The first line of Army veteran Ryan Leigh Dostie’s military memoir Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line is, “A few hours before I am raped, two officers in a bar try to corner me and steal my panties.” Dostie’s jarring cold open sets her apart from the warrior-poet sentimentality of her male war-writer peers.
Male war veterans—myself, for example—can write about blackout drinking as youthful sowing-our-oats. Maleness affords the privilege to present wartime vices as high character. In a man’s war story, the worst commanders are merely bumbling nuisances, and dirtbag comrades just clowns to be ignored.
War earns those stories for women too; but Dostie reminds her readers that a woman soldier’s fellow troops and leaders often become the closest threat—mentally, physically, sexually, or in cover-their-ass apathy toward a woman’s worries.
Dostie’s Army career began in 2001 as a 19-year-old linguist; later she was sent to Iraq for 15 months, among the first post-invasion occupational forces in early 2003. The book goes into great detail about that chaotic period, but the first 75 pages of Formation deal with Dostie’s 2001 barracks rape by a fellow soldier, and her indictment of the subsequent failure by her leadership to adequately investigate the crime—and in fact, often mock and disbelieve her.
It is an unpleasant experience to read Dostie’s first-person account of her own violation. To quote any excerpt of the assault itself feels exploitative. It’s sickening and visceral.
Of course, my library is full of violent books about war that I’ve quite enjoyed. Matt Gallagher’s memoir Kaboom opens with a dog chewing the corpse of a car bomb victim; David Bellavia’s House to House begins with men crawling through a trench full of shit; the first pages of C.J. Chivers’ The Fighters drops the reader next to an Afghan woman with her legs blown off, surrounded by bodies of her dead children. When I was in Iraq in 1991, we came upon a blown-up Iraqi troop truck, and I took a picture of the driver’s torched corpse. Poor bastard burned alive, trying to crawl out the shattered front window. I felt bad, but I still framed the image perfectly, for my scrapbook. All stories of what war looks like.
So if I’m rattled by Dostie’s opening scenes, I’m just choosing what war-related violence I’ll tolerate, which is no small level of hypocrisy.
Formation is about a woman’s Army life, and her war stories, and all the ugliness that entails. If it’s a different kind of ugly than a man would experience, that’s not the book’s problem.
To Dostie, part of her war against an evil enemy, not morally different than ISIS, looks like this:
“Now I’m on my stomach, face smashed into the faded blue-and-white striped mattress… there is a man behind me, kneeling, weight back on his heels, hands on my waist, gripping tight to the flesh, ramming himself into me… This isn’t supposed to be happening.”
In her manuscript’s early drafts, Dostie placed the rape at the end. That choice would not have worked, and a college professor correctly suggested she begin the book with that graphic impact. Just as Gallagher, Bellavia, and Chivers chose visceral imagery of blood, guts, and shit to grab the reader, Formation is Dostie’s turn to make a horror work for her.
“I always thought my first line was really powerful,” Dostie told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t think it would rattle the reader, so maybe I should have considered that? But I wrote all this without considering that people were going to read it, and now that it’s starting to occur to me, it’s a little nerve-wracking.
“But I did think the first line would keep people reading, so I guess I considered the reader a little bit.”
Her faux-humility is a little disingenuous. Some Iraq sections of her book were workshopped in Dostie’s MFA classes at Southern Connecticut State University, so of course she is aware of how different parts connected to readers. The section dealing with her rape, however, was only seen by limited audiences.
It’s a bold choice, putting that scene out there without feedback from even compassionate classmates. Dostie said her editor and that college professor stoked her confidence that the story would work.
Formation works very well, maintaining an aggressive, fast-paced momentum for most of its 300 pages. Dostie covers a large scope of her pre- and post-war experiences, as well as an unromantic view of military life, stateside and at war. It’s a woman’s experience, but one traveled on parallel tracks by many men.
The book’s timed right for the #MeToo era, presenting what demeaning harassment and unpunished crimes look like from the woman’s point of view. Nevertheless, Dostie will absolutely get pushback from those who see Formation as focusing on the negative—yet another woman whining about hard times.
“In a sense, that’s all war literature is. If women are complaining about sexual assault, men are complaining about getting shot at. Both are legit, significant experiences,” she said. “But I don’t think society dismisses male war stories—society lets them shine.
