At a Marine Corps birthday ball 15 years ago, two months after our battalion’s return from Iraq, a tall chief warrant officer and I shook hands. Casino smoke curled; the last thing I recall drinking that night was Crown Royal. Two of our colleagues who’d openly dated in Iraq stood close together, their shot glasses reflecting warm light. Remembering slights to the woman’s reputation, I knew acting similarly was unwise.
The warrant officer had secretly pursued me in Iraq, where he’d been in charge of mortuary affairs. Late that night, after dinner and speeches and booze, I didn’t ask him about his purportedly floundering marriage, his plans for the future, why his guest was a male former comrade instead of his wife. Instead, at my invitation, he followed me back to my room.
It’s a scene that can be viewed from a few different angles post-#MeToo, as former Marine general and defense secretary James Mattis asserts that integrating young men and women in combat requires “a respect for their sexuality.” So I’m revisiting my motives as a young lieutenant, to see if my sense of consent has held. My actions stemmed from more than the drunken foolishness of extended adolescence. They were attempts to gain power and agency in an environment that seemed hell-bent on denying me both.
When I attended Officer Candidates School, our woman sergeant instructor strutted the squad bay, barking our all-female platoon’s three options: acting like “bitches, dykes, or whores.” At boot camp, recruits often internalize drill instructors’ misogyny; the Marine Corps remains only 9 percent female. In 2015, it was the sole service to ask for an exception to women’s integration into combat occupations, after a controversial gender-integration experiment in Twentynine Palms, California, revealed that all-male groups carried heavy loads faster but gender-mixed units demonstrated better problem-solving skills and equal unit cohesion.
The Marine “warrior ethos” espouses pugilism, physical strength, and dominance. Admitting vulnerability—or any feeling, save anger—connotes weakness. And few crimes are more dominance-driven than sexual assault. The Corps has the highest rate in the US military of sexual assault against women—10 percent were assaulted in 2018, which had a 20 percent increase in reporting over 2017, to 835 incidents. Moreover, a 2014 study showed that over a quarter of service members join the military with four or more adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, divorce, poverty, or parental mental illness. To these troops—myself included—becoming a Marine seems like a surefire remedy for a perceived lack of power.
Military training hardens binary gender molds forged in adolescence when nonconformity carries shameful penalties. At my early-’90s suburban middle school, popular girls snickered, “You look like a boy” at my NFL sweatshirt and low ponytail. In playground football, boys carried me down the field after failed tackles, my small arms circling their necks. They treated my stubborn clinging as part of the game—nothing more. Whereas other girls checked out guys from the sidelines, I avoided eye contact, only mentioning crushes in loose-leaf notes folded in triangles and passed to friends between classes.
The popular girls weren’t wrong; I did dress like a boy. My two brothers were 18 months and three years younger; we wore identical T-shirts and shared a pile of socks. Our divorced parents and controlling stepfather simmered our apartment in conflict and rage. My brothers and I banded together. At school, I played defensive tackle.
When two friends conspired to publicize a crush of mine—and my subsequent rejection—to half the seventh grade, I learned a few things from this public-shaming rite of passage: Girls weaponized words. Girls betrayed. Girls exploited emotional vulnerability to wage psychological warfare. I understood physical warfare better. So I made myself more like a boy, adopting a perma-scowl and tackling harder on the playground. Better to talk with boys there, even if only in shouts of one-gator-two-gator-three-gator-four-gator before shoving them to the dirt. Then I could at least be close to them—even if the price was denying everything I felt.
By the time I joined the Marines, I shared my troop’s macho attitudes. As an overachieving workaholic who handled communications networks for our large base, I won praise from colleagues who viewed demure or flirty women as incompetent or “slutty.” The same toxic masculinity that pressures men to be sexually dominant pressures women to appear attractive to the male gaze—then attacks them when they succeed. So when my Marines posted bikini-clad pinups, I joked about assigning a corner to David Duchovny and Heath Ledger. I taught martial arts with swear-riddled innuendo.
