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The Lonely Soldier – The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq

By Helen Benedict
Review by Ellen Nessuno

the lonely soldierHelen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and has written about women, race and justice. In “The Lonely Soldier” (Beacon Press), she writes about women serving in the US military in Iraq. The book was originally published in 2009, but it is an even more compelling read today because more women than ever before are serving in combat, even though they are not yet legally and officially doing so. Two women – a sergeant and a colonel - currently serving in the military are bringing a lawsuit seeking authorization for women to serve in combat because they claim that being barred from combat – again, legally and officially – hinders their military career advancement. The women in Benedict’s book all served at what can be termed the front in Iraq, usually because of confusion in the command and a shortage of personnel. Certainly, driving supply vehicles along roads with IEDs can be considered combat.

The highest rank achieved by the women Benedict interviewed for her book was sergeant and, while they do not necessarily all regret their military service, they all acknowledged that women in the military face all the problems men face – the danger, discomfort, deprivation, the “hurry up and wait” that is standard military operating procedure. But they also face sexual harassment so regularly, they consider it routine and because that harassment can come from their commanding officers, they hesitate to report it, even, in some instances declining to report rape. Benedict does a good job of making the stories of the women she spoke with both immediate and touching, but she backs up and broadens their individual stories by documentation from many sources including the Department of Defense (DoD) database, journalists, and academic, foundation and medical reports and studies.

The women who tell their stories in this book include Mickiela Montoya, of Mexican descent, from California who became a tank gunner; Jennifer Spranger and Abbie Picket, both white, middle or working class and from the Wisconsin; Terris Dewalt-Johnson, a black Reservist from inner city Washington, DC; and Eli PaintedCrow, a Native American [some names were changed in the book]. Some of them came from a background of abuse and deprivation, some from a fairly stable middle-class family life. Some joined to escape, some as a means of livelihood, some from a sense of patriotism or to please a parent. They served at a time when enlistment bonuses were high, and therefore a real lure, although they are now decreasing. Their stories are all similar, however, once they are in the military where they have to try hard to be one of the guys and prove they can be as tough and physically capable as the men, but being in such an obvious minority (14% of active duty military personnel in 2008 were women, 17% of Guard and Reserves), they are constantly watched by their fellow soldiers. In Iraq it was not unusual for there to be only one to five women in a group 30 men, bunking down together, sharing whatever latrine or bathing facilities there might be. If they were friendly with the men, it could be misunderstood as a come-in; if they tried to keep to themselves as a means of defense, they became isolated and friendless. To go to a latrine at night, a woman is supposed to have a buddy go with her. Sometimes that has to be a man, because there aren’t enough women. That buddy could turn on the woman and sexually assault her. Consequently, many women tried to avoid going to the latrines and ended up with bladder infections and longer-lasting, more serious problems. In addition to the sexual harassment, women of child-bearing age exposed to certain pollutants or forced to accept certain vaccines, have physical ailments which can impact their children conceived even years after service. In ’04 a federal judge ruled that it was illegal to force anthrax vaccination, but in ’05 it became “voluntary” and is used again, resulting in an abnormally high rate of miscarriage or infant illness.

It is ironic that in a quest for equal rights and the ability to serve in the military, women there suffer the most from sexual inequality. In 2007, 8% of reported sexual assaults went to court-martial. In civilian life, by contrast, 40% of men arrested for sex crimes are prosecuted. And as anyone at all familiar with the military knows, what goes on among enlisted personnel is often not reported to the command for fear of reprisal. According to the DoD, 80% of military rapes are not reported. As of late 2011, one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted. The victim is further victimized if she reports harassment or assault, finding promotions, leaves and transfers blocked.

The women in Benedict’s book were not necessarily opposed to war (although in an ‘06 poll, 80% of female military were critical of the Iraq war). Nor did they regret their service. On the contrary, they were proud of what they learned and how they developed during service. It is difficult to figure out how to limit sexual harassment in the military, where it is simply an extreme version of what women encounter in civilian life, particularly in male-dominated trades and professions. But Benedict’s book is very readable and must reading for any woman considering joining the military.