The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq

A journalist and author tells a story almost no one wants to hear: sexual assault in the military. 

Editor's Note: More American women have fought and died in Iraq than in any U.S. conflict since World War II. And though many regard their service with pride, others experienced isolation, persecution, degradation and sexual assault. In an excerpt from her 2009 book, "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq," Helen Benedict tells their story. In the accompanying video interview, Benedict discusses her reporting techniques and the larger issues facing women in the military. For more interviews on this subject, see our Videos on Veterans.

On a blustery night in March 2004, I joined a small crowd in New York City to honor the citizens and soldiers who had died in the first year of the Iraq War. Among us were children, Vietnam veterans, and a mother whose young soldier son had just been killed; she held his wide-eyed picture up throughout the vigil. Huddling together for warmth, we lit candles and read aloud the names and ages of the dead. After each name, a woman struck a huge drum, making a hollow thud that chilled us more than any cold.

We began with the soldiers: Christian Gurtner, 19. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23. . . .

Once 906 American names had been read, a young man took the microphone and read the names of some of the many thousands of Iraqis who had been killed thus far: Valantina Yomas, 2. Falah Hasun, 9... infants and teenagers, mothers and fathers, toddlers and grandmothers...

It took at least an hour to read all those names, and afterwards the young man explained why he knew how to pronounce them: “I’m a soldier just back from Iraq,” he said, “and we’re being used as cannon fodder. We’re being sent into war without body armor or decent vehicles to protect us. And most of the people who are dying in this war are civilians.”

I was taken aback. This was the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion, and it was unpopular for anyone to criticize the way the war was being run, let alone someone who had fought in it. Surely this young soldier was going to be called a traitor by his comrades. So I began to follow the other few veterans who were speaking out like him, curious to see what they were up against, which is how I found army specialist Mickiela Montoya and learned about women at war.

I first saw Mickiela in November 2006, standing silently in the back of a Manhattan classroom while a group of male veterans spoke to a small audience. Sentiment had shifted by then, and a poll had just been released showing that the majority of soldiers were now highly critical of why and how the war was being fought. Among women serving in Iraq at the time, 80 percent said they thought the United States should withdraw within a year, and among men, 69.4 percent agreed. Wondering how this young woman might feel, I approached her. “Are you a veteran too?” I asked.

“Yes, but nobody believes me.” She tucked her long red hair behind her ears. “I was in Iraq getting bombed and shot at, but people won’t even listen when I say I was at war because I’m a female.”

“I’ll listen,” I said. And soon I was listening to all sorts of female soldiers from all over the country who wanted to tell their stories.

In the end, I interviewed some forty soldiers and veterans for this book, most of them women. The majority had served in Iraq, but a few had been deployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere. I included a variety of ranks, from privates up to a general; all military branches except the Coast Guard; and soldiers on active duty as well as those in the reserves and the National Guard. I thus use the word soldier to mean members of the Marine Corps and Air Force as well as the Army.

Some women had only positive things to say about their service: it had given them a responsibility they never would have found in civilian life, and they were proud of what they’d accomplished. This was particularly true of soldiers in medical units. Captain Claudia Tascon of the New Jersey National Guard, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia at age thirteen and served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, was one of these. “Because I’m more in the curing business than the killing business, I’ve seen the good of what we’ve done. We had dentists and doctors put themselves in harm’s way to help kids in villages. I was in charge of a warehouse, supplying medical and infantry units all over northern Iraq, and I was also supplying the Iraqi army, who had nothing for wounds except saline solution. So I can’t say anything bad about the war.” Then she added, “In the civilian world, you’d never have a twenty-three-year-old in charge of people’s lives and millions of dollars worth of supplies like I was.”

Marine Corps Major Meredith Brown, who comes from New Orleans, was so proud of her service in Iraq that she said she would go back in a flash if called, even though she’d had a child since her return. “If I got killed out there, my son would understand that I’d died to protect him and other Americans from terrorists coming to our backyard.”

But most of the Iraq War veterans I talked to were much more ambivalent. Some praised the military but considered the war disastrous, others found their entire service a nightmare, while yet others fell in between.

From all these women, I chose to feature five whose stories best reflected the various experiences of female soldiers in Iraq, although I have included the stories of others as well. As different as these soldiers are, they all agreed to be in this book because they wanted to be honest about what war does to others and what it does to us. Above all, they wanted people to know what it is like to be a woman at war.