“The male veteran gets to have an enemy that isn’t American. It’s very black-and-white, which society loves—Star Wars, the Marvel movies—and a lot of male writers get to build on that. The women’s experience is sometimes grey: The good guys might be bad. Society isn’t used to that message.”
Even in sympathetic classrooms of graduate students, her writing experienced that casual pushback.
One Iraq section, workshopped in her class, showed Dostie and two other women showering underneath a large water bladder, when they realize several male soldiers are silently staring.
“Hands laced behind their heads, they are grinning, watching… I shy away to the side, acutely aware of the fat around my stomach… I assume that Locke and King, with their svelte forms, must not really mind, but Locke’s brow is pinned together, back purposefully turned away from them… a few of the men in the row clap as we walk away.”
One classmate, a Navy veteran, couldn’t understand why such low-grade ogling merited Dostie’s attention—he didn’t see the big deal.
If I had been in that MFA class, I might—no, I would—also have wondered why, out of all her war stories, Dostie wrote about some guys staring at her. The women weren’t naked—they only rinsed their hair under the water tank spigot. Who cares?
I would have praised the writing and her use of specific detail, and then laughed and said she should have taken the whole incident as a compliment.
In the book’s full context, Dostie’s discomfort comes across much stronger. It’s no longer an anecdote but one of many events where women are “othered” by their fellow soldiers, objects for amusement, and not equivalent warfighters.
So her Navy vet classmate—and myself, in that setting—would be guilty of a lack of empathy. Of not seeing that entitled gaze through the experience of another.
To her credit, Dostie turns this critique on herself, writing a scene showing that other side:
“One of the males leans forward, pouring his canteen over his newly shorn head, the water… trickling down his spine… working off the uniform trousers that hang low on his hips. We’re enjoying the show, but… revenge doesn’t work if they don’t know we’re here. ‘That’s right, baby!’ Lovett cups her hands around her mouth to project her voice… He snaps awake and jumps backward, out of sight…‘They can’t take a fucking joke,’ I try, but the words don’t fit right.”
I had a hard time understanding the male soldier’s shock—why weren’t they flattered? But I’ve never showered under the secret gaze of strangers.
“I think we took them by surprise. If it had been longer, there might have been a little back-and-forth. If you caught a guy alone, he was less likely to be aggressive or vulgar—overall, not always,” Dostie said.
The fundamental difference between the two scenes is that the women yell at the showering men, while the other men stared in silence at Dostie and her showering friends. Strange to say, but it’s a difference in inclusion—the women, lewdly or not, invited their targets to participate in the joke; the men didn’t.
After Dostie’s return from Iraq, she transferred to Fort Gordon, Georgia, a sleepy training post without many deployable units. In 2004, most soldiers hadn’t yet been to Iraq or Afghanistan. They didn’t know that everybody would get their turn.
“At the time I got back, we were the biggest shits ever,” she said. “We really felt we’d changed Iraq. Only because it’s been a few years, can I reflect and say, ‘Well, maybe not.’”
The mark of a “real” soldier is the right-shoulder combat patch worn after returning from a war zone—the permanent patch of whatever unit you deployed with. I remember my own pride sewing on my own combat patches after Desert Storm.
“People treat you differently,” Dostie said, “and you feel very good being treated differently.”
That’s not a man’s story, or a woman’s story. It’s an Army story. At Fort Gordon, Dostie writes, “When a guy from Strategic tries to get too mouthy with me I sneer at him, ‘Suck my dick, kid.’ He startles and scampers off for less hostile prey… We are the few and get to pause when a higher-up attempts to correct us, to glance at their shoulders, to raise our eyebrows when that space is empty, when they have no war to speak of.”
Despite the rape, the war, the terrible ass-covering officers, the rotten system that pushes problems under the rug, the post-rape, post-war PTSD that still crawls through her mind like a spider, despite all that, Formation is an account of Dostie—and lots of women veterans just like her—getting what she went for.
“That sense of adventure, being different, is what calls people. Women get that calling too. The book shows my love for the military,” Dostie said. “It’s not like I want Iraq back, but you want that excitement of anything can happen. That feeling of doing something big, even if it didn’t end the way you wanted.”
