"What sort of girl joins the military?"

Ones like Sarah Mahon '03. Which maybe was a surprise even to her.

by Glen Herbert

One morning a few years ago, Sarah Mahon ’03 walked into a reception area at a women’s clinic in Montreal to ask about a photograph that was hanging there. It shows a young woman, hair neatly pulled back and braided beneath a green beret. The woman is in uniform, a red cross insignia on her sleeve beneath the Canadian flag, a red poppy pinned to her lapel. Sarah asked the receptionist if she knew who the photographer was. “Oh, it’s wonderful isn’t it!” she said. “But why do you want to know?” Sarah said, “Because, it’s me.”  

The photo was taken during a Remembrance Day Parade in Montreal. Part of her job as a medic was to provide medical support at parades. When people are standing at attention for long periods of time there is a risk of passing out, especially with the younger cadets. “Your blood pools in your legs,” Sarah says. And that’s why she’s looking off in the distance. It looks like she’s lost in thought, rather than keeping an eye out for people who are about to faint.

She didn’t know that the photo had been taken, and hanging there on the wall of the women's clinic was the first time she saw it. One of her classmates had tipped her off, having spotted it during a rotation. “Honestly, it’s poster sized!” she says with a chuckle. “It’s huge.” “I’m flattered. But it’s just kind of unnerving to walk in and see this picture of yourself.”

"They were two people who made me believe, 'I can do this.'"

But it really is her, shown serving her country as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. Had you told a younger Sarah that this is one of the places she’d go in life, she never would have believed it. Her father is Art Stone, who joined the RLC community in 1980 and was the senior science teacher and an educator at the school for more than 20 years. In addition to his teaching, he directed the sailing and recreation program and organized the annual triathlon. Sarah grew up just outside of Rosseau and attended elementary school in Humphrey.

When she arrived at RLC in Grade 9, she says that she was a quiet and shy little girl. That changed. By Grade 12 she was leading student council, had a great group of friends, and had met people from around the world and all walks of life. “It just taught me so much more than I had learned in the little village of Rosseau,” she says. “My world had always been really small and closely connected. And to go to another small school, but one with people who came from all around the world, was just so eye opening.”

One of the things she treasures now was the school’s ability to continually show her what she was capable of, to demonstrate all the things that were within her. “There was a teacher there named Angus Murray and he put it perfectly. He said the only way to expand your comfort zone is to take a giant step outside of it. I feel like, every year, Rosseau pushed me further and further outside of my comfort zone. And it just helped me grow in ways that are hard to even imagine.” She took up white-water canoeing in Grade 11, something she admits that she wouldn’t have even entertained in Grades 9 and 10. “Scott Hepworth and Angus Murray both kind of—probably without even trying—just really helped me break out of my shell that little bit more, just by putting me in situations,” in white water and on expeditions. “They were two people who made me believe ‘I can do this.’”

"We might be the challenge you're looking for"

After graduation Sarah enrolled in the biology program at Laurentian. “I was thinking I was moving to the big city of Sudbury,” she says. Her roommate during her first year was in the military. “I thought, ‘oh my gosh, she and I are not going to get along. Because what sort of girl joins the military?!”

Still, she would see her roommate go off and parade, and just being busy with all the things associated with being an active member of the armed forces. “One of the things about Rosseau Lake College is that we were busy from 8:30 in the morning until 5 o’clock. At university I was missing that structure.”

She got to thinking that she needed a challenge, and, as it happens, the Canadian Forces tag line at the time was “We might just be the challenge you’re looking for.” “It sounds so corny!” she says. Both her roommate and another friend who was serving with the forces promoted the idea, saying she’d be great at it. “And I said, ‘are you crazy? That is not something I’m interested in at all.” But, after a closer look, she saw that maybe she was. “And I thought, well, what do I have to lose? Worst case scenario I can always say, ‘oh, no, this was a mistake, I don’t want to do this.’”

She was enlisted at the beginning of her final year of her undergraduate program. She arrived at basic training, she says, “scared out of my mind.” “I was 115 pounds and 5-foot-1 in an infantry unit that was mostly tall and stocky men.” She ended the training, she says, not just the smallest person in a platoon of 60, or one of only six women (she was in fact both of those things) but also as top candidate. She discovered that this, too, was something that she could do. “It was way out of my comfort zone, but it was challenging me in such great ways. I was growing just as much as I had during my years at Rosseau Lake College.”

"Remembrance Day is just such an important day"

The reason I was initially in touch with Sarah is because we’re featuring alumni who have served in the forces around the time of Remembrance Day. During our call, I ask her what Remembrance Day means to her, given that she’s served. She says that “the Remembrance Day Parade was actually the first parade I went to after I enlisted. I had enlisted on November 9th 2006. I wasn’t yet in uniform, and I really didn’t yet know all that much about the military. But I remember that as my first time feeling really patriotic, hearing the Canadian national anthem and it meaning something different than just standing up first thing in the morning at school. 'O Canada' had just been part of the routine. Suddenly I felt that there was more to it.” She continues, “even after releasing from the military, and with all the things that are going on in the world in the last ten years, I just find that Remembrance Day is so important for us to recognize that, for one, the world is not as peaceful as we sometimes like to believe. And the things that happened during those two world wars gave us freedom that we almost take for granted. We just can’t even imagine some of the things that were experienced by our fellow Canadian soldiers and the people in Europe during that time. And similar things are still being experienced by people around the world today.”

“Remembrance Day is an important day to make sure that we don’t forget that we’re so lucky to live in Canada and to have all the rights and freedoms that we do. To recognize that there are people around the world who don’t have democratic rights. Women, who don’t have the rights that they do here in Canada. People who aren’t safe when they step out of their homes every day. We are so, so lucky here to the point of forgetting just how privileged we are as Canadians. And that’s what I fear. If Remembrance Day loses its impact because we forget.”

Sarah released from the military in 2012. These days she’s a full-time nurse and a full-time mom to two busy boys. Now that we’re getting past covid, she’s looking forward to taking a more hands-on role at RLC. She’d like to speak to current students about comfort zones, and accepting challenges, just as Scott Hepworth and Angus Murray had done with her. She’d also like to talk about the experience of serving. “There is a part of me that has some regret that I wasn’t able to go on tour and serve my country in that way. But the military really helped me grow in so many ways and to appreciate so much of what I have.”