Over this past year, I have talked to forty or so women soldiers for my forthcoming book, The Lonely Soldier: Women at War in Iraq, and it has become clear to me that they have a set of needs quite different from those of men. All soldiers must deal with the roadside bombs, mortar and grenade attacks, and gunfire that are a part of daily life in this war, where the front line is everywhere and not even bases are safe; and all soldiers must cope with seeing the dead and wounded close up and with, perhaps, having killed. But women have additional burdens: they are sexually harassed by their male comrades day in and day out; one in three is sexually attacked or raped; and they are pressured every minute to conform to a military culture that is intractably male. "The Army consistently tries to make women into men," as Sergeant Sarah Scully of the Military Police wrote to me. "Any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed or treated as inferior."
When women run obstacle courses during training, men line up to ogle their breasts and shout crude remarks. When women walk into the "chow hall," hundreds of eyes undress them. When they reach or bend to pick up something, men whistle, groan, and stare. This goes on every hour of every day, and creates an excruciating self-consciousness and sense of being trapped that few men ever experience.
"Put that thing down!" the drill instructor kept yelling at one female Marine corporal. "Now pick it up! Put it down again! Pick it up again!" The sergeant was purposely humiliating her by forcing her to bend over in front of the male recruits, again and again.
Air Force Sergeant Marti Ribeiro was harassed like this from boot camp all the way through her eight years in the military. "I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform as mine. I had a senior non-commissioned officer harass me on a regular basis. He would constantly quiz me about my sex life, show up at the barracks at odd hours of the night, and ask personal questions that no supervisor should ever have the right to ask. I had a colonel sexually harass me in ways I'm too embarrassed to explain. Men stared at me all the time. Once my sergeant sat with me at lunch in the chow hall, and he said, 'I feel like I’m in a fish bowl, the way all the men's eyes are boring into your back.' I told him, 'That's what my life is like.'"
During her second deployment in 2006, to Afghanistan, Ribeiro decided that this time would be different. "Excuse my language, but I decided to be a 'bitch.' So I stepped off the plane into my own personal hell. Yes I was able to put up a wall, but at a price... I'm normally a very bubbly person, almost cheerleader-like, but that disappeared behind the wall, and to this day I don't know if I've ever really regained that part of my personality." As a result, she said, she never felt protected by her comrades, or part of the camaraderie that is so important for a soldier's survival. "You want to maintain your personality, but it's not possible. You have to put up a front and act like one of the boys—even if it means losing who you are."
Women soldiers are always "losing who they are" to protect themselves in the testosterone-dominated military culture, and when they come home, they cannot always find those lost selves. This leaves them feeling alienated from their friends, families, their own children and their former personas. Yet, if they turn to the traditional outlets for help—the V.A., or the various veterans’ support groups—they find themselves back in an organization that mirrors the very culture they need to escape: male-dominated, hierarchical, and misogynistic. For women who need help with recovering from sexual assault, let alone with finding the person they lost out there in the battlefield, this only makes them feel worse.
A few forward-thinking women veterans have addressed this problem by creating organizations for women vets of Iraq and Afghanistan that avoid mirroring the military. One is called W.O.W., Women Organizing Women (www.vetwow.com). The other is a brand new organization called S.W.A.N., the Service Women Action Network (www.servicewomen.org). The idea behind both organizations is to create a non-threatening support group that will put women veterans in touch with one another, and provide advice and services that the VA often sorely lacks, from help with military sexual assault to getting the benefits soldiers are due.
More women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any earlier war in American history. Whatever we may think of these wars, we need to help these women when they come home. Tell your veteran friends about WOW and SWAN, and support these groups in their missions. Help them help others, so that we can all begin to heal the scars of war.