U.S. News

05.26.14

The Names You Don’t Hear: Nearly 200 Women Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan

A former Army journalist remembers a memorial service for “Butter-Cup,” a soldier killed in Iraq, and the untold sacrifices of female service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Here, First Sergeant,” said a soldier of the 418th Transportation Company.
“Here, First Sergeant,” said another soldier of the 418th Transportation Company.
“Specialist Katrina Bell-Johnson,” said the First Sergeant.
A suffocating silence filled the Sustainer Theater on LSA Anaconda in Iraq.
“Specialist Katrina Bell-Johnson,” said the First Sergeant.
The sound of weeping soldiers punctured the silence in the theater. 
“Specialist Katrina Bell-Johnson,” said the First Sergeant.

There was no response.

On February 16, 2005, U.S. Army Specialist Katrina Bell-Johnson was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq. Nearly 10 years ago, a few days after Bell-Johnson’s death, I walked into the Sustainer Theater on LSA Anaconda in Balad to write an article about a woman who lost her life. My job, as an Army photojournalist, was to get the hard facts of a soldier’s death and cushion them with a portrait of a woman who volunteered to go to war.

As I, a 20-year-old Army Specialist, made my way up to the front of the theater, a frequent target for enemy mortar rounds, I watched hundreds of service members fill the empty seats. The only sound inside was the soldiers’ weeping and gasps for air that echoed off of the concrete walls. A pair of Bell-Johnson’s small, dusty desert boots and her M16 were displayed on the dimly lit stage. The men and women she served with in the 418th were in mourning as they let go of one of their own.

When I spoke with the soldiers of Bell-Johnson’s unit, I learned that she was married and had given birth to a daughter, Gabrielle, two months before she was deployed to Iraq. She was known for her positivity, cheerfulness, and sweet demeanor. A soldier who had faith in her leaders and who would always accomplish the mission. The stories trailed off at the firing of the three-volley salute and as Taps began to play. That unescapable silence again filled the room and I tasted blood on my tongue as I bit inside of my cheeks to keep myself from crying out loud.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2011, I visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The memorial, the only one of its kind in the country, sits at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery. Inside its walls is the story of the 2.5 million women who have served—in some capacity—from Iraq and Afghanistan back to the American Revolution. In the memorial sits a three-ring-binder which contains the bios of the women who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I visited, around 140 female service members had lost their lives. Some had been killed by hostile fire. Some were killed in accidents. Some were killed by improvised explosive devices. All died serving their country.

As I studied the pages in the binder I read each woman’s name. I made sure to look at their age. Some were 18, some were my age, and some were in their late 40s. I stopped turning the pages when I came across the bio of Bell-Johnson. She was smiling, hair pulled back neatly in a bun, and 32 at the time of her death. I thought about her daughter. I stared at her photo until I began to feel tears rolls down my cheeks.

She was smiling, hair pulled back neatly in a bun, and 32 at the time of her death. I thought about her daughter. I stared at her photo until I began to feel tears rolls down my cheeks.

On every Memorial Day since 2005, I have thought about Bell-Johnson. The images from her memorial service and the faces of the grief stricken soldiers she served with are etched into my memory. But her sacrifice—like many of the women who have served and lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—are seemingly absent from our narrative.

When we do hear the stories of the women whose lives have been lost in the current conflicts, they are rarely remembered with phrases like, “went down fighting” or “died for her country.” Their story of their service is often overshadowed by the triumphs and sorrows of their male counterparts. Despite their sacrifices we still have a hard time accepting women as fully part of the war effort. It can seem as if, when a female soldier dies, she’d gotten lost and just wandered onto the battlefield. It’s almost as if we mourn them differently altogether. They sit in a binder, at a memorial visited by 200,000 annually at the head of a cemetery visited by 4 million annually, waiting for someone to turn the page.           

At the end of Bell-Johnson’s service a Staff Sergeant from her unit spoke, "It is my pleasure to have known Specialist Bell-Johnson and to have served beside her," he said. "So Specialist BJ with the call sign of "Butter-Cup" sleep on and take your rest." It was a send-off for their friend and fellow soldier. A message that—with an exchange of a name—can be spoken of the nearly 200 female service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this Memorial Day, I will visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and mourn their loses by acknowledging their triumphs.