A high point of Kayla Williams’s service as a noncommissioned Army officer in Iraq was receiving a commendation for her support on missions in Baghdad. Low points included getting molested by one of her own men and being asked to mock a naked Iraqi prisoner in an interrogation cage in Mosul.
Riding a line between woman and warrior, “bitch” and “slut,” Williams, 31, was not alone. The Bush administration’s “long war” has forced the military to shock integrate more than 180,000 women into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years. The consequences have been both impressive and ugly and do little to put to rest decades of debate over women in combat.
Critics say the rush to put women into combat-related roles for which they weren’t trained has made them more vulnerable, exacerbated male-female tensions in theater, and advanced a controversial policy while most of the country wasn’t looking.
“We have large numbers of women who have been willing to come into the Armed Forces, who are willing to do jobs for which we have a shortage of young men,” says one retired Army colonel, now in the private sector, who declined to be identified because of his ties to the defense community. “I think the women under these circumstances do the best they can.”
Veterans who have spoken to TAC say most female soldiers have exceeded expectations. But the experience of the largest contingent of female soldiers in modern history is not unclouded. The rate of single motherhood among women on active duty is 14 percent, and nursing mothers are being deployed four months after giving birth. Reports of sexual assault are climbing, as are suicides and the number of women—now over 36,000—who have visited VA hospitals since leaving the service. As of February, 102 female soldiers had died in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Army, which represents most women in theater, won’t release figures on how many are evacuated from the field due to noncombat injuries, illness, or pregnancy.
“Whatever they are able to conceal or cover that’s not attractive—whether it’s unplanned pregnancy, rapes, whatever—everyone is prepared to pretend what is happening really isn’t,” says the retired colonel.
The drive to integrate women into every crevice of the military—the “ungendered vision” advocated by Duke law professor Madeleine Morris, a former assistant to Clinton administration Army Secretary Togo West—has created turmoil in Washington since the 1970s. And since then the number of women in the Armed Forces has increased dramatically, from 7,000 in Vietnam (mostly medical personnel) to over 40,000 in the Persian Gulf War to one in seven of our troops in Iraq today.
Thanks to Clinton-era liberals—like former Rep. Pat Schroeder and women-in-combat pioneers like Army Assistant Secretary Sara Lister, who was forced to resign in 1997 after she called the Marines “extremists”—new roles opened to women in the 1990s. Formerly all-male military academies and basic training programs turned co-ed. Today, tens of thousands of women are flying combat aircraft and serving as military police, gunners operating MK19 grenade launchers, interrogators, and prison guards.
Officially, women have not yet ventured into combat, held back by critics who argue that putting them into armored cavalry squadrons or rifle platoons will threaten unit cohesion, weaken standards, and increase injuries, hurting overall force strength. But advocates of full integration insist that women can hold their own on men’s terms. Making them “legitimate” will help transform military culture and bolster unit cohesion.
These arguments are academic, for women are in combat today. While the Bush administration initially appeared less interested in integration than its predecessor, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the miscalculation of the subsequent insurgency and civil war, and the desire to wage a global terror war have made it impossible for the all-volunteer force to function without women in combat roles. Reality has taken over.
But if this and future administrations want to continue waging protracted asymmetrical wars with multiple fronts, wars in which everyone—not just combat troops and Marines—has to be on point, the negative consequences of shock integration will have to be acknowledged and addressed.
“In 2004, 2005, and probably in 2006, commanders were jockeying for resources,” says retired Col. Janice Karpinski. “There was this increase of women in a variety of positions they’ve never been in. They did very well. They were wounded, they had their limbs blown off, shot into the sky. They needed to be there, if [only] for their numbers. If we removed every female, you would have to have had a backwards draft.”
Young men home from war are pragmatic about the women who served alongside them. They don’t hesitate to tell of their bravery—the female Chinook pilot, for example, who flew night missions under fire to rescue teams in the mountains of Afghanistan—but they are blunt about the stories that rarely make headlines: sexual mischief, the pretty specialist who left one day and never came back, the rumors of rape never confirmed.
Jason Hartley, who served as an infantry sergeant in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, says the way the military dealt with the new atmosphere created by integration was much like the execution of the war policy overall: confused, inconsistent, reactionary. “Everything gets f—ed up and broken. Then you step back and study it,” says Hartley, who published Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq when he returned from the war.
