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Category: Art and Entertainment, Health

“Lonely Soldier Monologues” Only Opens an Essential National Conversation

| March 20, 2009

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Helen Benedict’s play, now ending its run in New York, focuses attention on enlisted women soldiers with the authenticity of their own words. Now, argues a former Marine, we must go on to recognize the nation’s servicewomen and veterans not as victims but as women who have sacrificed for the rest of us and must have resources and healthcare tailored to their needs.

I recently attended a performance of the “Lonely Soldier Monologues (Women at War in Iraq),” written for the theater by Helen Benedict and based on her book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. The play is ending its run this Sunday at the Theater for the New City in New York. The book is coming out next month.

Benedict’s script is straight from the mouths of a cast of characters entirely new to American public discourse on military service: a racially diverse group of enlisted women soldiers. Their stories—and an incredible cast of actors—lend the play an authenticity rarely found in portrayals of women in uniform, either by popular culture or the accounts of journalists.

We finally get a sense of what the average life of a female enlisted soldier is like. We also get a look at the ways in which race, gender, class, youth and violence often play into the hands of desperate military recruiters.

Despite these steps in the right direction, I can’t help but writhe at the script’s tendency to fall into familiar patterns of stereotyping servicewomen, especially along racial lines. Benedict focuses on troops who have been particularly traumatized by life. But there are just as many real life recruits who sign up for military service because they are bored, or are naturally drawn to the rigors of military discipline. In addition, Benedict’s left-leaning sympathies seem to keep her from an accurately nuanced representation of military culture.

Among the white servicewomen chosen for portrayal are brainwashed daughters of right-wing, America-loving zealots. For example, one character, a Bible-thumping small-town teenager as gung-ho and out of place as Mother Theresa in camouflage, can’t wait to do “God’s work” in the Army. But the reality is that many troops cross faith with service to one’s country without becoming ignorant crusaders or overzealous missionaries.

The monologues of servicewomen of color in the play often present helpless victims of society. One black soldier joins the military after years of physical abuse from her stepfather. A Native American soldier has been forced to marry the man who’s raped her at age 13, and joins the Army to get off of welfare. And so on. This focus on portraying poor or ignorant girls from the hood rescued by recruiters, or naïve daughters of military-loving, flag-waving families, plays into misplaced audience pity—and triggers deep-seated cultural insecurities about women’s presence in the military—instead of serving military women themselves. Few real-life female soldiers actually see themselves as victims, so why should we?

The implied message of girls being more vulnerable and naïve than the boys who sign up for service doesn’t add up in real life either.

Truth be told, no recruits understand what the military will put them through until they come out at the other end. The enticing military narrative that keeps young Americans in the recruiting pipeline—job security, education and health benefits, a sense of belonging to an institution built on intangibles like honor and pride—prevents soldiers from ever dwelling on what life might look like during war, or even more abstractly, after the military. Without the structure, support, or expectations of the military as guidance, the psychological transition home can often be a soldier’s most difficult challenge. For women veterans, readjusting to civilian life can be particularly traumatizing.

When I left the Marines in 2004, I was shell-shocked from years of sexual harassment and discrimination. I didn’t know I needed help because I had been trained hard to deal with stress. And as an officer, I rarely allowed my emotions to reveal what I was feeling underneath. Two years later, physically broken, depressed, suicidal, and homicidal, I finally made my way to the Manhattan VA Hospital for help.

I had no idea what I would have to deal with.

VA hospitals are filled with an apathetic, ignorant and often insensitive or hostile staff, many of whom refuse to accept the realities of women’s experience in the military. Although 14 percent of the military is female, most personnel assume the women entering the doors of VA facilities are spouses of soldiers. Many others still wrongly assume that women do not serve in combat roles, even though any returning soldier can tell you that there are no front-lines in today’s wars—women make up their fair share of the Department of Defense (DOD) casualty count and are among the recipients of the military’s highest awards for bravery in battle.

The success of women soldiers in integrating the military—or loss, depending on your perspective—shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration. The institution remains painstakingly reluctant to protect its female soldiers from equal opportunity violations. DOD statistics of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) are appalling: approximately 90 percent of military women report having being harassed, while one in three report having been raped. These numbers would be enough to alert civilian health experts in any industrialized nation to an epidemic, but the DOD and VA hardly treat it as such.

For female (and male) veterans who have been sexually traumatized in uniform, walking through the halls of a VA hospital can be like running a gauntlet. A veteran I know who recently checked herself in for psychiatric care at a California VA hospital following a PTSD episode was forced to share a bathroom with male veterans, was subjected to the unchecked behavior of a peeping tom, and was told that if she didn't eat with the men that she wouldn't be fed at all. Reaping the benefits of service—free “health care” by the VA—can retraumatize veterans, making women feel they must pay twice for their decision to enlist.

The VA claims system does little to provide closure or compensation for veterans who have experienced MST. Veterans must provide evidence of harassment, assault or rape while in service. It’s difficult to report incidents in the first place without fear of retribution, and the armed forces destroy all evidence of a sexual trauma investigation two years after the incident has been reported, thus placing an impossible burden of proof upon a future claimant.

The VA Department has a poor record of acknowledging that PTSD, depression, and other medical conditions that result from service-connected trauma justify the same compensation rating as physical injuries. And because MST tends to carry even more stigma than combat-related PTSD, the VA has a long way to go in recognizing MST as a legitimate, debilitating and widespread phenomenon.

No one expects institutional sexism and pervasive sexual trauma to disappear over night, especially in an institution as ingrained and insulated as the military. Helen Benedict’s work, at the very least, acknowledges the service and sacrifices of women deployed to Iraq.

We can do our part by guaranteeing health care and resources that do not punish women veterans for their choice to wear the uniform, and compensation to acknowledge them for their sacrifices on all fronts.

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