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