This week’s news that the Pentagon is lifting the ban against women in ground combat is giving many military women cause to celebrate. It recognizes women as equal to men and opens more careers to women throughout the military. Yet the lifting of the ban should bring attention to another, darker side of military service for women: the prevalence of sexual assault—and the conundrum it poses for women, and for journalists trying to expose it.
Women have been in combat for a long time, although it took the media a while to notice. For the first few years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, newspapers and television largely ignored the women among the troops. Once in a while, readers and viewers would see images of a mother in uniform hugging her child goodbye, but other than that, the American public would have been hard pressed to remember that women were fighting. Plenty of documentaries, front-page stories, and even feature films came out about the war, but most had no women soldiers in them. Hurt Locker? Not a woman in sight.
The two big exceptions to this were notorious: Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch, dramatically “rescued” from her Iraqi hospital in 2003 after driving into an ambush; and Private Lynndie R. England, who became infamous in 2005 for leashing and torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. This presented the public with two images of women soldiers: the pathetic blonde in need of rescuing, and the dark-haired, perverted sadist.
Neither image, history has subsequently shown, was accurate. By Lynch’s own account, she was no prisoner in need of rescue, but a patient in an Iraqi hospital, being tended by local doctors trying to keep her safe. As for England, it came out in trial that she was in the thrall of her boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, who was convicted of leading her and several other soldiers in the torture and humiliation of prisoners. At England’s trial, a psychologist testified that she was mentally impaired.
Meanwhile, by 2009, six years into the war, more women had already served, fought, and been wounded and killed in the Iraq War alone than all American wars put together since World War II, including Afghanistan—a fact I never found reported by the major media, even at the height of the Iraq war. By now, some 283,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 1991, some 1000 have been wounded, and at least 150 have died.
Because there is no front line in today’s wars, women are drawn into fighting even if their roles are officially designated as only combat support. If you are driving a truck full of toilet paper when your convoy is ambushed, you must fight back like everyone else.
Furthermore, because of the shortage of troops in the first years of the war, women were constantly thrust into jobs they were not legally supposed to have, particularly in Iraq. I’ve talked to dozens of women who were gunners atop Humvees and gun trucks, who raided houses alongside the infantry, manned machine guns on watchtowers, guarded police stations and prisons, and worked with the infantry when the chaos of war made their jobs interchangeable. Yet, they were still not being recognized as combat soldiers.
When I began interviewing veteran women in late 2004, I found most of them furious at this invisibility. “I was in Iraq for 11 months getting bombed and shot at, but people won’t even listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I’m a female,” said Specialist Mickiela Montoya, who served with the Army in Iraq from 2004-5 guarding a base checkpoint. “We don’t get the recognition men do,” pointed out a female Army sergeant from Oregon, who served in Iraq as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit from 2003-4. It was a sentiment I heard expressed by women many times: nobody waves any flags for us when we come home.
Then, in 2005, a new story about the military emerged: sexual assault. The Denver Post published a series of interviews with veteran women who had been raped by their comrades while serving in the wars before 2003, echoing earlier but forgotten stories about sexual assault and cover-ups in the military academies at Tailhook and Aberdeen.