Images of veterans tend to have a similar look, a trademark masculine gravitas. Photos of square-jawed men in uniform, tight-lipped, hats low over their eyes. They might be racially diverse, reflecting the ethnicities of the armed services. But what they typically aren’t reflecting is the number of women in their ranks: now one in seven across the military, or one in five in the Air Force. And according to a new survey of veterans, 87 percent of women who’ve served — and 70 percent of men — don’t believe the public understands the contributions of women in the military.
Women now comprise 2 million of the 21 million veterans in the U.S. And though the Pentagon officially lifted the ban on women in combat roles in 2013, women were functionally in combat long before that. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, women were on the front lines in a way they’d never been before. Stepping out of buildings and vehicles into all kinds of ambush and conflict. Going where the mission needed them, doing whatever was required to get the job done. Women were getting hurt in combat, and occasionally killed. But far more often, it turns out, they were being harmed by the people from whom they least expected it.
Helen Benedict, a journalist and novelist known for her incisive work examining sexism and social justice, began documenting the experience of women in the military after the beginning of the Iraq war. Her 2009 book THE LONELY SOLDIER trained a lens on sexual assault and rape within the forces, which affects 25-30 percent of all enlisted women. Her book inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Invisible War,” as well as a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of assault victims.
Last month her most recent novel, WOLF SEASON, was published by Bellevue Literary Press. The sophisticated boutique publisher is affiliated with NYU’s School of Medicine, and gained mainstream recognition with its 2010 Pulitzer-winning novel, TINKERS. Bellevue’s stated mission is to publish writing “at the intersection of arts and sciences” on subjects that address “big questions of the human condition.” For Benedict, the big question is why the brutality of war includes such inhumane treatment of enlisted women from their own colleagues within the ranks. And the human condition is post-traumatic stress disorder.
WOLF SEASON is a sequel of sorts to her 2012 year novel, SAND QUEEN. But its focus shifts from Iraq to upstate New York, and to the interconnected lives of three women — a veteran, a military spouse, and a refugee — in the aftermath of the war. Benedict’s extraordinary insight and sensitivity to all three characters are the product of hundreds of interviews, offering a unique and multi-dimensional perspective on women as veterans today in the U.S.
Our culture is growing more aware of the struggles veterans face, including PTSD. Yet in a recent study of the 425,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 87 percent of women who responded (and 70 percent of men) said did not feel the public understands women women’s contribution to the military. What is the difference coming home as a female veteran?
HELEN BENEDICT: A major difference is that much of the public is still not aware that women are fighting in ground combat, and have been ever since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, long before the ground combat ban was officially lifted. There is no front line in war these days, so even women who were officially “combat support” could be drawn into the same sorts of firefights and house searches as all-male infantry units. I have met women who were gunners, who led search patrols, who were blown up and wounded by bombs, and who suffered mortar attacks inside their bases. Yet, many women feel unrecognized for this. As one said to me, “I was in Iraq for 11 months. I was a gunner. But when I say I was in a war, nobody listens, nobody believes me. And you know why? Because I’m a female.”
But another, and equally compelling difference, is that so many women come home from war doubly traumatized by combat and sexual harassment or assault by their nominal brothers-at-arms. At the time I was doing my research, 2003-08, some 90 percent of women reported being harassed, and between 25-30 percent said they were raped by the men on their own side. And even though the military has been instigating reforms lately, New York Senator Gillibrand released a study just this past September showing that these numbers have not significantly decreased.
Studies have shown that constant sexual harassment in the military can cause as much PTSD as combat. As one veteran said to me, “My Company consisted of 1,500 men and 18 women. I was fresh meat to the hungry men there. The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men who shared my food.”
I don’t want to suggest that all military women go through this – the majority experience harassment, but most are not actually assaulted. Yet these rates are cruelly high. And, to make matters worse, the culture of retaliation and victim blaming is so rife in the military that a woman who reports a sexual assault is 12 times more likely to be punished than a man who commits one. That statistic comes from a Human Rights report from only two years ago.
Women who have been sexually assaulted in the military are at least twice as likely to commit suicide than other veterans.
Tell me about your research for WOLF SEASON, and where it fits in the spectrum of research and interviews you’ve done on women and the Iraq War.
BENEDICT: Because I had already spent many years interviewing women veterans, I had no need to revisit that. But for Wolf Season, and its precursor, my novel, Sand Queen, I also interviewed Iraqi refugees. They were all either former interpreters, or the spouses of interpreters, women and men. With great generosity, they told me about their lives in and out of war, helping me to create Naema, her son, Tariq, and her husband, Khalil, the Iraqi family in the novel.
Some of the knowledge I needed to write this book did not come from interviews and conscious research, however, but from chance observations and conversations with veterans and Iraqis I know. At times, it can be the slightest thing, something you don’t even write down, that is the most valuable to the imagination.
You were by no means naïve before you began writing about women and war — you’d researched the polarizing extremes of stereotypes and sexism for your 1993 book, VIRGIN OR VAMP: HOW THE PRESS COVERS SEX CRIMES. What surprised you in your research on women veterans?
BENEDICT: I didn’t know much about the military when I began researching this subject – I had to learn everything. What surprised me the most was how much I liked the women veterans I met, and how moved I was by their struggles to do good in the world. One of the most difficult things a veteran has to cope with is facing what she did in war, deciding whether it was morally acceptable to her, and if it wasn’t, finding her way back to feeling like a good person again. That takes courage. A lot of women veterans I know have that courage: not the typical kind we think of, saving or killing people in battle, but the courage it takes to face one’s responsibility. And the courage it takes to fight back against injustice.
WOLF SEASON is a sort of sequel to your novel SAND QUEEN, but is set in upstate New York, and deals with being in the U.S. after involvement in the war. How did wolves come to be a part of this story?
BENEDICT: The inspiration for the wolves came out of a telephone conversation I had with a veteran who does, indeed, live in the woods with wolves and her child – not in New York, though. I never met this woman, and my character Rin is not in the least like her, but I was caught by her story, so I began to research wolves, and lo and behold, I found out that quite a few veterans keep, or work with wolves. I had no idea of that when I first began to write.
You started in newspaper journalism and moved into longer articles, literary nonfiction, then fiction and a play. Which form is your favorite — the most comfortable one you reach for first — and how do you know when material belongs in another form?
BENEDICT: I was always a novelist first. I even wrote a novel—of sorts—when I was eight! Now I have written more novels than nonfiction books. Wolf Season is my seventh novel. But I also have a political side, and that’s the side drawn to journalism. So when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and when I found out about the epidemic of sexual persecution in the military, I felt an urgency to write the sort of exposé that works best in journalism. Later, when I wanted to go beyond an exposé and explore what war does to the human heart and soul -- then I turned to fiction.