From today’s press conference:
Over the past two years, we have watched the highest ranking officers in almost every branch of the military with sexual assault prevention assignments, dismissed from their duties for committing crimes of sexual assault and harassment that they were supposed to provide the leadership and training to prevent.
Over the past 12 years, we have watched women service members come forward with their personal Military Sexual Trauma stories, from inside the wire of the forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and within the gates of military bases and training school here in America.
Eighteen of those women, featured in the military rape documentary “The Invisible War” sued the government for its system of handling MST cases that stripped their constitutional rights that as military members they’d sworn to defend for others. Their case was dismissed, citing that “rape was an occupational hazard of military service.”
Meanwhile, every military commander and politician on camera has echoed the same sentiment: zero tolerance.
That phrase has been put to the test, and it has failed, miserably, year after year after year. This is not just the military’s problem or a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue. Every person has the right to live and work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment, predation, assault and rape.
Our country has some big numbers to face: between 360,000 and half million service women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their military career which is at least 1 in 5 women in the military. 1 in 3 women that file a claim with the VA for any reason, report Military Sexual Trauma when asked. Maybe only about 15% of MST incidents are reported. But that report rate has increased by 50% in the last year alone.
What does our state face: the VNRC hasn’t found any solid data. But we’re certain that Iowa is not too far outside the national trend. In fact, the proposed MST Amendment would make it a military leaders “duty to report” MST incidents, therefore allowing us to begin tracking the status of MST crimes in the Iowa Guard and Reserves. That’s a powerful start. From a survivor standpoint, it explicitly protects her (or him) from retaliation. And for a perpetrator, it holds him accountable for his crime in civilian court, with a conviction that cannot be overturned by his chain of command.
I honorably served my country in the active duty Army and Iowa Army National Guard from 1995-2004, including one tour in Iraq. I was a victim of both military justice systems that ignored my reports, threatened my career and protected my perpetrators. You see, it didn’t matter that MST was a relatively small issue when it happened to me. It didn’t matter if I was 1 in 3 or 4 or 5 women traumatized during my military career or if I was part of only 8 or 15% that chose to report it. What counted was that it happened at all and that my chain of command appeared to have a systematic method to ignore and conceal my report and re-victimize me in the process. What is crushing is that the greatest professional Army in the world and one of the most ready and well trained Guard units in the country, made me one of its own—a sister among brothers, trained and battle tested. Proud of the uniform I wore. And from within the tightest woven threads of trust and loyalty, it unraveled everything it had taught me to believe in.
And I’m not alone. Whenever I speak about my military service, at women’s groups, book clubs, service organization meetings and veteran events, one woman will stay afterward to tell me her sexual assault story. At almost every event.
Military Sexual Trauma is NOT an occupational hazard of the military. It is not simply the by-product of women training, living and fighting alongside men. It’s not about young people, in an isolated and emotionally charged environment, being indiscreet. MST is NOT about normal, consensual sex. It’s a crime of coercion and power that is a temporary pain of the body and a lifetime disfigurement of the soul.
The MST Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice is an opportunity for our state to lead the nation’s charge against this egregious crime, to take action against perpetrators that do not stand for the values of the Iowa Guard and Reserves, and to protect the women and men that voluntarily give their best and if necessary, their life, in faithful service.
Only 1% of our citizens wear a military uniform, yet all of us enjoy the benefits, luxuries and liberties paid for by their sacrifice. We owe them more than we can ever repay. But we can start, with the MST Amendment today.
I’ve heard from several members of the Veterans Affairs Committee that there is no Republican or Democratic way to treat veterans, just a right way. And the MST Amendment is a right step.
Last week I drove out to Van Meter, Iowa, where I’m scheduled to deliver my first Veterans Day speech of the year: Friday, November 8th at 0930 hours. It’ll be in the school’s gym—a K-12 facility that is both the pride and center of the community … the kind of community that when I stopped at the Casey’s General Store to ask for directions I got, “follow the road into town, around the bend, you’ll see it on the right.” It’s just that simple.
Van Meter, population just over 1,000, is only about a 20-minute drive west from where I commune with 200,000 others living in and around the state’s capitol. Now it seems trite to say driving to Van Meter was like a going “back in time” or to “another world” and inaccurate as well, for the community didn’t feel “behind the times” or strange at all. It was more like a smaller version of everything good and right in the Heartland.
Now I don’t want to idealize, but it’s only fair to brag a bit about this small Iowa town where one morning I stopped, breathed and just let things be. It’s an easy place, and quiet, and it reminded me of why I’m proud to be an Iowan and an American, living at the core of our country.
Now they say nothing is more American than baseball and apple pie. I didn’t find any dessert (there’s always next Friday) but I did pass the Bob Feller Museum. For those of you that don’t know, I was admittedly one of them, Bob Feller made his major league baseball debut in 1936 at the age of 17. Fans and players recall “Rapid Robert” as having a helluva fastball and TIME magazine agreed, putting him on one of its covers that following spring. NBC Radio covered Feller’s graduation from Van Meter High School in 1937 and in 1962 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 18 loyal seasons with the Cleveland Indians was interrupted only by his Navy service during WWII. Feller was the sole provider for his family, but was so compelled to join the war he waved his draft deferment, becoming the first major league player to join the service. Feller died three Decembers ago at the age of 92.
