Unknowingly, as a young person, I set out to find my purpose. I was not afraid to work on a farm, take a job as a tire changer, leave with the local carnival or join the U.S. Army as a truck driver......
........Alcoholism and codependency issues followed me as I navigated my eventual career in the Vermont National Guard as a State Equal Employment Manager. Processing discrimination cases on the basis of sex, I became acutely aware of the sexist world we all lived in. The pain from my own experiences with sexism was the driving force behind attempting to combat sexism in the military, a daunting objective. The story of my trudge to combat sexism is the story of anyone who uses their pain to make a difference, and eventually finds gratitude for the journey and peace knowing you tried.
‘Life at Camp: Combating the Sexism We Tolerate and why the military should take the lead’ tells the story of a National Guard Equal Opportunity & Diversity Manager who, over time, recognized a pattern of military culture—androcentrism—and spent the later part of her 36-year military career challenging the bias that impedes gender equality, strategic objectives, and response programs. This is not another memoir of a personal account, instead it is the story told by the collector of painful humiliations. I describe the broken process that fails to hold violators accountable for sex-based discrimination in a way that will support cultural change, thus allowing the spectrum of harm to pave the way for more violent sex-based attacks.
The story recounts actual challenges I faced when praise for my efforts was plentiful, (Legion of Merit) but I realized my administrative analysis, recommendations and action plans were not being taken seriously, even by good leaders. I briefed the 4-star General, Chief of the National Guard Bureau and the Defense Advisory Council for Women in the Service who report to the 4-Star Secretary of Defense, and yet, the strategies I presented fell flat.
Despite equal opportunity complaint processes being presented as avenues for the redress of wrongs, corrective actions remained dependent on subjective decisions by those in power. This is nothing new for the bookshelves, however, the gender equality strategies and accountability bill presented to the Vermont National Guard and Legislators is a solution that was minimized and downplayed. The book is about the everyday reality, rather than the sensational scandals or tragic rapes. The backdrop of the National Guard could be any organizational culture a person finds themselves in and feels uncomfortable. Our choices are to assimilate, leave or try to change the cutlure. I did not realize my predicament until I was looking for the exit, it was then, I made a choice to make whatever change I could.
In the first chapter of my memoir, I detail the culture so many patriotic, competent and strong women attempt to navigate, only to end up assimilating into and shredding their own feminine identity in order to survive.
I weave in my own attempt at assimilation, joining the active-duty Army as a truck driver, only to end up the Vermont National Guard, State Equal Opportunity and Diversity Officer, driven by a fierce desire to combat the sexism everyone seemed to accept as part of the plan.
I grew up on Camp Johnson, the National Guard base in my hometown, spending 30+ years driving through the gates. My powerlessness to hold leadership accountable for a fair process and my astonishment at the lack of will to prevent sex-based harm from happening bewildered me. Taking on the personal mission to combat sexism, I continued to search for someone in power to listen or implement the strategies I was getting awards for.
The journey for me to combat sexism doesn’t end, but instead I realize and accept my offerings, to include the book, as part of the solution and not a destination. The continuous and collective push for gender equality is about chipping away at the everyday sexism, denial and fear that maintains the status quo of one small town Guard, and of the U.S. Military at large.
As an MST survivor, and an unwittingly assimilated successful soldier across a 15-year career, I was thoroughly impressed by the scope of this book.
My own passion in training and developing talent was cut short due to sexism in the military. While Doris's book at times was a difficult read, due to my own personal experiences with sexism, it ultimately is a story of tremendous courage in fighting for those who may have lost the will to fight. There is just so much to unpack here, like the contents of the invisible backpack that Doris equates to the baggage soldiers carry when their stories of suffering and mistreatment through sexism are downplayed and often become a double-edged sword for the victim.
I myself, like Doris prior to taking the job as the Equal Opportunity Manager for the State of Vermont, didn’t recognize my incredible ability to assimilate into an organization changing myself to fit the dominant culture. This failure to see the reality can be a subtle, unconscious bias even toward ourselves, because to admit assimilation in some way takes away from the uniqueness of our ability to rise through the ranks, when so few women do.
The male-dominated power structure has a similar unconscious bias--it is the “like me bias," it is the gravitational pull we feel toward similar people. As Doris describes, it is apparent in the hiring and developing talent practices, as much as the disciplinary practices. I believe many leaders of the Vermont National Guard and other military units do believe they are doing the right thing, but the reason they so boldly oppose oversight is that, even though they don’t believe they are unconsciously biased, they at the same time are smart enough to know oversight will arbitrarily remove any blinders.
I could relate to each story of sexism, there were so many common trench holes, and Doris keeps you captivated through her incredible ability to write with such pure emotion about the struggles of fighting for a cause she could not ignore. Her tenacity throughout the years yielded national attention, and yet her bosses continued to dismiss her strategic ideas of changing the culture through gender equality accountability.
