I’ve been coming to your office for probably a decade now, for my bi-annual cleanings and some other minor dental work. I’m fortunate to have a good smile and few issues. One of my first visits there was after coming home from Iraq. I talked to you about the yellowish stains on my teeth—the result of taking an antibiotic for a year, one of the many pills, vaccines and precautions that are prescribed during deployment.
I don’t know if you noticed, but I was nervous as hell at that appointment. You see, doctors make me nervous, so do bright lights. Your exam space is efficient, but a tiny bit claustrophobic for me, and the chair facing the window? Well, that’s not tactical at all. People continuously walked and talked in the hallways at my back—my “fighting position” was useless. A good indicator of enemy activity is the watching the locals. So in you came wearing a perpetual smile. You were then, and have been since, kind, personable and professional. So I assumed there was nothing real to fear; your office was “all clear.”
Then, maybe two summers ago, my post-traumatic stress injury flared up and I had what I’d characterize as a “disgruntled vet” moment in my car in your office parking lot. I was screaming into my cell phone and possibly banging on my steering wheel. I was for a moment, very distressed. And what that all looked like or sounded like (if in fact, anyone at all saw or heard me), is hard for me to know. But I have noticed that the short, brown-haired lady in your office that makes my appointments and checks me in has never treated me the same since. She seems cold toward me, very unfriendly in fact, and in a hurry to rush me from the counter. Could I be imagining this? It’s possible. After all I’ve seen, I believe anything is.
My point in writing to you is this: to raise community awareness of reintegrating veterans. Your receptionist probably doesn’t think I look like a veteran or a soldier; hell I get that everyday. But most of us out of uniform can’t be identified accept by some old and inaccurate stereotypes. Only 1% of the American population currently wears a military uniform, yet there are about 10,000 Guardsmen and women in Iowa alone and as close to Camp Dodge as your office is, I imagine several of them are your patients. For women vets, well, nationwide nearly 300,000 of us have deployed to the Middle East since 2001.
The Veterans Administration cannot give returning veterans everything we need to find our way back home and neither can the military-family community. It’s the people in our workplaces and businesses we visit each day that make such a critical impact.
You see, I got a lot of bars of soap in Iraq in troop care packages. And the fact that I didn’t have to arrange a trip to the Post Exchange to get them was truly a gift. Communities should keep doing that. But if that’s where it ends, we’re failing to take care of those that protect our way of life. I was only deployed for 14 months of my life; I will hopefully have 40 or more years to live.
The lather of this letter is this. If you as a professional doctor, as a businessman, as a community leader, or Iowan, or American patriot want to “Support the Troops,” then what veterans and service members need is respect and compassion in your office, in our neighborhoods, in all the places we meet the non-uniformed citizen. It is, really what each of us owes one another as decent human beings, regardless of veteran status. I think, however, putting it through the “Support the Troops” lens magnifies both the need and the call for action. No one really knows who a veteran is, and no one can tell what each of us has been through and if we’re triggered by something that reminds us of our past in your presence, we don’t want to be judged or stigmatized or ignored. Reintegration is dependent on acceptance. Should your receptionist have witnessed me melt down, she simply could have asked, “Are you ok? Is there anything you need?” And we both would have marched on with our days.
It has been my experience, as an injured veteran and veterans’ advocate that the simplest reasonable accommodations can keep a good day going well, or take a bad day and turn it around. You see, an unfortunately high number of us are still “fighting” everyday and 22 of us each day lose that battle to suicide but, we can all stand up and be counted for doing our best where we’re at to be a part of the cause. If every business leader had this conversation with his or her employees and thought of reasonable accommodations they could activate if needed, can you imagine how communities could be serving those that made a great sacrifice? I think about this all the time.
It’s as simple as asking. Some things you can change, others maybe not. Many veterans with post-traumatic stress injury have light and sound sensitivities. They may need to wear sunglasses or headphones or have an appointment time when the fewest number of patients are being seen. They may need to sit up and take a break in the middle of a cleaning. I don’t know all the solutions—every veteran is unique and most don’t have post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury. Some vets could take offense to being offered an accommodation, even when accepting it may reduce their stress level because we are hard-wired to suffer through a lot of physical and psychological pain. That “toughness” is one of our weaknesses and it makes it difficult for us to seek the help we need.
