As a senior in college in 2001, I was coming out of a morning class when I passed a television and saw two planes crash into the Twin Towers. That was the day I decided to join the military.
I look back on that sunny September day, after two deployments and eight years in the military, and realize how naïve I was. Things then were black and white. After deployment, you realize there is no such thing as black and white. Just various shades of gray you try to sort through and understand.
I try to remember this when I speak to other veterans. As a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and a public affairs officer, I realize everyone has a story. But women have a very different story.
Some of the female veterans I’ve met over the years have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bosnia. Some were mechanics; some doctors, lawyers, medics or pilots.
Some worked in logistics, on cultural support teams, as commanders. But no matter what the job, or where the deployment, I would hear the same words from every woman I spoke to: It’s lonely. Scary. Intimidating. Exhilarating. Satisfying. Frustrating. Anything but easy.
The Head Scarf.
I wore a head scarf in Afghanistan. There was some debate over this. Afghanistan is a place where women’s prisons are filled with adulterers and rape victims, and until 1989 women were taken into the street by the Taliban and executed for such things.
Raised by a mother who holds two master’s degrees, I found it hard to imagine a place where educating girls was considered a crime. So it took me a while to get used to Afghanistan.
I read the statistics like everyone else. The average life span of an Afghan woman is 51 years, according to the latest estimates from the C.I.A.; the United Nations reports that about 85 percent of all women are illiterate and at least 85 percent have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime. These facts had a different effect on me than on the men alongside whom I served. They could sympathize, but never empathize.
In a war where counterinsurgency is waged in the general population, you cannot ignore half of the people. So the Marines and the army formed and developed Female Engagement Teams and Cultural Support Teams, made up of female service members whose primary mission was to interact with Afghan women. For that you need a head scarf.
During my own deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 there was some dispute over the head scarf. Some folks said it wasn’t a part of the uniform. Others argued that as soldiers we needed to be culturally sensitive to the country we were in. Some thought that wearing it meant giving up all that American women had worked so hard for. Either way, it was something the men never had to deal with or worry about.
The difficulties of trying to balance my own beliefs with Afghan culture became clear when I visited a small village located in Oruzgan Province, in the center of Afghanistan, with a Female Engagement Team. It was a district that was controlled by the Taliban until an uprising in 2010.
It was the first time I was able to sit and talk to Afghan women. I remember walking into a mud house with a series of rooms around a rectangular courtyard. We were greeted by children, too many to count, and were led into a small room scattered with pillows and rugs on the ground. I found it amazing that these women, who knew nothing about us other than that we were Americans, would invite us into their homes and offer what little they had — rice, bread and tea.
We talked through an interpreter. They immediately asked if I was married, and were curious when I told them I wasn’t. I smiled at their reaction. “My mother keeps asking me that question too,” I said. “I think it’s because I don’t know how to cook.” One of the women smiled back.
They appeared comfortable in a room with other women. They’d remove their scarves and we would talk. Mostly about families and children. One of the daughters peeked into the room and quietly entered. She had gorgeous green eyes, and must have been around 13.
Her mother introduced her and told us she would be married in the summer. I kept a straight face, something I was already quickly learning to do on deployment. How are you supposed to react when someone tells you that a 13-year-old girl is going to get married?
I asked the daughter if she was happy that she was to be married. She shook her head and hugged her mother. “I will miss my family,” she said. We finished eating, said our goodbyes, wrapped our heads in the brightly colored scarves and left.
I chose to wear the head scarf because it helped me develop a connection to Afghans. And I discovered that it has its uses. It keeps out the sand and it lets you walk in and out of crowds without being fawned over. I remember going into an Afghan home where a woman offered me one of her scarves. It took me a while to realize she did it because I was wearing a winter scarf in the summertime. I guess it was an Afghan fashion faux pas, like wearing white after September in America.
So it also gave me something to talk about with Afghan women. After all, most women love to talk about accessories.
There are always pros and cons to being one of only about 14 percent of active American soldiers who are women.
Some of the cons: You have to listen to endless discussions of why Tim Tebow is the best or worst quarterback known to man. Or which cigar tastes best sitting around a fire pit outside of Kandahar. Or why the 1969 Mustang is the best muscle car ever built.
Some of the pros: You will learn everything there is to learn about men in the military. You will learn that even the most hardened Marine misses his daughters so much he will wait in a line for 30 minutes to make a five-minute phone call.
You will learn why Navy Seals and Special Forces, who live in villages and small forward operating bases where bathrooms consist of plastic tubes in the ground, deploy again and again. A master sergeant, on his 10th deployment and third marriage, told me about his life, the friends he has lost and the family he was trying to keep together. When I asked why he did it, he answered, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
There are men who will offer you their last protein bar out in the field; men who will care for Afghan children as if they were their own. You will see them frustrated, angry, sad and hopeful. They also know fear, but will never admit it in front of you. After all, you are a woman.
The Elephant in the Room.
I remember traveling to Baghdad in October of 2007 and having to sleep in a transients’ tent. Transients’ tents are usually filled with soldiers leaving or arriving. They’re filthy and sandy, with bunk beds and bad fluorescent lights that are never turned off.
I was the only person in the tent one night: no locks, no phones. I slept with my trusty Gerber knife under my pillow and my 9-millimeter sidearm in my sleeping bag, just in case. Nothing happened. But mine was a fear most men do not have to carry. It’s a fear that follows you everywhere on deployment, from the unlocked showers to the unlocked tents to the unlocked bathroom trailers.
