An Intimate Look at Female Soldiers: Q&A with Laura Browder (PHOTOS)

Author Laura Browder says she was compelled to create her new book about military women when she realized Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England had become the war's most famous soldiers.
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Author Laura Browder has been thinking about women and war.

In 2006 she wrote "Her Best Shot," a historical look at women and guns in America. This year she's back with a sequel to that project: "When Janey Comes Marching Home," a book that tells the stories of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A collaboration with photographer Sascha Pflaeging, the book features dozens of large-scale color portraits of female soldiers, with candid interviews about what it means to be a woman in the U.S. military.

Browder, a professor at University of Richmond, says she was compelled to create the book when she realized Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England had become the war's most famous soldiers. The Pentagon claimed that Lynch had been stabbed, shot and taken prisoner by Iraqi forces; the Army later revealed that Lynch had not been stabbed or shot and that, while missing, she was receiving excellent care in an Iraqi hospital. England, who served at Abu Ghraib prison, was photographed pointing and smirking as prisoners were forced to masturbate; in 2005 she was convicted of mistreating detainees and committing indecent acts.

Browder discusses the importance of Lynch, England and the female soldier experience with reporter Joshua Kors.

Browder: The Army's first story about Lynch was that she tried to fight off her captors, then was taken prison and needed to be rescued. Their version of events was pure fiction. And it embodied this stereotype of women in the military: the damsel in distress. Or, with England, you have the sexually depraved torturer. Those photographs made clear just how much she enjoyed her role. She was everyone's worst nightmare of the female soldier. For me, what those two stories meant is that there were 235,000 female soldiers whose stories weren't being told.

Kors: Women have served in previous wars.

Browder: They have, but never this many and never in these roles. That's part of the issue. People still believe women are not in combat, that they're not real soldiers.

Kors: What are the official limitations on female soldiers?

Browder: Officially they're barred from combat positions. But because of the shape of the current war, where there are no front lines, the ban on combat is meaningless. Women are serving as convoy gunners, doing sweeps of Iraqi and Afghan homes, and there are many positions for which only women are qualified, like doing searches of local women.

Kors: A lot of these soldiers are mothers too.

Browder: Yes. The issue of mothers in combat isn't something our society has really looked at. I talked to one Marine, Jocelyn Proano, who got deployed when her daughter was 1. She said, "When I got on that plane, the Mommy mentality left me, and the Marine mentality hit me." Being a soldier becomes their identity. Jocelyn ended up extending her deployment by six months, so she didn't have to leave her unit. Another soldier, Connica McFadden, she was breastfeeding when she was deployed. When she got back, her daughter didn't recognize her and cried when she was left alone with her.

Kors: They can't deploy you if you're pregnant.

Browder: That's right. In the Army, mothers can't be deployed until their babies are four months old. You have to take a pregnancy test before you deploy too. But of course, you get false negatives. One Marine I spoke with, Maria Holman Weeg, she had a false negative. When she deployed, she didn't have her period for five months--that happens to a lot of women because of the stress--and when she finally got tested again and came back positive, they replaced her. Shortly after that, her replacement was killed by an IED. She said she was grateful to her son for saving her life.

Kors: Did the soldiers say their gender affected their service?

Browder: Most said it did. They talked about sexual harassment, motherhood, the challenges of talking with Iraqi and Afghan men. Often they'd have the male soldiers do that because the men didn't want to speak with them directly.

Kors: The Army says allowing gays to serve openly would threaten unit cohesion. But you'd think adding women into the mix of stress, frustration and testosterone would be much more explosive, like adding a spark to a powder keg.

Browder: Well, one captain did tell me there was so much adultery on base. And then there are those stories of female soldiers prostituting themselves. I talked with one soldier who said you always hear about some lieutenant with a C-bag full of cash she got for making bootie calls. But she thought it was just a legend, another way to trash women in the military. So many women talked about that, how as a woman in the military, they still had to prove themselves all the time. I had a guy come up to me after a talk I gave. His brother was a Marine. He said they were always laughing about serving with WMs: Walking Mattresses.

Kors: Do you think that image of women as sex objects is a remnant of the old macho Army mentality?