So, there it is Doc. Writing this letter has kept me up several nights so now your receiving it will have reduced my stress over you knowing these things prior to my next appointment.
(Outside the dental chair I am a freelance writer and the author of All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, the Project Director for the Military Sexual Trauma Initiative at the non-profit group Veterans National Recovery Center and a speaker with the National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau. The folks at Stars and Stripes, Marie Claire, USA Today, Armed Forces Radio and NPR have been kind enough to share my message around the world).
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.
Dear Representative or Senator ____________,
I’m writing to express my need for your support in making changes to the Iowa Code of Military Justice that help protect our defenders at a state level, in the midst of the national crisis of sexual assault against women in the military.
Unfortunately, Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act was not included in the defense bill. But as she and her supporters continue to advocate at the national level, there are still ways that Iowans can take action to protect Iowa’s military team by supporting the Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice drafted by the Veterans National Recovery Center.
It addresses two important aspects: accountability and reporting. 1 in 5 service women are sexually assaulted during their time of duty and 1 in 3 that seek treatment at the VA for any condition “test positive” for MST when surveyed. Our state can do better.
Can I count on your support in co-sponsoring the amendment?
My female veteran friend and lobbyist Miyoko Hikiji is advocating on behalf of the VNRC for these changes because of how she knows both personally and anecdotally how this issue has effected women warriors in our state.
Contact her to get more information at: email@example.com. She will also be at the Capitol, Senate Room 206, next Tuesday January 21st at 10am to outline the amendment and answer questions.
Thank you for pledging to protect our defenders.
Fellow female vet Kristin Delfs asked me about my brooch. Here is (of course) … the whole story. Women veterans don’t have a lot of feminine or fashionable ways to show they served. The hats and tees or actual ribbon bar some men wear on their suit coats don’t work on women’s dresses or blouses. I knew sometime last summer I’d be spending a lot of time talking about my service and I needed the appropriate gear. I went to Sheena Thomas, a jewelry designer, metalsmith and co-owner of Elements, Ltd. She let me talk, and she listened intently. I needed it to be more than pretty; it had to be symbolic too. These are the concepts we came up with together.
1. It’s outer ring and the ribbons inside it are circular instead of rectangular to represent the shape of a woman, with balance and harmony, and how that doesn’t match the Army’s hypermasculine, rigid ideals.
2. The ribbons are not fixed, but are free flowing and dynamic. Instead of being pinned on in a static position to represent one past event, they are meant to show the power of those qualities in the present moment.
3. They are anchored, however, by the U.S. pin, for my country and it’s values will always be my foundation.
4. I picked 7 awards plus my unit award from my 14 decorations (without noting any second awards or devices). They are (left to right): Army Achievement Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Reserve Components Achievement Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Valorous Unit Award.
I can’t resist this final note, for the naysayers (whom I abhor) that claim I destroyed or disrespected military property … the military nearly destroyed me and for much of my career it didn’t give me much respect. I love it still, always will. But I am the commander of my own life now. I decide. And that freedom, which I partly paid for, is my privilege and right to exercise.
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!
Today I had the privilege and pleasure to be part of the Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony at the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa. The event was appropriately filled with ceremony and symbolism: prayers, vocal music, bagpipes, the assemblage of a fallen soldier battle cross, a wreath laying, flag folding and playing of Taps.
The Museum’s Veterans Education & Programs Coordinator Lisa Whitmarsh Peterson schooled us on the history of the day and of the 21 gun salute. Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps, Deputy Commanding General-Sustainment, Iowa Army National Guard delivered the keynote address, paying tribute to Iowa’s fallen heroes and reminding us all of the magnitude of the day.
Then it was my turn. Now I’m not a teacher or an officer, just a dusty old Specialist, so I had two tough acts to follow. But I am a bit of a storyteller. So …
When we start with the numbers, we forget their stories. When we stop telling their stories, we fail to honor their memories, when we fail to honor their memories, we are no longer a grateful nation.
We are a grateful nation. Every citizen that spends a moment in still silence, whispers a prayer, visits a gravesite or attends a remembrance event demonstrates that we are a nation that has not forgotten the sacrifices of the servicemen and women of the United States Armed Forces, or their families or communities that have lost the most precious commodity this country still produces—patriots.
A patriot is passionate about defending the liberties and luxuries of his or her country. A patriot puts the needs of others above self. A modern-day patriot grips tightly to ideals that never go out of season: loyalty, duty and courage.