Studying the consequences of shock integration can be slippery. Grim anecdotes are abundant—but so too are tales of transcendence. There is a lack of hard data, as it is impossible to measure the number of illicit romances, the impact on a team when an affair turns sour, the lack of response when a woman asks for help, the women who are afraid to ask, the alcohol-fueled encounters, the sexual harassment, the male resentment toward female commanding officers.
“We’ve had six years to study this, but as far as I know, nobody is,” says Kingsley Browne, a law professor at Wayne State University. Browne has written a book, Co-Ed Combat: New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars, which pieces together interviews with soldiers and what little information has slipped into the public domain. “The military has consistently glossed over problems and denied them, denied access to information that could reveal problems,” he says. “To a large extent it is in nobody’s larger interest to reveal that information.”
Media coverage has been spotty and safe, though most women in the military prefer to be left alone with their M-16s and cigarettes rather than become subjects of iconic—or worse, pitying—stories about their sex. Television, where most people get their 30 seconds of war news a day, has avoided all but the most superficial discussions about women in combat and has reduced the narrative to three stories: those of Jessica Lynch, Lynndie England, and Janice Karpinksi, whose sunken eyes betray a 30-year career that ended in disgrace. She characterizes her experience as losing ten rounds with the glass ceiling.
Lynch became, for a shining moment, the face of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was also the military’s first and last awkward attempt to spin the women-in-combat story for public consumption. A petite blond teenager from a military family, Lynch was severely injured when her supply truck was ambushed by Iraqi fighters on March 23, 2003. Her best friend, Lori Piestewa, a single mother who left two toddlers behind, died from her injuries that day, the first woman killed in the war.
Yet the administration preferred a live hero to a dead one, and Piestewa became a sidebar while Lynch and her West Virginia family were used as patriotic props. Soon after her rescue by U.S. Special Forces, almost every angle of Lynch’s daring resistance and rescue was disputed, even by Lynch herself, who testified before Congress last year that the government had engaged in mythmaking at her expense.
By the time photos surfaced showing Lynch cavorting topless with her fellow soldiers on base, she had been all used up.
The next time a female soldier penetrated the American consciousness she was holding a leash attached to an Iraqi detainee. Elfin and eerily detached, Lynndie England, 21, was pregnant by fellow reservist Charles Graner, the alleged mastermind of their military police company’s notorious sex parties and the grotesque menagerie of photos that led to scandal in 2004. England and several other soldiers were shown abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, posing them naked in pyramids, giving that infamous “thumbs up” alongside their corpses.
Graner, who allegedly manipulated England into staging all sorts of sex photos before and during their deployment, is still in jail. England is on parole, facing a future-crushing dishonorable discharge. She remains a curious example of women who attempted to fit in and went dangerously astray: in a 2006 interview with Marie Claire, the lifelong animal lover recalled how she and her fellow soldiers found humor in toying with animal carcasses in the desert.
Karpinksi, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib along with 14 other detention centers, was a brigadier general, the highest-ranking woman in Iraq when the scandal broke. “Not one of my units were trained to perform prison operations in a combat zone,” she says, “None of them.” She recalled one male commander’s attitude: “Women made their own bed, let them lie in it.”
Maintaining that the mistreatment of prisoners was sanctioned from the top, Karpinski says she was made a scapegoat, partly because she is a woman. She was demoted a year later. “They made me a pox on our history,” says Karpinski, now an Army antagonist.
She notes that partisans in the old integration debate have been oddly quiet. “Where is the National Organization for Women? Where is Hillary Clinton? Where is Nancy Pelosi?” she asks, adding that the women who encouraged other women to “be all that you can be” are now abandoning them to the wolves. “When we have women who come back bruised mentally and physically and have nowhere to go, it’s too late to say, ‘We should have.’ It needs to be done now. Not ten years from now.”
Women have different ways of dealing with the pressures of the pack and of battle stress, and the massive forward operating bases in Iraq have become Petri dishes teeming with strange sexual dynamics and juvenile diversions.
“You got these women in huge, walled garrisons that are getting mortared all the time,” says former Sgt. Rick Scavetta, 34, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the military in 2006, “not to mention you have large numbers of men, who aren’t bad guys, not immoral or indecent, but you put men who’ve been in combat for a year in this small container and shake it up with IED blasts and mortar blasts and it makes for a unique environment.”
Another former Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan reports a similar scene. “You have a bunch of males on the base and a small female population. Then you get downtime. Then things start to happen. It’s just like high school. Then you have females who ruin the reputation of the other females. It can be very debilitating.”
Hartley describes a situation in which his quick reaction force was called up and found to be three men short. It was surmised that the missing soldiers were “hanging out with a chick who had a room right next to the staging area.” “We left,” he continued, “sans three dudes, including our 50-cal. gunner. It was bad.”