More American women have fought and died in Iraq than in any war since World War II. Over 191,500 women have served in the Middle East since March 2003, most of them in Iraq, which is nearly five times more than in the 1991 Gulf War and twenty-six times more than in Vietnam. And by September 2008, 592 American female soldiers had been wounded in action and 102 had died in Iraq, more than in the Korean, Vietnam, first Gulf, and Afghanistan wars combined.

Yet even as they increase in numbers, women soldiers are painfully alone. In Iraq, women still only make up one in ten troops, and, because they are not evenly distributed, they often serve in a platoon with few other women or none at all. This isolation, along with the military’s traditional and deep-seated hostility toward women, can cause problems that many female soldiers find as hard to cope with as war itself: degradation and sexual persecution by their comrades, and loneliness instead of the camaraderie that every soldier depends on for comfort and survival. “I was the only female in my platoon of fifty to sixty men,” said Army Specialist Chantelle Henneberry, a Montanan who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Alaska.

“My company consisted of fifteen hundred men—Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army—and under eighteen women. I was fresh meat to hungry men. The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men with whom I shared my food.”

This problem is not unique to Iraq, as Sergeant Sarah Scully of the army’s 8th Military Police Brigade discovered in Korea. “I found two female soldiers who looked as though they’d been battered mentally. They had the dead eyes of abused women. I learned that one of them had been living by herself with about thirty men — Americans and Koreans — and had to have a guard placed in front of the shower each morning.”

The view of women as sexual prey rather than as responsible adults has always been part of military culture, making it hard for female soldiers to win acceptance, let alone respect. It is the main reason why women weren’t allowed near a battlefield up through World War II unless they were nurses, and why they were forbidden to carry weapons until after Vietnam. It took the end of the draft for these rules to change, when the Pentagon became desperate for soldiers, but even then women were still barred from ground and air combat, warships, and submarines. Between Vietnam and the Panama crisis of 1989, the Pentagon loosened its rules again, reclassifying military jobs into complex categories that continued to ban women from ground combat but allowed them to provide “combat support” instead, a dodge that effectively drew women into battle without acknowledging it.

A year later, in the first Gulf War, forty-one thousand women were deployed, fifteen were killed, and women became prisoners of war for the first time since World War II. In the aftermath, President Bill Clinton expressed admiration for how well women soldiers had performed and pressed the Pentagon to open more jobs to them. By 1993 women were allowed to serve in several branches of combat aviation and on all military ships except submarines. By 1995 even more jobs had been opened to them, and between 1996 and 2001 women were serving in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia, where they were exposed to as much danger as men.

These days, 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. They are indispensable to the military but are still banned from ground combat.

The Iraq War has made a mockery of this ban. Because its battlefields are towns and roads, there is no frontline, and the U.S. military is so short of troops, women are frequently thrown into jobs indistinguishable from those of the all-male infantry and armor divisions. They are handling eighty-four-pound machine guns as turret gunners atop tanks and trucks, guarding convoys by hanging out of vehicles with rifles, kicking open doors and raiding houses, searching and arresting Iraqis, driving trucks and Humvees along bomb-ridden roads, flying helicopters and bomber planes, killing and being killed.

But as the visibility of women combat soldiers is increasing in Iraq, so, it seems, is the hostility of their male comrades against them. This is happening for several reasons to be discussed in this book, but among them are these: War always fosters an increase in the sexual violence of soldiers. Many men resent women for usurping the masculine role of warrior. And the military is still permeated with stereotypes of women as weak, passive sex objects who have no business fighting and cannot be relied upon in battle. As Sergeant Sarah Scully said, “In the Army, any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed and treated as inferior.”

Mickiela Montoya put it another way: “There are only three things the guys let you be if you’re a girl in the military—a bitch, a ho, or a dyke.”

Not all military men see women soldiers this way, of course, but too many do. Some show their hostility by undermining women’s authority, denying them promotions, or denigrating their work. Others show it through sexual harassment, assault and rape.

“People worry about their loved ones’ encounters with the enemy, but for females, sometimes the enemy eats, sleeps, and works right next to them,” as Air Force Sergeant Marti Ribeiro said to me.

To clarify exactly what so many women soldiers are facing, here are some definitions:

Sexual harassment is the use of sexually demeaning remarks to degrade and mark a person as an unwelcome outsider. Harassment is often dismissed as mere teasing, but studies have found it can cause the same rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women as combat does in men. Specialist Henneberry came back from her year in Iraq so destroyed by sexual harassment that she tried to kill herself.

Sexual assault is any physical sexual act short of rape committed by force or threats. In the military, the threat is usually to demote the victim, ruin her reputation or career, or put her in danger. Most military sexual assault victims are women, but 27 to 30 percent of military men say they receive “unwanted sexual attention” from other men, including rape.

