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The Plight of Women Soldiers | The Nation

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The Plight of Women Soldiers

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Editor's Note: This article is adapted from The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press).

About the Author

Helen Benedict
Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War...

Army specialist Mickiela Montoya was standing silently in the back of a Manhattan classroom while a group of male Iraq war veterans spoke to a small audience about their experiences as soldiers. It was November 2006, and she had been back from Iraq for a year, but was still too insecure to speak out in public. Anyway, the room was full of men, and Montoya had learned that a lot of men aren't much interested in listening to military women.

"Nobody believes me when I say I'm a veteran," she said that day, tucking her long red hair behind her ears. "I was in Iraq getting bombed and shot at, but people won't even listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I'm a female."

Montoya, who grew up in a Mexican family in East Los Angeles, served in Iraq for eleven months, from 2005-2006, with the 642nd Division Aviation Support Battalion. She was only 19 back then, but by the time she turned 21 she was as bitter as any old veteran, not only because of the lack of recognition she was receiving as a combat vet but because of the way she had been treated as a soldier--by her comrades, the army and by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many female veterans share Montoya's anger. They join the military for the same reasons men do--to escape dead-end towns or dysfunctional families, to pay for college or seek adventure, to follow their ideals or find a career--only to find themselves denigrated and sexually hounded by many of the "brothers" on whom they are supposed to rely. And when they go to war, this harassment does not necessarily stop. The double traumas of combat and sexual persecution may be why a 2008 RAND study found that female veterans are suffering double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for their male counterparts.

Not many people realize the extent to which the Iraq War represents a historic change for American women soldiers. More women have fought and died in Iraq than in all the wars since World War II put together. Over 206,000 have served in the Middle East since March 2003, most of them in Iraq; and over 600 have been wounded and 104 have died in Iraq alone, according to the Department of Defense. In Iraq, one in ten troops is a woman.

Yet the military--from Pentagon to the troops on the ground--has been slow to recognize the service these women perform, or even to see them as real soldiers. Rather, it is permeated with age-old stereotypes of women as passive sex objects who have no business fighting and cannot be relied upon in battle. As Montoya said about her time as a soldier, "The only thing the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military is a bitch, a ho, or a dyke. You're a bitch if you won't sleep with them, a ho if you even have one boyfriend, and a dyke if they don't like you. So you can't win."

The pinnacle of this derogatory attitude toward women is the Pentagon's ban on women in ground combat, which it reaffirmed in 2006 despite being perfectly aware that in Iraq women are in combat all the time. (Speculation is that President Obama may finally reverse this ban, but it stands as of now.) Because the US military is so short of troops and Iraq's battlefields are towns and roads, women are frequently thrown into jobs indistinguishable from those of the all-male infantry, cavalry and armor divisions, often under the guise of "combat support." They "man" machine guns atop tanks and trucks, guard convoys, raid houses, search and arrest Iraqis, drive military vehicles along bomb-ridden roads, and are killing and being killed. In Afghanistan, too, women find themselves in these positions.

Yet even though more than 2,000 women who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have been awarded Bronze Stars, several for bravery and valor in combat; more than 1,300 have earned the Combat Action Badge; and two have been awarded Silver Stars, the military's top honor for bravery in combat, the official ban continues. This makes it difficult for women to be taken seriously as soldiers or advance in their careers, let alone win respect.

The Pentagon justifies the ban by blaming civilian attitudes. American society, its policy statement says, believes that femininity is incompatible with combat, and will not tolerate the killing and mutilation of its mothers and daughters. Likewise, it argues, soldiers are more troubled by the sight of women being wounded and killed than of men, so will put themselves at extra risk trying to protect women in battle. And finally, women in combat would endanger men because of their lesser strength.

These arguments have been made for decades by conservatives too, but ironically a 2005 Gallup Poll, reported by the military itself, belies them: 72 percent of the public favored women serving anywhere in Iraq, and 44 percent (and here I quote the military's own report) "favored having women serve as the ground troops who are doing most of the fighting."

Not one of these arguments against women in combat has been borne out in Iraq. Any sign of public or media outrage over how many women soldiers are being killed and wounded in Iraq has been conspicuously absent; rather, the press has focused the bulk of its war stories on men, as if female soldiers barely exist, and the same applies to feature films and documentaries. Far from protecting women, many men are attacking them, as discussed below. Studies have long shown that some women's strength matches that of some men, and that women use ingenuity instead of strength where necessary. And there is no evidence that women soldiers add to the danger of men in any way. On the contrary, it is women who are in more danger than before, both from being in battle and from those very men who are supposed to feel so protective of them.

The fact is that military women want equality, and even though not all will choose to join a ground combat unit, just as not all men do, they want the choice to be theirs, not the government's. "War doesn't give a damn what your job is, we're getting killed anyway," said Miriam Barton, an army sergeant from Oregon who served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit. "We're getting blown up right alongside the guys. We're manning whatever weapons we can get our little hands on. We're in combat! So there's no reason to keep us segregated anymore."

The majority of military men do not look down on women as inferior soldiers or sex objects, of course, but there are still too many who do. "A lot of the men didn't want us there," Montoya said about her time in Iraq. "One guy told me the military sends women soldiers over to give the guys eye-candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don't have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead."

Some soldiers and commanders show their hostility by undermining women's authority, denying them promotions, or denigrating their work. Others show it through sexual harassment, assault, and and rape (of which there is a shockingly high rate in the military). These problems occur throughout the military, on US bases all over the world, as well as at war.

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