Nearly six and a half years into the Iraq War, women soldiers are finally getting some attention in the mainstream press.
Last Sunday and Monday, August 16 and 17, the New York Times ran two front page articles on the subject: "G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier as War Evolves," by Lizette Alvarez, and "Living and Fighting Alongside Men, and Fitting In" by Steven Lee Myers.
In fact, women have been fighting in combat in Iraq since the very first days of the war in 2003, and doing so in unprecedented numbers. By 2006, more female troops had been wounded or killed in the Iraq War alone than in all American wars put together since World War II.
Back in November 2006, I began several years of interviewing some 40 women in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy for my book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. What these women told me was shocking. Not only were they breaking the Pentagon's ban against women in ground combat by serving as gunners, engaging in firefights, raiding houses, working checkpoints and fighting alongside the infantry under the guise of "combat support," they were being sexually persecuted and abused at terrifying rates -- by their fellow soldiers.
In surveying all the research I could find on military sexual assault --and there has been a lot of it -- I found a 30 percent rate of rape of military women by their comrades, a 74 percent rate of sexual assault, and a 90 percent rate of sexual harassment. (These figures come from surveys of veterans.)
Part of the problem for women is their isolation. In Iraq, women comprise only 1 in 10 troops and often serve with few or no other women at all. This, combined with the traditional, age-old misogyny of military culture, leaves them vulnerable to persecution. As I was told by Army Specialist Chantelle Henneberry, a Montanan who served in Iraq from 2005-6 with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Alaska,
"I was the only female in my platoon of 50 to 60 men. My company consisted of 1,500 men -- Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army - and under 18 women. I was fresh meat to hungry men. The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men with whom I shared my food."
Recognition of our female troops is overdue and appropriate, and I am glad to see women soldiers getting it from papers like the Times at last. But it is important to know that, while women are serving, many of them are suffering horrendous disrespect and abuse. When this is not adequately acknowledged or addressed, women soldiers are being denied the very respect and justice they so richly deserve.
Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009). Her work on women soldiers won the 2008 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Reporting.