Surviving Within: Helen Benedict Uncovers the Harsh Realities of Women in the Military

Their seclusion, combined with the military's history of gender discrimination and the uniquely challenging conditions in Iraq, has resulted in a mounting epidemic of sexual abuse, physical degeneration, and emotional distress.
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"I'm more afraid of men [in my unit] than I am with the enemy." Those were the words that Helen Benedict heard from several female soldiers. The enemy was within. Since March of 2003, more than 160,500 women have served in Iraq. More women have fought and died during this war than in any other since World War II, yet they still account for one in 10 soldiers. But behind their noble service and love for their country, many female soldiers find themselves in virtual isolation among men. Their seclusion, combined with the military's history of gender discrimination and the uniquely challenging conditions in Iraq, has resulted in a mounting epidemic of sexual abuse, physical degeneration, and emotional distress among many female soldiers.

Author Helen Benedict uncovers the harsh realities female soliders face in her latest book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq. Weaving together the poignant and grueling accounts of the war in Iraq, Benedict offers new insight into the lives of women in the military, before, during, and after the war. The Lonely Soldier was released last month by Beacon Press and I recently spoke with Benedict about her latest work.

What was this work a culmination of? Why was this book started?

I followed the Iraq War from the beginning and I went to a vigil on the first anniversary [of the invasion]. That was when I met my first Iraq war veteran. He spoke about the lack of armor, the mistreatment of soldiers, and the number of civilians being killed. That piqued my interest because I thought that was a brave thing to say when you're in the Army in the climate. I went to a meeting he was part of and that was where I met my first female veteran, Mickiela Montoya, who I wrote about in the book. She said "nobody believes that I was at war because I'm a female." Then I found out one out of 10 soldiers are women and I was struck that we weren't seeing them in the front page, in documentaries, television, or anywhere. They were invisible. So, I interviewed her and she put my on to another military friend, and I went form there, mostly finding soldiers through veterans' groups. The women were very eager to talk to me because they all felt invisible. [So I grew] curious why women would enlist in the military and what it was like to be in combat. I didn't realize how much I'd find out about sexual abuse until I start talking to them. That's not what I went out looking for, although the first thing Montoya said to me "there's only three things the guys let you be in the military 'a bitch, a ho, or a dyke.'" I was hearing that from everyone. I wrote an article for Salon and I got a lot of response to that and a lot of women and men were writing to me saying "I've got more stories to tell" and I found many more soldiers that way.

What is it that the layperson doesn't understand most about women serving in Iraq?

First, you'd be amazed how many people don't know that women are in the military or even in ground combat in Iraq. Everybody still thinks of military women doing paperwork in the back room. I've had people tell me "you mean women are allowed to carry weapons?" Women have been allowed to carry weapons since after Vietnam. It's just astonishing how oblivious much of the civilian public is. They also don't understand how women experience the double trauma of combat and being harassed or assaulted by the men they're supposed to trust.

What were the most shocking things that you learned about women serving in Iraq?

The degree and the prevalence of sexual assault was shocking. The statistics I found looking at veterans from several of the past wars put together showed that 30% were raped, 71% were assaulted, and 90% were harassed. These are studies done with veterans who were funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They were also published in Military Medicine or the Journal Against Violence Against Women. The numbers shocked me. But what also shocked me was how saturated the military is with misogyny. There was the horrible language about women that drill instructors routinely use to denigrate male soldiers. The most shocking of all to me was how many women are punished or threatened into silence when they try to report an assault. The attitudes are really bent on doing everything they can to shut these women up.

One of the things you mentioned early in the book was the amount of distrust between the military, which is a very insular institution, and the civilian world. Is this in any way playing a big role in why the armed forces are not willing to change? Why is that?

Well, in 2005, the armed forces started the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. They did that in response to pressure from Congress, who in turn responded to public pressure after Tailhook and other scandals came up. Most of it was a public relations effort. Although they've done some things that are valuable, such as anonymous reporting. So you could at least get help. There are some efforts. I can't say they haven't tried to do anything, but is it making a difference? It really has to come from within the culture from the top-down and the bottom-up.

In military and civilian life, it seems that men are predominantly the perpetrators against women and men in sexual and physical violence cases. What is being done to teach men to about violence against women and men?

There is prevention training that all recruits [are required to go through] and they just revamped it. It's been going on for a few years, but up until recently, it was a joke. It was like those trainings you receive in your freshman year in college. Everybody just laughs it off. One solider said to me, "we'd watch this and someone would lean over, pinch you on the ass and say 'Oh, I'm harassing you!'" That's was partly because the films perpetrated old stereotypes, like the sexy woman half-asking for it. Apparently, the new films and lectures they show are better. However, how much can you change a culture of misogyny with videos and lectures? It's better than nothing but it's not enough. What they need to do is put into place is real consequences, not only for the perpetrator but for the commander of the unit it's happening in. If the commander blocks an investigation, intimidates people into not reporting, or covers it up, she/he should be punished. We don't have enough of that.

Do many women become disillusioned with the military after they complete their military service?

Some feel horrified, betrayed, feel bitter and traumatized. They can't even go near a VA hospital. They won't go near veterans organizations because they tend to be male-dominated and hierarchical, just like the military. Even the sight of a solider can make someone throw up. But more often, I've found many are completely torn between one side of them that's loyal to the unit and the ideals of the military but they are also infuriated and horrified by the abuse and injustice. They're torn to whistle-blow or to be loyal. If you report the incident, you're turning against your best friends or your family. Soldiers are trained to see their soldiers as their family. It's even more traumatic when one assaults them because it's like incest. That is much more traumatizing than assault by a stranger because the very people you trusted turned against you. You can't go home at the end of the day. You have to live with them. It's a nightmare.

Do many women serving in the Iraq feel that men in the armed forces are a much bigger threat than the Iraqi resistance, Al Qaeda?

I had a lot of women say to me "I'm more afraid of men on the inside than I was with the enemy." I heard that a lot. Not all women feel that way, but I heard it often.

Many authors are using books as a means for social change. Do you see your book playing that same kind of role and if so, what do you hope The Lonely Solider will achieve?

I would like women who are considering the military to read this, so they know what they're going into. I would like it to stimulate true reform and to inspire men to be responsible and not turn a blind eye. This isn't something that's fun anymore. It's all about respect, respecting women and fellow soldiers.

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