of the shoes – plantar fasciitis, numb toes, shin splints up to the hips, a broken ankle, a tibial stress facture, etc. Each girl and their injury comes to mind as I describe this. A couple years later, the physiotherapist at RMC used our class as the basis for her master’s thesis and because of her documentation, the military changed the basic day-to-day shoe to a flat Oxford. I will sum up by adding that 1st Year was hard enough without the challenge of those injuries.
Laurie: I believe that due to the small size and slightly different culture of Roads from RMC, we women were all the more intent on trying to blend in. We were issued skirts but there was great reluctance to use them at first. As we got a little older, we got a little bolder and sometimes decided that it was acceptable to wear them and we were allowed to wear low heels with them (even those were inspected!). Not that we always chose appropriate times for that – like on days when we had to march as a class all the way out to the physics lab. And (deservedly) our male classmates would berate us for that short-sighted decision as it now meant that they all had to shorten their usual marching pace.
Laurie: The usual tradition was that cadets went to stores to be issued with a set of scarlets from the inventory of prior cadets. They were all in good repair, so it was a matter or pride to see a name or perhaps a year written inside the tunic. When the first women arrived at Roads they brought in the firm who make the scarlets and we were brought up to the top of the castle and the cute little tailor’s office, tucked away in a dark corner, one by one, measured and fitted for our new made-to-measure scarlets. The buttons go on the other side and you have to adjust for a little woman’s shape. In the months ahead, there was some tailoring in and out as our weight fluctuated more than the men’s. You shrink down cause you’re not eating and running like a crazy person for as many weeks as you are and then there’s the popcorn effect’, a term coined at RMC I believe.
Karen: And were you able to do fit in?
Laurie: As much as you can. You’re still who you are, and as time progressed it seemed a little easier to go on doing cadet activities while still allowing yourself to be a woman. We didn’t really have senior female cadets (after the two who were there in our first year) as role models who could help us. We were learning it the hard way, breaking the ice as we went along. I remember that I was knitting as a hobby then, and some senior walked past my room and noticed. He stepped back and said: “What ARE you doing … Royal Roads cadets don’t knit!?” Sometimes I realize that we all were just figuring it out as we went along! (Laughs)
Laura: I would like to think we did fit in but our peers would be the best judge of that. For the most part, the girls held their own on the parade square and in the leadership positions they were assigned. There were always exceptions as there are in life. There were a minority over the 4 years that you wished could have acted more professionally or complained less. I mean some girls do have it harder; they do suffer more with their cycle. The problem is that the rest of the college would generalize and as a girl you would worry that we would be judged because of the few that missed drill or ended up at sick parade. In general, I think we did fit in, certainly here at Roads I thought, really well.
Laurie: There were some twists and turns to that. There was some behaviour that you wish you could go and tell them: “Don’t do that! You’re messing it up for the rest of us! Don’t single yourself out – by all means don’t’ cry! Don’t do those ‘typical girl’ things that some guy is going to tell me later, oh you know it’s a girl thing…”
Laura: We became those advisors to the younger girls in third and 4th year based on our experience. Unfortunately the girls in Laurie’s year at RRMC didn’t have that example in their junior years as I had at RMC.
Laurie: No, not in the same way you did at RMC, and it did make it tough. In my first year, there were two female cadets who came over from RMC to help the staff and male cadets with the integration of women to Roads. It wasn’t the same as RMC’s ‘mother-daughter’ system. (Roads did have a ‘mom’ system, but it was more of a junior/senior mentor program that had used that term long before there were women at Roads)
Laura: It definitely helped at RMC that first year female cadets had a corresponding female “mom”.
Laurie: No, we didn’t have that history to go by. We were really on our own in a lot of cases. Things like hair standards were new ground to break. I was always in trouble because I have curly hair and couldn’t find the right way to make it conform to military standards. I didn’t really have anyone to ask how do I do this differently. I now wish someone had just given me the simplest advice to let my hair grow and then it can be braided into good form. Would have saved me from countless hair blunders and embarrassment over the years. (laughs)
Laura: The one thing we did do when we had Christmas and Grad balls was that we would help each other with our hair. That was the one thing we could do to dress ourselves up because we wore scarlets to the balls.
Laurie: When I was in first and second year – there just wasn’t as much getting together to do ‘girl stuff’ – luckily by third and 4th year we had found ourselves a little better and we did!
Again there was so much pressure in such a small tight-knit culture as at Roads that we felt extreme pressure to fit in as peers. Certainly not to date peers, or even seniors – not that things didn’t still happen. For the most part, we saw each other more as brothers and sisters, sometimes with the same squabbles as regular siblings. It probably was also in the back of our minds that we were also in competition within the cadet wing, for performance, for promotions, for academics. I can see from the guys’ perspective that the girls they could meet from UVic or downtown bars were probably more attractive, much more feminine, and gave them opportunities to get away from the college. Even in the year after my first, things seemed a little more relaxed about all that. In the case of the women, as first and second years there is a strict dress code, so wherever you go on and off campus that is how you’re dressed, even to go to a movie or to bars … where the heck are we going to meet a guy who’s going to look at one of us in such an outfit and find that even remotely attractive? I can’t imagine any sane male looking at us and saying, “Wow, that’s hot!” Nor can I blame them.
