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US women in Iraq fight two wars

The Lonely Soldier, the private war of women serving in Iraq, is a book with such disturbing facts that if you had supported the war in Iraq, by the end of reading this book, you will be left questioning it or better yet, enraged, and wanting to take to the streets about it.

The book, due out next month, is written and superbly researched by Helen Benedict, a prolific writer and professor of journalism at Columbia University.

Because of her journalism background, it is hard to hide from the facts she’s gathered through her extensive reporting.  After interviewing nearly 40 women soldiers who returned from tours in Iraq, she settled on five diverse women who were both willing to talk and had compelling stories to tell.

Benedict takes the entire laundry list of what others want to sweep under the rug and reveals patterns of sexual abuse against women.

It is hard to know where to begin when describing the immorality of the military in its treatment of women, starting from how they recruit them, to sending them into harm’s way — I mean the base they will have to live on where they will be unsafe from constant sexual assault from their own soldiers, to the protectionism, blame and demotion they will encounter if they report a rape, to the women’s health issues that get ignored to the point of danger, to the illnesses that women specifically encounter when they come home, or the fact that they are often redeployed on a second tour in the same unit as their abuser.

She writes, “many are forced to wage a second war in secret, ‘against an enemy dressed in the same uniform.’”

Benedict brings up these important issues and highlights the hypocrisies that women have to face today in the US military — like being officially banned from combat unit, yet, in reality, fighting side by side with male soldiers, searching homes or driving the lead truck in deadly convoys. This book seems like it will be the clarion call for change it asks to be on its jacket.

The book opens with Benedict saying that she started hearing returning soldiers speak out against the war at small vigils held in New York City. It wasn’t popular to criticize the war with the nation riding on the emotions of 9/11.

A reporter at heart, Benedict began to follow these veterans who were speaking out against the war. Eventually, this brought her to meeting Mickiela, a young, Mexican-American woman, at which point she started to learn about women at war.

Since March of 2003, more than 160,500 women have served in the war in Iraq, Benedict reports. More women have fought and died during this war than in any other since WW II, yet they still only account for one in 10 soldiers. Many find themselves in virtual isolation among men.

“This isolation,” Benedict writes, “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.”

Mickiela becomes one of the five women who tell their stories in The Lonely Soldier. She talks about the recruiters who  came to her high school in suburban LA, almost a bait-and-wait,  getting kids from poor or abused homes to sign up before they reach their 18th birthday.

Benedict takes you through Mickiela’s boot camp experience, where she had to start changing her personality to cope with the harassment. Mickiela said the army robbed her of her femininity. But this was just boot camp. A lot worse was waiting for her in Iraq.

The stories Benedict tells, she writes, are based on many hours of recorded discussions with the soldiers, corroborated by their colleagues where possible and bolstered by news accounts, their own letters, diaries, photographs and military records of their service. Most allowed Benedict to use their names, except for those still on active duty.

Jen, a young soldier who at one point had the job of guarding Iraqi prisoners for days on end, while they exposed themselves to her, speaks about the double standard with which the prisoners were treated.

“We were taught that prisoners who behaved were rewarded with cigarettes and things. But everything was given to these guys, whether they were sitting there exposing themselves to us for hours or being model prisoners,” she said.

All the sexual abuse she endured both from the prisoners and her comrades took its toll. She talks about what the hate and fear drove her to do. And worse yet, what the hate and fear made her into.

“Jen knew perfectly well how afraid she was, although she would not admit it to herself at the time. She knew that fear, along with the relentless sexual harassment from the prisoners and her fellow soldiers alike, was turning her into someone she could not even recognize,” Benedict writes.

Today, back in civilian life, Jen, along with the other four soldiers, are trying to cope with what happened, what the war made of them.

Physically they have specific health issues because of the anthrax and Depleted Uranium vaccines that were forced on them. Emotionally, they carry the regular scars of soldiers, and the additional scars of having been abused by their peers and superiors.

All struggle with their families, but that’s not the worst. The worst is that they have to fight to get any services from the VA, which are essential if they will ever have a chance to get their lives back together.

Some have given up, bogged down by the impossible paperwork that would be difficult for anyone to negotiate, let alone someone suffering from abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some have spent their years home trying to have their superiors or their abusers brought to justice. Benedict shows how challenging that is. Even if the victim finds the courage to come forward, more often than not the army protects the males.

Benedict writes a comprehensive list of solutions to the problems of women in the army, one of them not being keeping women out of the army.

“In a nation that considers all humans created equal, no one should tell women what jobs they can or can’t do. A military career is often the only path out of poverty and broken homes available in this country, and to deny it to women would be a grotesque injustice,” she writes.

“And just because some men attack their female comrades doesn’t mean that women should give up and go home; after all, women are attacked in civilian society, too, and we don’t expect them to spend their lives locked up in fear.”

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