Underneath my posturing, I was a heterosexual young woman who wanted romantic connection as much as anyone else. But my wire-rimmed glasses and baggy camo pants hid this. Despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” one colleague inquired if I was gay. Burying the pain of invisibility, I came across as everyone’s snarky sister. If I’d stayed in the Corps any longer than my four-year stint, I would have had bigger leadership roles—and kid-sister vibes wouldn’t have carried much clout.
But the mortuary affairs officer paid me different attention. At first, when he lingered at my phone-cluttered desk, I didn’t notice; I only offered him handheld radios. Soon, he invited me to play late-night chess and drink tea in the base’s small garden. Then the games moved to his plywood-walled room. “Can I be completely unprofessional for a second?” he said one night, having seen me work that sweltering day in a form-fitting T-shirt. “Do you have any idea how sexy you look?”
I compartmentalized my conscience and accepted his advances. Witnessing mortar attacks, KIA reports, and a stream of body bags seemed like a significant basis for a relationship. He gently coached his Marines to perform their gruesome tasks. His room seemed a safe place to discuss my family’s explosions and his father’s beatings and abandonment. Soon we kissed, while stretchers in the outer bay awaited the dead. For a couple of hours at a time, he made me feel seen. And our colleagues’ assumptions about me let our relationship bloom undetected.
At the same time, my troops shared eerily parallel vulnerabilities with me. Sitting on crates behind a switchboard van, testing Iraqi telephone cable, or in my office, I counseled half a dozen men on divorces or breakups—not that I was at all qualified to do so. I began repeating the words of a thrice-married gunnery sergeant: “Just because you have a failed marriage,” he said, “doesn’t make you a failure.”
Still, if caught in an illicit relationship, I could have been charged with conduct “prejudicial to good order and discipline,” according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
After a year, I slowly broke contact, in fits and starts; it took several years. I both grieved the loss of him and internalized the toxic code that assigns all blame for affairs to women, judging myself so harshly I contemplated suicide with my service pistol. I’m not alone in directing pain inward; women veterans have a 250 percent higher rate of killing themselves than civilian women. Therapy and friends’ compassion—my own version of hearing “this doesn’t make you a failure”—helped me recover.
But in the recent shadow of the #MeToo movement, I felt nagging doubts about the decade-old story I’d told myself about my deployment. In our second month in Iraq, when I was sick and he gave me a thermos of soup, was he grooming me? When he’d volleyed dirty jokes in the chow hall, was that harassment? When I lost patience, and he’d simply replied, “But you keep coming back,” was he calling out my complicity, or gaslighting me? When I found out he’d hit on a friend of mine, I hadn’t considered whether he was a serial predator. Though he claimed he loved me, maybe he was just a really good liar. I’ll never know.
Perspectives can change over a lifetime. After much self-examination, and with immense respect for #MeToo survivors, I own my choice to plaster over the gendered shame I felt with an illicit relationship. As lopsided as a romance between a 37-year-old and 24-year-old may appear, I did not feel coerced. Between self-judgment and secrecy lay pinpoints of joy. I view my choices’ context as a triple bind: feminine shame at appearing undesirable, combined with male-coded shame of dishonor, which resulted directly from claiming feminine sexual power. Amid these zero-sum dynamics, there exists no winning path for straight women in a hypermasculine culture. If I’m completely honest, risking shame for an affair feels more satisfying than claiming victimhood, because it lets me feel a measure of agency.
Only after writing about my experiences did I discover how common it was to feel shame at gender nonconformity, invisibility, and illicit relationships. Former colleagues who’d faced similar situations offered support—and thanks. Coming clean about this little-acknowledged undercurrent of military life was worth it to help others feel less alone.
Upstairs in that hotel room on a chilly November night, I thought I had to seek love in secret. But even macho Marines can embody tenderness; watching members of the mortuary affairs platoon in action taught me that. Paradoxically, acknowledging our need for authentic connection gives us the power for which we’ve searched all along.