In the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of fallen patriots total 6679, 70 of those patriots called Iowa their home state, 147 of those patriots were women.
I don’t know how to describe 6679 pair of boots without feet, dog tag chains absent necks to hang from or helmets missing heads. I don’t know how to describe rifles without two hands on the grip and stock. I don’t know how to articulate the heart piercing, soul quieting reverence of Arlington National Cemetery. But nearly that same number, just over 6679 veterans and their dependents are buried there every year.
I don’t know how to talk to you about a number, but I do know how to tell you a story.
Aaron James “George” Sissel was born on Valentines Day in 1981 to Kirk and Joallyn Sissel. He lived in Tipton and graduated from high school in 1998 and enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard the following fall. He did his basic training and heavy vehicle job school at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Sissel volunteered for Force Protection Duty, where he met his fiancé Kari, and me. Sissel worked the overnight shift; I worked the first. When we changed the guard shift over I always noticed that everything was squared away. It was wintertime, so he’d warm up the Humvee, topped off the generator with fuel, cleaned the guard shack, completed the paperwork. Not every guard did this; not everyone cared. And now that the gates of Camp Dodge are no longer protected by body armor and M16s and no terrorist has ever infiltrated its gates, plenty could argue it never even mattered. But it mattered to Sissel; he did things the right way, working hard, being a strong team member. He cared. And all those qualities, along with his easy smile, made him easy to like. He was the type of friend you were glad to have at your side. He was a true patriot.
In 2003 he answered the call again, deploying with the 2133rd Transportation Company to Iraq for a year where his above and beyond the call duty performance was recognized by General Roger Shultz, Director of the Army National Guard at the time, with the General’s coin. But his highest military decorations—the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and Bronze Star—were awarded only after making the highest sacrifice a soldier can make—his life.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 29th and the good people of AAFES had just put out the Christmas cards at our forward operating base’s Post Exchange. It was the rainy season in Iraq, cold and windy and the fine desert sands turned into seas of muck and mud. Everything was a depressed grey.
I was coming from FOB Quinn near the Syrian border, heading north on the main supply route returning from a supply convoy mission. Sissel was returning from a mission at FOB Tiger, driving south on the same road when his convoy was ambushed. Sissel and another Troop’s .50 gunner were killed. Sissel’s co-driver Gottschaulk sustained a debilitating injury as a bullet passed through his ear and exited his eye. I listened to the radio transmissions and messages sent over the movement tracking system laptop. My convoy couldn’t get there in time; neither could the Medevac helicopter.
Sissel died in the northwestern sands of Iraq at the age of 22. He never got to marry Kari and start his family. I did. I have two beautiful daughters now. And I don’t dare take them for granted. I don’t dare act ungrateful for that chances I’ve had in life since returning from Iraq nearly 10 years ago. I don’t dare forget to honor Sissel’s memory by failing to tell his story. If I did, Aaron James “George” Sissel would just be one of 6679. But he counts for so much more than one number. You are not forgotten, brother.
For all the servicemen and women that have died for this great and grateful nation, we honor your sacrifice. We revere and remember your service. Thank you. God Bless you.
On Wednesday, CNN ran a story “Survey Indicates Troubling Trend in Military Sexual Assaults” see link below.
The story cited a 30% increase in anonymous reports of sexual assault in the military between 2010 and 2012–from 19,300 to 26,000. The Defense Department’s response is four-fold: hold perpetrators accountable, create more special victim’s units, better track reports, hasten victim transfers out their units.
But is this plan good enough, fast enough, able to truly protect our nation’s women defenders of freedom?
In the same CNN story, an example of how lack of leadership, empty tough-talk, and pockets of misogynistic culture still reign. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, branch chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program has been removed from his post after being accused of sexually assaulting a stranger in a parking lot while intoxicated.
If he could not learn from his own program, what hope did those he attempted to train and lead have? And could his behavior during this incident happen spontaneously, with no previous indicators of his tendency or history of sexual assault in his past? There were no records of it. But most cases remain unreported. And military organizations are tight-knit. I believe someone knew something about this Lt. Col. Krusinski, yet allowed him to serve in this leadership position. This is not simply problematic–it’s egregious.