Van Meter is also home to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery. About 100,000 veterans live within about an hour’s drive of the location, where groundbreaking took place in 2006. Funds for the state-run burial grounds came from the State Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, by the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration whose history dates back to 1862. It was during the Civil War that Congress recognized the need for designated resting places for soldiers that died serving their country. If you’ve ever been to Arlington you’ve had the privilege of experiencing our nation’s grandest gesture of gratitude for its heroes. And the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, well, it’s simply our version—smaller geography, same gratitude and honor.
A school staff member greeted me at the door when I arrived and walked me to the office to check in. My “tour guide,” special education teacher Colleen Tendall, showed me the gym and how it would be set up—marching band in this corner, students over here and veterans bused from the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown in front of the bleachers here.
“People from town will show up too,” Tendall said. “Everything happens here. We’re one of those schools that still says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.” I like those schools, I thought to myself.
We visited the student coffee shop, peeked into the cafeteria and cruised down the halls decorated with dozens of construction paper spiders and autumn leaves. I could hear tiny voices burst from tiny tots in the kindergarten room as their hands waved excitedly ‘pick me, pick me.’
It’ll be the first year in the school Veteran’s Day assembly tradition that a woman will speak. What will I tell such a diverse audience in such short time? I took one last glimpse into the gym on my way out, imagining the faces and their reactions to my attempt over the sound system to inform, inspire and entertain.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, teachers, parents, fellow veterans … (readers):
When I was 18 years old, and coincidentally knew everything, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Iowa. It was small and simple and there was never anything to do. I saw a commercial on television, two men riding on a tank, the “Be All That You Can Be” Army motto flashed across the screen and I thought, “Yes! I wanna do that!” Three weeks later, I landed in the red dirt of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training. While I was doing pushups and sweating and marching and picking cockleburs out of my socks and firing an M60 machine gun and shining my boots and screaming “Drill Sergeant, yes, Drill Sergeant” my senior class was adjusting pushup bras and sweating and dirty dancing in fashion heels and popping blisters and throwing glitter and screaming “We don’t need no education” while firing off bottle rockets in the parking lot. Essentially we all had basically the same senior torture—mine just lasted longer, I got to wear more comfortable shoes and I was hanging out with all the hot guys. <<fast forward>>
Over the next nine years I sojourned in four states and three countries. I met and conversed and ate meals and prayed with soldiers and citizens from all across the States and the Middle East. And in being about 6,000 miles away from the corn fields and hog confinements, I learned a few things about Iowans that I didn’t know when I was living among them.
First, Iowans are truly some of the friendliest folks around. Strangers to our ways often label our immediate kindness as weakness. But I see our gift of hospitality as strength. We are willing to be vulnerable in order to offer help because it is the right thing to do. It’s just that simple.
We offer good help. The year I was deployed to Iraq, I served in an Iowa National Guard unit. Our job during the war was to transport supplies and troops and supplement the security missions of other units. We kept watch in towers, trained Iraqi Border Police and guarded enemy prisoners. But back home our full time jobs included electrician, farmer, plumber, fire fighter, teacher … dozens of other jobs and skills and knowledge bases. So when the active duty units at our forward operating base needed help repairing or implementing something for their living quarters they knew to come to “Hawkeye Company.” That was our nickname—sorry Cyclones from the western part of the state. I’m a Cyclone grad myself but none of that mattered there. We were in Iraq as Americans first, then Iowans. After that, it didn’t seem to matter. It was just that simple.
In Van Meter, 2013, I’m not that far from where I started my adult life and military career 18 years ago. Things look different to me now that I realize I have a lot to learn. Iowa, from its small town to its larger cities, has enough art and culture and entertainment for a lifetime. Ten years ago when I deployed to Iraq, Iowa was the one place I couldn’t wait to get back to. So many of the people in its communities still believe in and live by the values I came to understand in the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. It’s an amazing place to live. It’s just that simple.
Now a brief morning time speech that ties that reflection together for a diverse audience: not that simple. So if you want to see how it’s done, you’ll have to plop yourself down in the bleachers among the crowd on Friday November 8th. The full speech will appear as a blog after the event. Here’s your teaser: There will be a test, after all it’s mostly school kids. There will be four questions. Three answers will be ideals that begin with “to be.” And because it wouldn’t be fun without a visual aid, expect a stuffed, striped bumblebee to be a part of it all. It’s a great day to “bee” an Iowan! Happy Veterans Day!