The last 50 pages of Formation cover her continuing struggle with PTSD and how it lingers in unexpected ways, whether from the rape, or Iraq, or all of it put together. One job was as a year-long substitute teacher, and while she doesn’t write about it, she recalls the short breaks between classes being filled with breakdowns and tears, before gathering herself and standing before the kids again.
The action of the classroom was no problem—the teaching, the watching, the questioning, the answering, the controlling, the maintaining.
It was when the action stopped that her mind grasped to fill the void. In that silence, PTSD is the brain telling you to worry, that something might be out there.
But that unsettled weariness doesn’t have to be PTSD, or even dramatic at all—for some, it’s just a hazy ennui.
As a reporter in Iraq, I met a woman attached alongside an infantry company, responsible for searching women and children. She kept stuffed animals in her backpack to try and keep the kids calm; a cynic could focus on the teddy bears, and marginalize her experience and importance—but, just like the infantrymen, she was on the 2 a.m. raid on an insurgent bombmaker’s house.
I talked to her after the war, when she had returned to her main job as a tank mechanic; she hated the boring life of the motor pool after a year of midnight missions. How could anything compare?
She filled the space with roller derby and competitive bodybuilding. When they opened the infantry to women, they meant those like her, the ones who don’t ever want to stop.
Dostie intends for her next literary attempt to tell a fictional story of women like the one I met, who found themselves working alongside the infantry on all sorts of missions. Dostie plans to fictionally follow four women of different perspectives, through their pre- and post-war experiences.
“That’s a missing link for war stories,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like anybody talks about those kinds of women.
“There are plenty of infantry stories—and those are very powerful and important—but the landscape seems to have no women,” she said, “and it perpetuates this idea that we were always in the periphery.”
My own Army career began where Dostie’s ended, at Fort Gordon. I never thought of women in the periphery because I was surrounded by women from the start—my supervisor, a chain-smoking Master Sergeant, had originally enlisted into the Women Army Corps; my five co-workers were all women in their twenties, some married, pregnant, divorced, all in the Army because, why not? They wore makeup and decorated their desks with stuffed animals, but they all gave off a different vibe than any woman I’ve met since. After watching my awkward small talk with a pretty legal specialist who kept showing up at the office, one of them finally asked, are you gay, dumb, or just stringing the poor girl along, because it’s one of the three and we’re sick of speculating.
They accurately assessed teenage-me—generally well-meaning and innocent. An amusing side project.
For a time, my roommate in an off-post apartment was a woman of the ancient age of 25, reassigned from West Germany with no interest in returning to barracks life during her enlistment’s final months. I was tired of my low-ranking requirements to buff hallways, so when she trolled for someone to split the bill, I bought in. The apartment was fake adulthood and blackout drinking. She cut a sexual swath through my better-looking friends, the tall, muscle-bound lunks up for fun, without a teenager’s usual whininess and expectations. When we gossiped about her—and we did—nothing in any recess of my memory remembers it as disrespectful. If anything, we stood in awe of how her desires came with a breezy confidence.
She enjoyed her summer of bemusement and funny memories before she left the Army for real life, the end of the adventure.
As Dostie writes, “A few weeks before my ETS date, I see a video of myself in uniform, a rarity in the days before smartphone, and I’m a little shocked by what stares back at me. The woman on the screen carries a slanted grin… and I’m a little defiant, legs spread as if to make space for my swinging dick… I want to say ‘who is that girl?’ but that’s no girl.”
With much of Dostie’s life still in flux, Formation offers no clean resolution. She is married with a daughter, and even for all the grim events, the narrative is often a conventional military story told through the uncommon lens of a young woman’s Army experiences.
In her class workshops, “I was surprised by responses to little comments I didn’t think were that big a deal—like being told to call our parents on September 11,” Dostie said. “Civilians were sort of shocked by our age.
“Readers really honed in on how young we were.”
Young men and women like Dostie wear the uniform and shine their boots, pack unpredictable baggage in duffel bags and memories.
Formation brings back names from my own Army days, faces frozen in their youth: Bastedo and Benzschawel, Rogers and Rowe, Wartberg, Dubnicka, Latapolski, and Vaile, Covey and Minecci, Delleo and DeMeo. Masculine or feminine to me; to the world at large, a mystery.