Doris frames the problem statement so clearly in this memoir. She breaks down how the organization created the problem, and then how its obvious dysfunctional response to that problem is a barrier to top talent. The military cannot police itself, as she states it--you cannot write your own report card and at the same time claim transparency.
Commanders all the way to the top hide between the articles of the UCMJ. They are uniquely able to pick and choose which articles to apply and which soldiers to hold accountable. Doris proves time and time again through the years how the system is able to manipulate the results of any attempt at accountability and blatantly shut her down and silence her over and over again, right up to and even after her 35-year career with 13 years as the equal employment manager.
You would think an organization that touts mission-ready top talent would see the value in her continued service and expertise in the subject matter. Certainly 4-star generals on a national level did see her value, yet the 1- and 2-star generals somehow missed this and even manipulated and reprimanded her for her tenacious efforts.
I felt the great sense of loss for all the talent that left the organization solely because of this issue. It’s clear to see, if it were void of sexism and followed its own declared process, this could be a more effective organization with the full use of the talented pool of warriors available.
The solution is laid out with gender equality accountability as a requirement, because the military cannot continue to police itself. It is an organization made up of people who have brains, therefore there is and always will be bias that needs checking.
I feel honored to know Doris, I am impressed with her tenacity and commitment to writing this book, and with her belief in the cause and her tribute to the future
Warriors of our U.S. Military.
Marie Kingsley, MST Survivor, Veteran Army National Guard
This book was fascinating and educational. I believe reading it will help to resolve pain in others, as writing it was probably therapeutic for you. Starting with naivety that evolved into crusading, your real-life struggles turned into lessons shared through your strength and tenacity to help others. Your Paragraph 1, chapter 1 grabs the reader. Throughout the book you include uncensored powerful messages that “you can do it”, you can overcome.
Overall fantastic book. Every state and national diversity council member should read it. New (and old) Adjutant Generals of National Guards should read it. It could serve as a training aid or continuity book for State Equal Employment Managers and others.
Others paved a path before us, you have PLOWED a path for others. It was obvious when speaking with you in person years ago, and in reading this memoir, that your time as EEO manager was not only a journey, it became your calling.
YOUR SERVICE DEFINITELY MATTERED. And your lessons still resonate to the hundreds you briefed and spoke with over the years.
Great work all around!
Dr. Kimberly Baumann, former NGB Northeast Region Joint Diversity Executive Council Chairperson
‘Life at Camp’ is essential—if not required—reading for anyone/everyone interested in a military career and deserves to know certain minuscule facts—that don’t easily come to light—which contribute mightily to the quality of the experience one might have. Chief Sumner’s provocative story unpacks what often feels like never-ending transgressions towards women warriors—and unabashedly reveals the reality of male privilege—within the National Guard. This is a needed to be told tale of one relentlessly brave woman’s journey, moral courage, intestinal fortitude, and professional outrage. It’s a tale of the allies she acquires along the way; and those pseudo-allies, who often posture authentically, as such, while their actions, or lack thereof—are more akin to white lies—in terms of their true feelings about a level playing field between women and men. As a result of not wanting to lose their unearned privilege their white lies eventually morph into alibis for not doing the right thing, which consistently become bye-byes said by countless women departing. The warriors, who far too often had their once-upon-a-time dreams crushed, simply because of their devalued gendered reality, and audacity to expect equality. So, who should read ‘Life at Camp,’ an unpretentious memoir that provides a behind-the-scene glimpse of the sexism and sexual harassment that is somehow illogically ignored/dismissed by the sanctioned military classism (hierarchies) that abounds in most—if not all—military camps? Women interested in a military career must read this book. Men interested in transcending their socialization must read this book. Men who desire to be courageous in varied contexts, men who dare to be brave enough to transcend the good old boy network must read this book. Men interested in making this world a better place for the women in their lives (daughters, romantic partners, spouses, mothers, friends, colleagues) must read this book. And of course, people with an inherent sense of fair play would also benefit from reading this compelling story.
Dr. J.W. Wiley: Author, Diversity Consultant
“Life at Camp” to be a bluntly honest journal describing a military career from its idealistic beginning, through to its mature and successful ending. Doris Sumner tells her story and pulls no punches. She leads us to acknowledge that sexual harassment and harmful disrespect still plague the National Guard and active duty forces. What I found particularly compelling, was her fierce determination to help soldiers and airmen receive help, and then justice, after they were harassed, assaulted or made to feel less than their fellow brothers and sisters in arms, often at a cost to her reputation. She knew these issues hurt military readiness, as well as people, and could not be ignored. Fortunately, as Doris retired, hopeful signs were emerging as new leaders, led by the Adjutant General, began defining and measuring equity in military service. Progress is happening. Accountability will become the standard. Our Guard will be stronger.
Martha T. Rainville, Maj Gen (Ret), USAF Vermont
March 1997-April 2006