Women in War and Combat

More women are in the military than ever before, and they want journalists to get their stories right.

This video was produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma from interviews conducted at "When Veterans Come Home," a conference held in Atlanta in 2010, sponsored by Dart Center, the McCormick Foundation and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. For more interviews on this subject, see our Videos on Veterans.

More women are serving in the military than ever before, and with the changing nature of warfare, many of them are in combat. Journalists reporting on their stories need to understand the facts, and at the same time appreciate that every individual's story is different.

Kayla Williams, former U.S. Army linguist and author of Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, talks about her frustrations with the news coverage of women serving in the military. Sonja Batten, deputy director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, emphasizes that gender isn't always an important part of veterans' stories. 


Sonja Batten: Women are being deployed in higher proportions than ever before, because there are more women in the military to begin with now than have ever been before. And so I think that there are a lot of important stories that could be told about the experience of women who are serving in a warzone and, within that, understanding that for some women, they'll feel like their experience was not different than the man's experience, because they were on that sort of virtual frontline every day just like their male buddy was.

For other women, they'll have a different experience. They'll feel like the fact of their gender made them different and made people relate to them differently. So it's important for journalists to really, I think, get into those stories and understand how different women cope and respond to being in a combat situation.

Kayla Wiliams: There are a lot of things that I think that journalists should understand about women serving in the military today and women becoming veterans today.

One of the biggest things is that women are in combat. Although technically women are not allowed to have combat jobs and aren't supposed to be assigned to units whose primary mission is direct ground combat at below the brigade level, the military gets around that by just attaching women. And also given the nature of warfare in in Iraq and Afghanistan today, there is no such thing as a frontline, compared to a rear zone where people are safe and protected. I mean, mortars can land in the Green Zone, so it isn't as if somebody can go to Iraq and Afghanistan and not be in combat. Women have died in combat and been injured in combat. But there's still a lot of confusion about that. I've been asked if I'm allowed to carry a gun because I'm "just a girl." And that lack of understanding can be really frustrating.

Also I wish that more journalists understood how the basic concept of the numbers: the fact that about 15 percent of the total force is made up of women today. It's maybe closer to 10 or 11 percent on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And some of the positives that I feel reporters don't necessarily understand, such as the fact that within the military, women actually get equal pay, which is not true still in the civilian sector. So it isn't a uniformly bad story to tell.

I get really frustrated dealing with journalists who seem to want to portray all women in the military, or all women veterans, just as victims. That it's just so hard for us, that "these poor women have to play in the boy's club; these poor women may be exposed to sexual assault or sexual harrassment," and framing us as victims, when so many of us are proud of our service and feel as if our time in the military made us stronger, made us tougher, made us more disciplined. I don't enjoy being framed as a victim or having this exclusive focus on the negatives when there are also positive aspects of the stories that need to be told.

Additional video by Charles Mostoller and Daniel Johnson-Kim.