June 7th, two weeks after the official publication date of my memoir, I had a book launch party at the Gold Star Military Museum on Camp Dodge, in Johnston, Iowa. It was a evening of eat, drink and be merry. The guest list included the mayor of the city of Johnston, the state’s former and current public affairs officers, the museum’s board of directors, officers from my American Legion Post 663, actors from The Peak Agency, fellow writers, friends and family. Outreach Pastor Craig Ferguson of New Hope United Methodist Church provided the invocation and professional singer Sarah Stallman sung one of the most beautiful renditions of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. Museum Curator Mike Vogt, “the best pilot I know” who provided the foreword in my book, told the audience about the museum and introduced me. This is what I said:
I hope that this event brings a touch of inspiration to your life tonight, because I am standing here as evidence that dreams can come true. Now they don’t always and they don’t automatically, but they can. And that tiny word “can,” gave me just enough conviction to decide to deploy to Iraq three days before the end of my enlistment contract, just enough resilience to get me through 403 days away from home, just enough hope to start a book that nearly everyone I talked to said would never be published, just enough faith to trust that God designed it all for a purpose higher than what I could ever anticipate.
“Be All You Can Be,” the Army slogan from 1980-2001, the slogan that drew me in on commercial breaks during M*A*S*H and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather—two of the only television programs I watched growing up. I’m not sure which had a deeper influence on me, Rather’s reporting, his trustworthy voice and presence delivering what I assumed to be God’s truth, or Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, the undeniably brilliant surgeon that never could quite play by the rules.
“Be All You Can Be” was the Army’s slogan for 21 years and for good reason. It worked. It inspired a nation of young people to become their best by entering into military service; what really could be more truthful. It certainly was for me.
Three years in the active duty Army, five years in the National Guard and one year deployed to Iraq made an indelible print on my life. That impression, like a fingerprint, shares characteristics with other military members’ impressions, including putting the mission above all, being prepared for and efficient in all working conditions—indoor or outdoor, physical and mental—adapting and overcoming in order to get the job done, never giving up, being a good leader and team member and always, always keeping that “can-do” spirit.
Yet my experience, and reflection back on it, like a fingerprint is unique to me. My story, “All I Could Be” a title derived from that old Army slogan, cannot begin to tell the whole story for women in the military or the entire truth of the 2133rd Transportation Company that I was deployed with. I accepted that limitation from the sketching of the first draft because of the benefit, I believe, that has come and will continue to develop from the final draft.
One benefit is that it starts the conversation. It’s a line of dialogue, a single descriptive scene, a character portrait that asks the reader first to walk alongside me for a while, endure the gritty desert environment, explore the uniqueness of the female soldier experience, envision the destruction of war and feel the camaraderie, friendship and love of the brother and sisterhood. It reminds the reader that young people go to war and while making the mistakes expected of their years, they also become hardened and old and wise beyond their years.
Many of you know that during my deployment part of my sanity was kept in recording my days in journals, letters, pictures, a mission log and calendar—hundreds of pages, thousands of details and memory joggers—that helped me piece my story back together one chapter at a time over the eight years following my deployment. Aside from my personal notes, when I wasn’t driving a truck, I worked as the designated unit correspondent. I wrote Family Support Group updates, the company newsletter, stories for my Squadron’s newsletter and penned a few articles for an Iowa newspaper. I completed all the required hours of my journalism internship while deployed and the public affairs officer of the Regiment choose me to be interviewed by Geraldo Rivera, a moment of excitement that I woke up at 0300 for that never even aired.
But I was not deterred from finding my place in front of the camera or in the sun. And that just enough conviction and resilience and hope and faith, well, it originated far before my military training. My story is not a new story, it’s a continuation from generations past that grew up from the sturdy roots of my parents. They passed to me a legacy of hard work and cultural literacy that I am responsible for carrying forward until my daughters are able to take it over.
Grace and Noelle, my two beautiful daughters, about to turn three and four are home playing with Dad tonight. Now they love books, but my husband and I both agreed they should not read mine until they are about 14. I hope they are proud of their mother that day they finally read it. To Tom, I reserve the utmost respect and admiration for. Being a writer’s spouse (I now think) must be something like being an officer’s spouse—it’s a lot of behind the scenes, tiring, often undervalued and thankless work. Tonight I recognize how his sacrifices contributed to my success and I will be forever grateful to him for that. To my family here tonight, my mother, my brother Lonnie and sister-in-law Lori, thank you for your support. To my fellow veterans, writers, artists, church members, friends: thank you for being here and for sharing in the pinnacle event of this book journey with me.
Be All You Can Be. It’s a motto that doesn’t require all of us to become doctors or generals or astronauts or best-selling authors (though some of us it will), but it does demand that we embrace our individual destiny. It insists we take our unique gifts and talents, add our hard work and dedication, deposit generously into the dream accounts of others so that combined with a little bit of magic, we can all rise to our very best, to further the larger story, pass along a greater legacy, and fulfill our part in life’s ultimate design, a plan we will never be privy to or fully understand.
But we don’t need to read ahead to the end of the book in order to be the author of our own lives. We need only enough light for the page we’re on.
[Thank you to everyone in attendance and those that were present in spirit for your encouraging words and generous support. When I was discouraged, your faith became the necessary footholds along my route to the publishing summit. I will be grateful, always, for each of you.]