I remember telling this to one of my sergeants, who jokingly responded, “You’re paranoid.” To which I said, “Would you feel comfortable if your daughter was in that situation?” He quickly changed the subject.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about one in five women seen at the Veterans Health Administration reply “yes” when screened for Military Sexual Trauma, which includes sexual assault, battery or harassment. And these are only the women who seek medical help at the V.H.A.
The army really does try. It provides mandatory yearly training to every soldier, both male and female, outlining various ways a victim can report an incident. In fact, we got so much training that even I got sick of it.
And there are leaders in the military who do care. Before I deployed in 2011, my boss, a brigadier general, called me into his office. Sometimes the enemy isn’t easily identifiable, he said. Sometimes the enemy wears the same uniform and boots that I do. Be careful.
I was grateful for the advice, but I wondered how bad things were if I needed a warning.
I guess the obvious question is, Why does it still happen?
“It may have a lot to do with the psychosexual hardwiring of men,” was the answer I received from Dr. George Fusco, a behavioral health specialist and clinical lecturer on military war trauma and sexuality at Alliant International University in San Francisco. “Add to this a very toxic mix of post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic events experienced in combat, and you have the very likely predisposition to sociopathies like military sexual trauma and other predatory antisocial behaviors.”
I got a much simpler answer from a 21-year-old specialist sitting behind me at training on the prevention of sexual assault and harassment. He turned to his buddy and said, “They take away our girlfriends, our porn and our liquor. What do they think is going to happen?”
I can’t speak to it. I can only recount the experiences of fellow soldiers, friends and colleagues who spent most of their deployment trying to stifle the tears and pain of being away from their children.
Mary Miller, a mother of three and a retired colonel who was commander of the 208th Army Liaison Team that deployed to Iraq in 2007, said it best: “No mother thinks anyone can raise her kids as well as she can. Whether they admit it or not. You are wired to be involved in every aspect of your children’s lives, with the compelling urge to protect them, and you can’t do that from a war zone — hell, you can’t even protect yourself very much.”
It is a different experience from a father on deployment. These women tried to be soldiers and mothers, attempting in vain to care for their children through finicky Skype connections and e-mail.
It was never enough.
“All the dads I served with missed their children terribly. But overall they were comfortable with the idea that they were safe and well in their mother’s care,” Miller said. “The moms, however, did not share that same level of assurance.”
This from a woman who worked 18-hour days during her deployment to Baghdad, and took the few days off she had to travel to Afghanistan over Christmas to see her son, who was serving there as a sergeant at the time. She spent 24 hours with him before returning to her combat zone.
It was especially difficult for the single mothers: strong women who wanted nothing more than to be good soldiers and good mothers. On deployment, being a good soldier usually wins.
Despite all the craziness that deployment brings, we do find ways to enjoy being women.
We enjoy putting on makeup, doing our hair, painting our nails, even if no one sees them. Many times I would walk into the women’s shower trailer to find it had been converted into a beauty parlor, with women waiting to get their hair done by other female service members. (Most bases only had a barber.) We talked about the things that would get your mind off of the war: a boyfriend you were about to break up with; a husband you desperately missed; children who acted up every time you deployed.
After a while, the guys you deployed with would forget you were a woman; for better or for worse, they would start to see you as one of the guys. Jokes that were once off-limits when you were around were shared. Noises you had previously only heard coming from your little brother were made quite frequently.
If a female employee from the State Department or the embassy in Kabul walked in, wearing fabulous clothes and a great pair of heels, the guys turned their heads. Foul language was replaced by “Yes ma’am,” “No ma’am.” But with just us around, there was none of that. So you find yourself longing for fabulous clothes and heels. Not for the attention. Just to remind yourself that you’re a woman.
Me, I missed getting my nails done, reading The Oprah Magazine while sipping a vanilla latté in a coffee shop. Perfume. Getting my hair cut and styled. Wearing a dress. Having someone open the door for me. Being treated like a lady. You go to your bunk at night after a long day, take off your boots and tan T-shirt, and try to remember what it was like to wear wonderful fabrics like silk.
But being a woman made me a good soldier. It took me eight years, two deployments and an e-mail from that mother I met in Iraq, Colonel Miller, to help me understand why. She wrote it after I returned from my first deployment, a time in my life when I was just trying to stay afloat emotionally.
“You really don’t have to compete with men,” she wrote. “That’s where so many women go wrong. You will never be as good at being a man as they are, but they will never be as good at being a woman as you are. Just be the best woman and soldier that you can be. Be comfortable in your own skin, and the rest will fall into place.
“You do, as a woman, have to hold yourself to a high standard, because there are many, men and women alike, who will want to see you fail. Don’t give them the satisfaction.”
She doesn’t know it, but that e-mail helped me find my place in the military. It helped me realize that you can be a woman and a soldier, and actually be good at both.
So I’ve learned to dance that delicate dance, and along the way I’ve learned the rules. Don’t be too friendly, don’t be too mean. Don’t look too good, make sure you always do what’s right, never put yourself in a compromising situation. Don’t cry. Perception is reality. Do your job and do it well. Above all, complete your mission. Oh yeah, and try not to get killed.
Source: NY Times, June 21, 2012, by Rebecca Murga