The women who joined the military after 9/11 probably didn’t know about the degrading marching cadences that had been chanted on various bases across America for decades:
. . . I wish all the ladies were bells in the tower.
If I was the hunchback I’d bang ‘em on the hour.
Singin’ hey bobba-ree-ba, hey bobba-row . . .
Few people outside the military had ever heard them. But even if the female recruits had caught these rhymes, it might not have mattered. For women enter the military for the same reasons men do: to escape a dead-end life, it’s a job or simply because they are patriotic and want to serve. Yet as Helen Benedict documents in her important, finely drawn book, “The Lonely Soldier,” many find out they’re fighting two wars: the one against the official enemy and the one against their male compadres. To use military jargon, the situation is “FUBAR” -- and shows no sign of letting up.
The statistics alone tell the harrowing story: As Benedict reports, “women comprise 14 percent of all active duty forces, 11 percent of soldiers deployed to the Middle East, and over 17 percent of the National Guard and reserves. In 2003, a survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans from Vietnam and all the wars since, who were seeking help for PTSD, found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving.” According to the Department of Defense, these numbers are lower, but as Benedict notes, in the military culture of sucking it up and punishing whistle-blowers, women do not always file official reports.
To give a face to this war, Benedict includes portraits of five women who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 -- a broad range of the population, not because the author went out of her way to present diversity but because, in the military, that’s the way it is (at least more so than in other areas of society).
So we meet Native American Eli Painted Crow, the part-Yaqui, part Mexica/Apache who followed a long line of warriors into service. Yet it was not just the warrior tradition that led Eli to Iraq. She also wanted to escape her violent, alcoholic husband -- himself a veteran of Vietnam. At 20, with two kids, she joined the Army long before Sept. 11, ultimately deploying to Kuwait in 2004, enthusiastically learning Arabic and studying the culture only to be accused of faking illness (her uterus was bleeding) to get out of the war after 22 years of service.
There is also Mickiela Montoya, who grew up with her grandmother in Rosemead. “Military recruiters were a common sight in the hallways of Rosemead High,” Benedict writes. The man who recruited Mickiela was married and in his mid-30s, and he drove to the school in a new car with the windows down and hip-hop blasting. He flirted with Mickiela, Benedict writes, and had sex with one of her friends. Benedict says that recruiters exploited many young women, raping some in recruiting offices and assaulting others in government cars. (It should also be mentioned that a new report finds an increasing suicide rate among Army recruiters, under pressure to replenish the tired ranks).
When Mickiela’s grandmother died, the girl lost her anchor and stopped going to school. But she became disgusted with herself and wanted to take pride in something. “I imagined telling my grandchildren one day that I’d done something to protect the country,” she told Benedict. So she joined the Army, at 17 -- too young to sign the papers, but the recruiter didn’t care. “We do this all the time,” he told her as she forged her mother’s name. “Don’t worry about it.”
Once in Iraq, she learned of a disturbing situation: Female soldiers were being ambushed and raped at latrines, and some would not go to the bathroom for days to protect themselves. To accompany them, “battle buddies” were assigned. “If I was to rape you right now,” a buddy told Mickiela one night, “nobody could hear you scream.” She saw her knife as the best battle buddy a girl could have, fearing she might have to kill another soldier to save her life.
Among Army soldiers and Marine recruits, Benedict writes that half of the women and about one-sixth of the men say that they were sexually abused as children. How abuse victims act out in times of conflict must be taken into account when deciphering this entire situation -- and certainly these statistics may shed light on abuses elsewhere in the country. In fact, the question of torture so dominates the discussion of the Iraq war that the military campaign against women may join Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome as barely mentioned collateral damage that will plague some veterans for the rest of their lives. There are bills and solutions pending, enumerated at the end of this book. Yet it’s clear that when the World Trade Center collapsed and opened up a hole without end, demons were unleashed, and when they will finally come to rest is anyone’s guess. Singin’ hey bobba ree-ba, hey bobba row.
Stillman is the author of several books, including an updated edition of “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave.”