In the 2005 scandal at Camp Bucca, sergeants were accused of lending their rooms for sex parties and arranging mud-wrestling contests involving topless female prison guards.
Thanks in part to the behavior of a minority, says Bethany Kibler, 27, a noncommissioned officer in the Army reserves who spent a year in Iraq, women must fight doubly hard against shopworn stereotypes like the idea that they wield their sexuality to win special treatment or get pregnant to avoid service. This leads to “a sort of female hate.” To overcome this, most women in the military act tough and tend to be judgmental of each other, she says. Many women feel compelled to keep up with the men, to act like their sisters. But in such permissive, stressful circumstances, that armor is easily breached.
Kayla Williams, who wrote proudly about her Iraq experience in Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, says that between the six- and eight-month mark of her 2003 deployment, “there was a general breakdown in military bearing and professionalism” among her team in the field. Fellow soldiers started flipping out, others got their kicks from telling rape jokes. Williams didn’t care much when she was called a “bitch” in a heated moment, but she lost it when a fellow soldier tried to force her hand onto his penis in the dark. She reported the incident, and he was transferred. But the damage was lasting.
“I felt somehow betrayed,” she admits and, conversely, “like I had somehow led … to this situation.” She worried that because she had tried to be a pal, she may have sent the wrong signals. She eventually succumbed to being “the bitch” rather than “the slut,” the dichotomy women say is the male code. “It was difficult and lonely,” Williams says.
Sexual assault reports across the Armed Forces increased from 1,700 in 2004 to 2,947 in 2006, then dipped to 2,688 in 2007, according to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Reporting Office at the Pentagon. In the Central Command region, which includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, there were 206 reports in 2006 and 174 in 2007.
Anita Sanchez of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit that has an arrangement with the Pentagon to provide immediate care to rape and assault victims in theater and also serves veterans stateside, says the government’s official data seems “a bit low” in her experience.
“[The incidents] are going up significantly,” she says, and not all are being reported because women still avoid coming forward. They expect the male leadership to close ranks around the accused, or they fear getting transferred or, worse, branded. She charges that “there are ongoing reservations about the DoD’s ability to collect, maintain, and analyze the data.”
One former sergeant, who served in Iraq in a public-affairs unit before leaving the military, says it is in the Army’s best interest to “cover up” the ugliness. “They just don’t want to admit it’s a hostile environment against women,” he says. Army officials flatly deny such charges.
Barbie and Matt Heavrin aren’t sure. They were told their 21-year-old daughter was killed crossing the street on base in Iraq on April 4, 2006. They found out later, as the Washington Post recently reported , that their daughter, Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney, a young mother herself, was killed when she fell out of a Humvee driven by Sgt. Damon Shell, who accidentally ran her over and left her mangled body in the road. The two had been drinking and having sex earlier that evening.
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness doesn’t buy the idea that poor leadership and training and inconsistent boundaries are to blame for today’s problems. She insists the troubles stem from throwing men and women so close together in the first place. She would start rehabilitating the situation by insisting that the Army stop illegally collocating women in support brigades with all-male combat units in the field—a practice Army officials deny is even happening.
“We have to figure out what is the best way, the most constructive way, to have a co-ed military,” says Donnelly. “To the greatest extent possible you have to acknowledge that sexuality does matter.”
“Women have done very well,” she adds, “But it’s very disturbing that the signs of trouble and problems have not been given objective review. Our Congress has turned its back. The Pentagon has made excuses.”
Men and women home from the war acknowledge that there are many questions from the old co-ed combat debate still unresolved, despite years of experimentation.
Williams, who has traded her rifle for a graduate program at American University, warns against knee-jerk reactions either way. If Congress were to declare the entire combat zone off-limits to women, for example, the Army in Iraq would suddenly become “15 percent undeployable,” she says.
Shock integration happened when the administration decided to wage a war in Iraq on top of an increasingly complex operation in Afghanistan. And now women in unprecedented combat roles have become essential to sustaining force strength overseas. This situation, and all its unacceptable consequences, will only get worse as long as the Bush administration refuses to initiate troop reductions and limit deployments. The candidates contending to replace Bush, meanwhile, offer little prospect of saner policies: the Democratic candidates have been silent on the realities of co-ed combat, while the Republican nominee insists that we may be in Iraq for another century.
America never consciously chose to send women into combat, but they are there now and in some cases are paying a tragic price.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.