Every now and then when I reminisce about my time in the military I have moments that click in my brain. Unfortunately, these are usually stories of situations that highlight how messed up things can be for women in the military, and though leadership is trying to take gender disparities seriously they still have a long way to go.
Last night after dinner at my partner’s parent’s house we got talking about current events. Eventually this led to some talk about the military and my deployment to Afghanistan in 2015. I felt the words fall out of my mouth in slow motion, the way you watch a glass fall right before it shatters all over the floor.
Wait a minute. What did I just say?
I said, “Yeah, I’m really lucky I got to deploy with such great guys. As the only woman on my team I felt safe in my unit and knew I could trust everyone. I never had to worry about being sexually assaulted.”
That’s right, folks. I said that I was lucky I hadn’t been raped on deployment.
So, naturally, after that statement I changed the subject and carried on like nothing was amiss. Because that’s what I’ve been conditioned and trained to do — until I could stop and think it through later.
I really did deploy with a great group of men. They were respectful, knew their jobs well, cared about each other, and we laughed more than I thought we would. But that should be the norm. The fact that I know so many women who have had nightmare experiences while on deployment, who have returned home scarred not only from being in a warzone but by the terrors of the men in their own units, is absolutely unacceptable.
But we’ve been conditioned to accept it. We’ve been conditioned to sweep it under the rug and just keep going. We, as women in the military, have been conditioned to try harder, to do better, to prove that we belong to be there every single day.
And it’s just not right.
When my enlisted friend on a different base was sexually assaulted by an officer (who was prosecuted but remained stationed on that base) she was given an ultimatum: you can either stay here and continue to see him around base and be reminded of what he did to you or we can ship you off to another unit to start over. It was her fault that she felt the need to change commands; he was never asked nor required to move for what he’d done.
Prior to my deployment another friend told me, from experience, to pack a knife anywhere I went. Just in case I ever needed to use it to protect myself… on the American base from American men. Luckily, I never had to use it.
After my deployment, when I was getting out of the shower in my barracks room back state-side, my locked door suddenly un-locked and a man in an Army uniform waltzed in holding a ring of keys. He wasn’t even in my own branch of service and he had keys to my room. I let out a shocked, strangled scream and he quickly left. I was too frozen in fear to move.
I reported the incident to my command who told me that it was impossible that anyone else on base could have keys to my room except for the Marines in the duty hut (where all of the keys to our unit’s rooms were stored and guarded). They didn’t want to believe me and said it was just a fluke, that I should forget about it. I brought this up with other women in my command and was taken aback by the fact that almost every other woman had had this happen to her at some point.
I refused to drop it, so our leadership said they’d bring it up to the main command at battalion and every week until I EAS’d (got out of the military), I would walk into Master Guns’ office and ask if he’d heard anything back from them. And every week it was the same bullshit: no.
I asked for hotel locks to be installed on the inside of every woman’s room so that even if someone had keys, they couldn’t walk in if she were present. Our command told me we couldn’t change or deface our rooms in any way by drilling and that it would be unsafe. Literally, they told me it would be unsafe to install a lock in my own room, meant to keep me safe. I pointed out this absurdity and stated that I would install my own lock and if they didn’t like it, we could talk seriously about the event I experienced.
They dropped their aversion to the locks but nothing more. I helped other women install them in their rooms too. The command saw them but didn’t acknowledge them, silently letting us have a small slice of safety.
Should I have followed through harder? Maybe.
Should I have tried harder to protect and defend myself and fellow enlisted women? I could have always done more.
But I was young, confused, scared, and just trying to survive in a world dominated by men where I consistently got lucky.
At the end of the day, I am very grateful to have had my military experience. It gave me the means to leave an abusive childhood, start making decent money from nothing, I got my degree and I learned skills and knowledge that I will take with me everywhere for the rest of my life.
But some of those skills and knowledge were brought on by the danger that being a woman in the military can bring. And that’s not normal. That shouldn’t be right and I hope it’s better today for those currently serving. I hope it continues to get better as men come to understand that anyone who wants to serve their county should be able to serve their county without fear.