Laura: I think we started to relax in the later years. For, myself, my first real relationship was in 4th year but before that I was too scared to date for fear of losing the respect of my peers. As a 2nd year, I dated a 4th year for a short time but it was so secretive that most of my classmates never knew (or at least I didn’t think they did).
Laurie: I had two real relationships during my 3rd and 4th years at Roads, though not with anyone in my own year. It was still really tough. It was too obvious if a couple was forming – Roads is a much smaller campus physically and in person numbers than RMC, and the campus just felt more isolated from civilian life in Colwood than RMC is in Kingston. With a total RRMC cadet wing of around 200 people, it’s too obvious if two start dating, let alone dealing in close quarters with the eventual drama of ‘young love’ and break ups.
Laura: It also divides the team so if you so want to remain part of that team that it’s just not worth it.
Karen: Were there any official rules?
(both speak at once) Oh Yes!
Laurie: It was clearly defined, as it was in the broader CF that relationships within the direct chain of command were not tolerated.
Laura: At RMC, the unspoken rule was never to date a 4th year as a 1st year. Some of us unfortunately had to find out why that’s wrong the hard way. The first weekend after recruit term, a cadet in civilian clothes knocked at my door and asked me out to dinner. After 6 years of boarding school, a summer of basic training and 6 weeks of recruit term, dinner in a restaurant with someone offering friendship and a real conversation was pretty enticing so I said yes. It was only during dinner that I realized that he was a 4th year. Luckily for me, my 2nd year “mom” had heard it at Kye (the evening snack) and sat me down when I returned after dinner and explained this ‘unspoken rule’. I was so spooked that I never spoke to him again until we met years later when my future husband and he were fellow fighter pilots.
Karen: Tell me about the time in your 4th year that a tragedy struck the cadets?
Laurie: Well, that is one of my toughest memories and life lessons of my four years of milcol, and yet holds a special place in my heart to this day. Sometime in the fall of my 4th year, on a normal weekend, we had had a parade or practice that morning and were dismissed at lunch to go off to spend the time doing academics, or whatever we chose. One of the 2nd years, Dan Richardson, a very keen and terrific section commander of mine at Mack Flight, had his pilot’s license (as did others as well) and needed to fly regularly to keep up his quota of hours. To offset the cost of renting a little Cessna, he would invite anyone who wished to join him, for a small fee. I’m told after the event that several cadets wanted to go but had other commitments, so he eventually found three others to fly and off they went. The others with Dan were DCFL (3rd year) Scotty McMonagle, (second year) Frank Jablonowski, and (first year) Ray Koebel. We never saw them again.
That particular evening was a Sunday. I was trying to round up the Mack flight barmen for a meeting. When I went into Dan’s room, I could see that it was still pristine – as I would expect from him, as he was truly quite keen! But it was after dark, so they should have been home and finishing up academics by that time. It seemed odd they should be off college campus still. No sign of Scott in his room either. At that time we didn’t know that they were together, nor that there were two others, nor quite who they were. Anyways, we alerted someone, but we weren’t too worried. Perhaps they stopped off somewhere to eat? By morning when it was obvious that their rooms hadn’t been slept in, full on panic started to strike, and the whole college mobilized into search mode for them. There was deployment of CFB Comox’s Search and Rescue teams, cadets were involved with the ground and air searches – we were hopeful and driven to help in any way possible get them back safely. As the week progressed, we maintained hope, probably being a little naïve and idealistic. On the Thursday night, the night before we would learn that their plane had indeed crashed into the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a quiet vigil started small and grew to eventually include the entire wing. A couple of us decided to put candles in their windows as a gesture of hope, and when we went out to see the effect from the parking lot in front of Nixon Block, others started to join us. We all found candles to put into all the front-facing windows of Nixon Block. Almost silently more and more people stepped outside into the cool night air to stare up at the candles in the windows and say a silent prayer for the boys’ safe return. Even one of the squadron commanders, who was working late that night, looked out his office window and understood the gravity of the situation. Someone then found a ‘ghetto blaster’, as they were called, and started playing the song, ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits, which had been a special song for our year, especially during recruit term when we’d wanted to instill a sense of seriousness about why we were really here, for the military profession we’d all chosen. When the song had finished playing you could have heard a pin drop. Every person stood silent for so long, as if knowing that hope was running out, yet being so young, naïve and believing ourselves immortal, refusing to believe that death could strike so close.
The next day we were informed, on parade, at attention, that indeed the plane had been located in 60 feet of water, that all four of our friends had been aboard. There were no survivors. There were subsequent funeral services across the country, even one for Dan in the Victoria area that helped us mourn the loss for all of us and a memorial service at the college. To say it was a rough time for all would be grossly understating it. It drew us all together as a cadet family and it is still a tragedy that my classmates here for this weekend’s RRMC reunion hold very close. We still miss Dan, Scott, Frank and Ray.