Helen Benedict: Journalist
Women at War in Iraq
By Helen Benedict
I first saw Specialist Mickiela Montoya in 2006. She was standing silently in the back of a classroom while several male Iraq War veterans spoke about their experiences as soldiers. “Are you a veteran too?” I asked her.
“Yes, but nobody believes me,” she replied. “I was in Iraq getting shot at every night, but people won’t listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I’m a female.”
Mickiela was furious, not only at the lack of recognition she was receiving as a veteran, but at the way she’d been treated as a soldier—by her comrades and the Army.
I heard this same fury from most of the 40 female veterans of the Iraq War I interviewed for my book, The Lonely Soldier. A few were happy with their time in the military, while others said the career had rescued them from dead-end lives. But most said they’d been fighting a double war: one against the official enemy, the other against their comrades.
More American 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; over 592 have been wounded and 102 have died. Yet, even as they increase in numbers, female soldiers are painfully alone. In Iraq, they still only make up one in ten troops, and because they are not evenly distributed they often serve in a platoon with few other women or none at all. This isolation can cause problems that many women find as hard to cope with as war itself: sexual persecution and loneliness instead of the camaraderie that every soldier depends on for comfort and survival. “I was the only female in my platoon of 50 to 60 men,” said Specialist Chantelle Henneberry, who served in Iraq from 2005-6 with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Alaska. She was harassed and assaulted throughout her tour.
The view of women as sexual prey rather than responsible adults has always been part of military culture, making it hard for female soldiers to win acceptance, let alone respect. It is the main reason why women weren’t allowed near a battlefield up through World War II, unless they were nurses, and why they were forbidden to carry weapons until after Vietnam. It is also the reason why the Pentagon bans women from combat today.
The Iraq war has made a mockery of this ban. Because its battlefields are towns and roads, there is no front line and the U.S. military is so short of troops, women are frequently thrown into jobs indistinguishable from those of the all-male infantry and armor divisions.
As the visibility of women combat soldiers is increasing, however, so is the hostility of their male comrades against them. This is happening for many reasons, but most significant are these: War always fosters an increase in the sexual violence of soldiers, and the military is still permeated with stereotypes of women as passive sex objects who cannot be relied upon in battle.
Not all military men see women soldiers this way, of course, but too many do. Nearly a third of female troops are raped in the military, while some 90 percent are sexually harassed.
The question now is whether this dismal picture for military women will change. More women are joining the military today than ever before, driven to it by the devolving economy, an improved G.I. Bill, and the drawdown of the Iraq War. Many of these women will be deployed to Afghanistan. Whether these new recruits will face the same persecution as their predecessors or finally get the respect they deserve as combat soldiers remains to be seen. #
Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, April 2009), which follows the lives of five soldiers from their childhoods, through enlistment, training, war, and home again. Her writings on female soldiers won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism in 2008.