The CNN story spotlights one glaring truth: What’s being done, doesn’t work. Rapists do not change their deep, behavioral issues that cause them to commit crimes because they attended mandatory briefings on sexual assault awareness. Would a murderer change under the same circumstances? No. Both are similarly serious crimes. Rape prevention for women, is a form of victim blaming, like the argument to ban women from certain combat units in order to “protect” them from being raped. Rapists are mentally ill and almost always repeat offenders. In order for the military to significantly reduce the number of sex crimes against women in uniform, it needs to turn its focus on men–removing these criminals from their units, jail time, and lifetime ban from further military service.
I have personal experience with this issue, especially the military culture in which women fight not only on the battlefield, but in their units for the respect they deserve that is automatically given to men. I detailed this hostile environment “inside the wire” in my memoir.
I aim to use my experiences and knowledge of a woman’s battle to survive not only war in a foreign land but the terror within her unit in the States to inspire veterans, soldiers, citizens, especially women, to never give up the fight for what is right. We have an obligation to pass on a better legacy to the next generation of women warriors.
This is not a military issue, or a woman’s issue, it’s a human rights issue that should concern all Americans and activate each of us to do our part toward protecting the rights of our country’s citizens.
I feel like I need to approach the physical fitness of women right up front. It’s one of the most common objections to women serving in combat and I believe is probably one of the weakest arguments. My plan is to assault this argument from five sides and then drop a smart bomb direct center.
Picture this: two soldiers are out on the “front line,” advancing on the enemy. Smoke from exploded bombs obscures their view. The enemy is well entrenched in their fighting positions. Machine gun spray erupts. They’re pinned down. They’ve been cut off from their squad; no communication. Confusion. A scream. The female soldier of the buddy team sees her “battle” is down. He’s 6’4” and weighs over 200 pounds. Her 5’2” just over 100 pound frame rushes to his side, but is helpless to shoulder his dying body and retreat to the nearest medic station “in the rear.” He will die because he is was forced to fight alongside a woman who had no business being on the battlefield.
This is the scenario most often recounted to me as the launching pad for an argument against women in combat due to smaller physical size and weaker physical strength. After all, doesn’t this scene make is obvious? Well, not exactly.
First, while the great majority of adults have watched a war movie, less than 1% of adults in the United States are currently serving in its Armed Forces. In other words, this scenario is more like a Hollywood war than a real one. I know a bit about it because I was in that one percent.
Secondly, in my last blog post, I discussed the war fighting operations of the last decade—the battlefield being non-linear, or fluid—the fallacy of a “front line.” Prior to the rescinding of the combat exclusion policy, women were already encountering the enemy and acting as combat soldiers—successfully.
Thirdly, combat operations occur in teams. Squads of eight soldiers or more secure buildings and raid bunkers. Quick reaction forces, or additional teams of soldiers within that same sector, are usually minutes away. Air support, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, function as both firepower and MEDIVAC support. It is not likely that any two soldiers, let alone one man and one woman, be isolated during a combat mission.
Fourth: Combat is extremely technologically based. There has been very little hand-to-hand combat in the wars of the last decade. SINGARS (Single-Channel Ground-Air Radio Systems) on frequency hop allow for the secure communication of information from soldier to operations headquarters to higher headquarters to medical personnel to quick reaction force teams. The MTS (Movement Tracking System) uses GPS technology to map vehicles in convoys and allows for long band satellite two-way text messages. NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) and scopes increase shooting accuracy. The M4 rifle, a shorter, lighter version of the M16, increases mobility of soldiers in close combat situations.
Warfare technology has likely reduced the gender gap that might have existed between men and women due to physical ability alone because both genders can equally master its use. In addition, both men and women can equally assimilate the necessary leadership skills, discipline and mental endurance needed in a war environment. Before a single shot is fired, all these elements must first be in place.
Only now can we evaluate the physical strength differences between men and women. The caveat here is not to note that differences exist (because I fully admit that they do), but to grapple with how much those differences truly matter on today’s battlefield. My fifth point is the distinction of physical differences in combat matter less than what the public collectively assumes.
Also, the military does not train the average of all men and all women, but individuals. These soldiers, first self-selected volunteers, then trained and tested recruits, must pass a set standard of tasks and abilities. So if the standards are met, whatever the Armed Forces deems those to be for each branch and job, a soldier should not be disqualified based on gender alone.
