Once a Soldier, Always a Soldier

Sandra Perron’s decision to leave a gift in her will to the Perley Health Foundation reflects her deep-seated desire to honour the men and women who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Born into a military family and raised on bases across Canada, Sandra eventually served in the CAF for 13 years, including two tours of duty in the Yugoslav Wars.

“A soldier’s uniform is like a second skin,” Sandra says. “The identity remains long after you return the uniform. I still get up at five and start exercising before six. Now, I have an opportunity to make sure that older Veterans get the respect and admiration they deserve.”

Along with the gift in her will, Sandra Perron also honours the service of Veterans in a host of other ways: as Donor Ambassador for the Perley Health Foundation and by serving on its Board of Directors, for instance. She also mentors soldiers and organized a fundraising campaign to provide care packages to soldiers posted to work in long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her current project involves building a retreat centre where she can help women transition to civilian life from the CAF.

Sandra Perron’s dedication may come as a bit of a surprise given the sexual, physical and psychological abuse she experienced in uniform and chronicled in her 2017 book Out Standing in the Field. The title is a play on words; it references both Sandra’s amazing accomplishments, and the isolation many of her fellow soldiers imposed on her due to her gender.

“Writing the book enabled me to come to terms with it,” Sandra says. “All of my life, the military has been my family. Rather than turn my back on them, I want to help the CAF get better and become a more welcoming place for women.”

Sandra’s father served as a CAF Fire Marshall for more than 40 years; her mother left her job as a CAF administrative clerk when her parents married “because that’s how it was in those days,” says Sandra. “I loved being in a military family: the devotion to duty, the adventure of moving to a new location every few years.”

At age 15, Sandra became a Royal Canadian Army Cadet, rising to the rank of lieutenant and earning The Duke of Edinburgh's Award. At 19, she enlisted in the CAF and soon became Canada’s first female infantry officer. In 1995, she commanded an anti-tank platoon in Croatia, earning an exceptional service commendation. When the CAF assigned her to a posting she considered junior a year later, she chose to resign. In 1998, Sandra led an advisory board that reported to the Minister of National Defence on the CAF’s treatment of women and minorities.

Sandra is quick to point out that while most Canadians are proud of their soldiers, few fully appreciate the many sacrifices that come with the uniform, even for those who never serve abroad. “Every few years, you have to uproot your family and hope that none of your possessions are lost or damaged in the move. You have to find new schools and activities for the whole family and, unlike most Canadians, you never get to build equity in your home.”

Although she worked as an executive in the private sector for more than a dozen years, the CAF remained close to her heart. When she first visited Perley Health in 2014, Sandra was smitten.

“I could see that residents were happy and the staff were really attentive,” she says. “Now, every time I visit, it feels like my heart grows a little bit more. I’m proud to be part of that team. Veterans deserve a soft landing.”