Browder: I'd say it's a continuation. One soldier, Paigh Bumgarner, who served as a convoy gunner, she said there was one guy in her unit who was a cop at home and was always telling her that women shouldn't be in the unit. Then he changed his attitude after the convoy came under fire, and Paigh kept a clear head and took charge in a very difficult situation. ... In many ways, things have changed. Remember that up until the late '70s, women in the Marines had to take etiquette classes. They had make-up class in basic training, and they were encouraged to wear gloves whenever they went into town because they needed to present the right image.

Kors: And yet, even with the military's sexist elements, you still have soldiers who are making connections.

Browder: Oh, soldiers would roll their eyes at me and say, you see the most unlikely couples. I talked with a couple of women who met their babies' fathers over there, who are in relationships that started in Iraq. I think the stress helps them form.

Kors: Soldiers always talk to me about their scheduled stress-relief sessions: "Me" time, masturbation.

Browder: The women talked to me about "Me" time too, but I just assumed that they meant alone time, quiet time. (Browder laughs.) I can say this: One doctor I spoke with, she was stationed in Iraq--the Army prohibited her from handing out birth control, but she did it anyway. What that meant to me is that she was being realistic about the soldiers' sexual needs. She also said that some of the soldiers got pregnant as a way to get shipped back home. Kind of the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

Kors: What surprised you most about the women you interviewed?

Browder: How many of them said they wished they could be deployed all the time. That really surprised me. I think they get addicted to the adrenaline. They'd say, "When you're there, everything's clear-cut. Everything's simple." They knew their role. One soldier, First Lieutenant Beth Rohler, she talked to me about being on a base that was mortared all the time. But she knew what she was doing there. She said if it weren't for her family, she'd be deployed year-round. I also came into the interviews with all these preconceptions. I thought the women would see themselves as lonely pioneers or women who were out of place in military culture, victims walking into a lion's den. But the women I spoke with, they saw themselves as soldiers. Most said they fit right in. Their profession becomes their identity. Not being a mother, not being a daughter. One of the women was four months pregnant when we spoke. She said she couldn't wait to give birth, so she could go back and be a Marine. She said flippantly, "If the Marines wanted you to have a baby, they would have issued you one."

Kors: The women you interviewed, are they dealing with PTSD?

Browder: A lot of them are. They talked about driving now in their hometowns, seeing something along the side of the road and panicking because they think it's an IED. Getting into altercations in parking lots at the drop of a hat, short-term memory problems, weight gain. One became anorexic while deployed. She was working in mortuary affairs, processing remains for burial. She processed 900 remains in six months and became disgusted with meat, then with food altogether. When she got home, she gained 40 pounds to compensate. Then there are the anger issues.

Kors: Being a mother must really complicate that. A lot of the men tell me that when they're about to explode, they leave the house, get themselves away from their children, and come back when they're ready to deal. Women don't have that luxury.

Browder: No, they don't. And it's a huge pressure on them. The women who talked most openly to me about PTSD weren't mothers. The mothers I spoke with were more flip about it. "Oh, my daughter's a pain in the ass." Or, "Oh, sometimes you just need to get away." Some said that when things got bad, a friend or boyfriend would take their child for a bit. It's a hard topic to talk about because it's so charged. In our culture, if you're a bad mother, you're a failure. And yet a lot of these women got into the military because they were mothers. I talked to several who had children with health problems, and they joined the military to get health coverage for their kids. One had a child with a genetic syndrome that caused facial tumors. If your child needs surgery and you don't have an education, joining the military is a good way to get medical care. Many mothers were really torn up about leaving their kids and the effects their deployments had on their kids.

Kors: Did you hear a lot about divorce?

Browder: Constantly. One woman said that her husband told her, if she reenlisted, he'd divorce her. And she did, so he did. Another thought she had a happy marriage. She got a "Dear Jane" letter while she was deployed, and her friends moved all her stuff out of the home she shared with her husband. When she got back to the States, she had to use Mapquest to find out where she lived.

Kors: What do you want to achieve with this book?

Browder: We want to give a voice to these women. There are so many different stories, from the soldier whose biggest memory was running the nightclub on base to the woman who kicked in doors and manned the prison. One woman drove seven hours to speak with me. That really shocked me. These women want their stories to be heard.

Update: Browder's interviews and Pflaeging's photos will be on display at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery till September 5. For more info on the Janey project, and more photos of our female soldiers, visit

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