04.13.09

The War Against Female Soldiers

In an exclusive excerpt from The Lonely Soldier about women serving in Iraq, one soldier describes how she protected herself from relentless harassment from her male comrades.

The next afternoon, Specialist Montoya, as Mickiela was now known, reported for her first day of work. Her title was automated logistical specialist, military gobbledygook for supply clerk, a job both dull and riddled with chickenshit. “We’d get a shipment, and you’d have to scan everything, and then manually put the digital number into the computer for the inventory, then track it from there to the storage area.... I hated it. We had to deal with a lot of aviation people who were spoiled and a lot of high-ranking people who wouldn’t go through the proper procedure. And we worked the longest hours and days, with no days off because we were always short of people. It sucked!”

“If the men are threatening, harassing, and even attacking you like this, where does that leave you in the middle of a battle?” Almost all of them gave me the same answer: Alone.

But more difficult was the harassment from the men, which she found even worse than it had been during training. As one of only five women among 24 men in her platoon, and an even smaller ratio in the company at large, she felt as if she were always on stage. “You know how I told you there are only three kinds of female you’re allowed to be in the military—a bitch, a ho, or a dyke? Well, in the beginning I was considered a ho ‘cause I was nice to people. Then, I realized what they were saying about me, so I became a bitch. I wasn’t mean, but I had to change so nobody would think I was flirty.” Then she echoed the words I’d heard from Abbie and Marti Ribeiro: “The people over there didn’t even know who I was, ’cause I always had to put on an act. And a lot of the men didn’t want us there. One guy told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don’t have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead.”

Both male and female soldiers commonly blame the prevalence of rape and sexual assault by soldiers in Iraq on the lack of prostitutes, an idea not exactly discouraged by the command. Even after forty years of research debunking the notion that rape is caused by pent-up lust, the military still promotes it, for to do so is useful: It keeps women fearful and blames them for provoking rape, thus letting men off the hook.

Part of keeping women fearful is the idea of the battle buddy. As at Camp Arifjan, the women at Speicher were told never to go anywhere at night without a battle buddy for protection. Ironically, because there were so few women, that buddy often had to be a man. (“Battle buddy bullshit,” as military policewoman Caryle Garcia said about this arrangement. Chantelle Henneberry, the Army specialist who served alone with 50 men, said, “My battle buddy was my gun and the knife in my pocket.”) At the end of Mickiela’s shift one night, she was walking back to her trailer with one of these so-called buddies, when he turned to her and said, “You know, if I was to rape you right now, nobody could hear you scream. Nobody would see you. What would you do?”

the-lonely-soldier-book-cover
The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. By Helen Benedict. 280 pages. Beacon Press. $26. ()

“I’d stab you,” she shot back.

“You don’t have a knife,” he jeered.

“Oh yes I do.”

“Actually, I didn’t have one,” Mickiela told me a year later, “but after that, I always carried one. I practiced how to take it out of my pocket and swing it out fast. But I wasn’t carrying the knife for the enemy, I was carrying it for the guys on my own side.”

So many women soldiers told me they carried knives for the same reason that I began to ask them, “If the men are threatening, harassing, and even attacking you like this, where does that leave you in the middle of a battle?”

Almost all of them gave me the same answer: Alone.

Excerpted from The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Beacon Press.

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