I must digress to two brief sub-points. One is the assumption that all men in the military have greater physical stature and strength than all women in the military. This is simply false. Despite the fact that as a woman warrior, my physical fitness standards were designed lower than my male counterparts, I still was more fit than most of them. Measured by the Army Physical Fitness Test of two minutes of push-ups, followed by two minutes sit-ups and a two-mile run, I did more push-ups, more sit-ups and ran faster than many men. Period.
While almost all of the men were taller than me, they were not all muscular giants and most would have made a poor model soldier for a military recruitment poster. And most of the women, were larger than me too. When we think of men and women soldiers, we often get stuck in the stereotypes—polar opposites—when in fact there is a wide and overlapping range of physicality between genders.
Second subpoint … stay with me, this is an important consideration. If you check the military entrance records of the soldiers of “The Greatest Generation” you’ll find that the average man judged to be fit enough to storm the beaches at Normandy was closer to the size of the average woman in the military today. Men have gotten taller and stronger because of better nutrition, fitness and health care. So have women. Today’s woman is fit to fight today’s wars.
I had this discussion with a radio DJ lately, who admitted—as nearly all men do—that I don’t “look like a soldier.” Well, “that’s why I need to be out in public, telling my story and conveying my message that today’s wars are fought by tenacious women with a feminine look like mine.” But the DJ followed my response with the most poignant argument I have heard yet: “The heart of a soldier is always the same.”
And this hit me square in the chest. You see, there are physical standards, training drills, an entire checklist of tasks and requirements that can be measured. But one thing cannot: the heart. It takes a special person to raise her or his hand and take an oath to willingly defend freedom even at the cost of her or his life.
The Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. This is the heart of a soldier. These qualities cannot be screened for or tested, except in those moments when everything is demanded and there is less than a second to choose. At that moment the most powerful muscle a soldier can rely on is the heart.
Roadside Convoy Security (with non-combatant sheep)
I’ve received some feedback from my recent interviews about the roles of women in combat. And what I’m finding is that over and over again, I’m hearing the same concerns and sentiment. True to my word of wanting my writing to be a forum for discussion, a back-and-forth story about us all, I’m planning a series of blogs on my Website in order to address the most popular objections to a wider audience.
Some backstory: Less than a month ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey rescinded the 1994 rule that barred women from being formally “assigned” to combat units. On May 15, 2013 each military branch will need to make a case for why women cannot serve in any particular military job—previously they needed to make the case of why women could. So the assumption now is that if a woman meets the qualifications, she is not disqualified due to gender. This opens the door for women to potentially serve in 200,000 jobs that had been closed to them.
To me, this is an extremely complex issue. Military laws, regulations, and policies are not widely known by the public and at times the way they are practiced looks quite different on the battlefield than they do on paper.
For example, a “combat” job is partly defined by the proximity to direct combat operations. Previous to the rescinding of the combat exclusion rule approximately 283,000 women deployed to the Middle East in support of the Global War on Terrorism—mainly to Iraq and Afghanistan. 800 women warriors were wounded. 130 died. Clearly, the most problematic aspect of the 1994 rule was that it simply did not keep women out of harm’s way. This is because the ways in which we fight wars has changed.
The battlefield used to be a more defined or controlled space. There was a “front line”—an area in which we engaged enemy forces. And “behind the lines” there was little to no enemy activity, a “green zone,” where logistics, administrative and medical services (jobs traditionally held by women soldiers) were performed. This is no longer the case. The battlefield is “non-linear” or fluid. Sniper fire, ambushes, IED (improvised explosive devices) attacks are executed by non-uniformed, enemy forces along every roadway and outside every FOB (forward operating base) and within every major city. The front line, the battlefield, is wherever there are US or Coalition Forces.
The recent development, until further implemented, simply validates the reality of US Armed Forces operations over the past decade of war in the Middle East. And this I can personally attest to. Though I was, according to my personnel file, “assigned” to a transportation company (which is not a combat unit because it’s main mission is to deliver supplies, not engage the enemy) I was “attached” to combat units that did just that. And while I was deployed, being a truck driver was the most dangerous job in Iraq. Why? We were very large and slow moving targets.
An IED, a bullet, a bomb is gender blind. It maims and kills indiscriminately. It destroys whatever is in its path. That is the reality of today’s wars. And I think we must first accept the truth of the present situation before we can even begin to consider how allowing women to serve in assigned combat jobs may change the landscape of how our military recruits, trains, integrates and operates a joint-gender force.