Rape is best defined as a form of torture. It can be committed by physical force or with the use of threats or rank. Under military law, any soldier who uses his rank to coerce a junior into sexual intercourse, whether with threats or bribes, is guilty of rape, yet this is the most common type of assault in the military. In the Army, nearly 90 percent of rape victims are junior-ranking women, average age twenty-one, while most of the assailants are noncommissioned officers or junior men, average age twenty-eight. Rapists are not motivated by desire, but by a mix of anger, sexual sadism, and the need to dominate and destroy (many do not ejaculate), which is what is meant by the oft-repeated but little understood phrase that rape is about power, not sex. Just as the torturers in Abu Ghraib used sexual acts to degrade their captives, so do rapists with their victims.

From the victim’s point of view, rape is torture because it is a painful and violent attack on the most intimate part of your body and an attempt to destroy your dignity and autonomy. Rape and sexual assault by someone on whom you depend — whether a parent, partner, or comrade-in-arms — is more traumatizing than assault by anyone else.

Rape is often committed with threats of murder or mutilation, so those who survive also have to cope with the trauma of having been almost killed. Women soldiers have been punched, knocked unconscious, slashed with knives, and threatened with guns by soldier rapists. They have also been murdered, just as rape victims sometimes are in civilian life. In December 2007, the burnt corpses of Marine Corporal Maria Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found buried in the backyard of a senior officer she had reported for raping her. During the Iraq War, four women soldiers who died of non-combat-related injuries had earlier been raped, and at least fifteen have died in such suspicious circumstances that retired Army Colonel Ann Wright and Congressman Ike Skelton have called upon Congress to compel the military to reopen the cases and investigate. One of the most shocking of these cases is that of nineteen-year-old LaVena Johnson, whose dead body was found on her base in Iraq in July 2005. Her face was battered and she had been stripped, raped, burned, reclothed, dragged across the ground bleeding, and shot in the head. The army initiated an investigation, then suddenly closed the case without explanation and labeled her death a suicide.

Women who survive rape or sexual assault can take years to recover. They feel depressed, ashamed and terrified, blame themselves in irrational ways, and find it hard to trust anyone again. Like combat veterans, they tend to feel emotionally numb, helpless, and fearful, and to have flashbacks and nightmares. They may also develop medical problems such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma, chronic pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, eating disorders, and hypertension. Some become dependent on drugs or alcohol and lose control of their lives: 40 percent of homeless female veterans say they were raped while they were in the military.

The sexual persecution of women has been going on in the armed forces for generations, as decades of studies have revealed. 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. And a 1995 study of female veterans of the Gulf and earlier wars found that 90 percent had been sexually harassed.

The Department of Defense (DoD) shows much lower numbers, but that is because it counts only those rapes that soldiers have been brave enough to officially report. Having the courage to report a rape is difficult enough for civilians, where unsympathetic police, victim-blaming myths, and the fear of reprisal prevent 60 percent of rapes from being brought to light. But within the military, reporting is even riskier. Military platoons are enclosed, hierarchical societies riddled with gossip, so any woman who reports a sexual assault has little chance of remaining anonymous. She will probably have to face her assailant day after day and put up with resentment and blame from other soldiers who see her as a snitch. She risks being persecuted by her assailant if he is her superior and punished by any commanders who consider her a troublemaker. And because military culture demands that all soldiers keep their pain and distress to themselves, reporting an assault will make her look weak and cowardly. For all these reasons, some 80 percent of military rapes are never reported at all.

These barriers to reporting are so well recognized that in 2005 the Defense Department created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office, and a year later offered the option of anonymous reporting to encourage women to come forward. The DoD insists on the success of these reforms, its proof being that the number of reported military sexual assaults rose by 40 percent in 2005 and 24 percent in 2006. “The success of the SAPR program is in direct correlation with the increased numbers of reported sexual assaults,” Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman, wrote to me in February 2007. In fact, nobody can tell whether increases in reported rapes reflect more reporting or more rapes. The only way to accurately measure military sexual assault is to rely on veterans who are no longer afraid to report it, and those studies indicate that nearly one in three women soldiers is sexually attacked by her comrades, while harassment is virtually universal. This means the rate of sexual assault is now at least twice as high in the military as it is among civilians.

Of course, a one-in-three rate still means the majority of female soldiers are not assaulted, nor do they all feel persecuted. Yet, if that many soldiers were dying of AIDS it would be considered an epidemic, as it would if that many rape victims were men.

This excerpt from Helen Benedict's "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq" (Beacon Press, 2009) is reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.