Both she and Wente also cite issues of pregnancy, motherhood and sex, as well as male instincts of protectiveness of women.
Carignan, the veteran from 1986, said the first 10 years of integration were difficult, but after a review of anti-harassment policies and a revamp of the military’s code of ethics in the 1990s, things improved significantly.
“When I first entered into the forces I heard, ‘women aren’t strong enough,’ so I just hit the gym harder,” Carignan said. “Then later I heard, ‘I’ve never had a woman as a troop commander’ but OK, so now let’s move on. And we did move on, never looking back.”
In 2003, she became the first woman to hold deputy command of a combat unit and was Task Force Kandahar’s senior combat engineer in 2009.
Captain Ashley Collette, during her 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, led a 50-strong all-male infantry unit providing security to villagers. She had close calls with roadside bombs and two of her soldiers were injured. Now 28, she received the Medal of Military Valour, Canada’s third-highest military honor, for her leadership in the Panjwaii district near Kandahar — the district where Nichola Goddard died.
“Afghanistan was challenging, no doubt,” she said. “The heat and desert conditions are intense, taking casualties is intense.”
“But it’s no more intense for me than it is for a male soldier; we’re both in it for the same reasons, to do the same job, and that’s the way my fellow soldiers saw it too. My leadership was never questioned,” she said.
A male corporal, Kyle Schmidinger, said his unit could not have asked for a better commander than Collette.
“She did what any leader would do. She fought for us and she took care of us. There was never any doubt she couldn’t do the job as well as a male commander,” Schmidinger said.
The soldiers said having women on hand also proved helpful in dealing with Afghanistan’s strict code of gender segregation because they could conduct searches of women and talk to the wives of Afghan chiefs.
Carignan said while it took time and some struggle for women to get where they are today, “now, the men who initially were opposed are defending female combatants because they know in the end, it’s all just about how you do your job.”