May 20, 2013
Surviving the Hell of War, and Then Some
Posted on Jan 23, 2012
By John Lasker
Like tens of thousands of other women who joined up during the past decade, Gena Smith stands at a crossroads with a U.S. military that must decide whether it will continue to tolerate sexual discrimination and even rape within its ranks.
Smith says she suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and that her personal history illustrates that women travel rough terrain in today’s Army. The former Army intelligence specialist, now 29 years old, was serving in Iraq in 2006 when she was ordered out of her co-ed unit and loaned to a Stryker brigade, an infantry battalion of all men. The brigade was moving into Baqubah, which had been declared by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, to be the capital of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq.
For the next 15 months, Spc. Smith slept on dusty concrete, engaged the enemy with her M4 rifle (she believes she made one kill) and exercised her intelligence skills. She will not elaborate, but she does say that once she “deduced the location of an enemy attack on our base [which] led to the arrest of 30 or so insurgents, and the capture of their weapons, explosives and vehicles.”
While Smith was on a patrol in Baqubah, a buried explosive lifted a 20-ton Stryker armored vehicle into the air. An ambush followed, and Americans were injured. Smith’s platoon was soon holed up in a house and pinned down by snipers. Inside, an Iraqi mother gave her some information, and the specialist raced off to her commanding officer to pass it along, but he didn’t want to hear anything—yet. “He wouldn’t let me brief him until I got some tea for him and the [male] soldiers on the roof,” she says. “So I had to serve tea in a firefight. Carrying a tray with 10 glasses of tea up three flights of stairs when people are shooting at you is kind of hilariously difficult.”
She can find a bitter smile in that memory, but there were other gender-related incidents that Smith, the only female in the platoon, had to endure that contained not a trace of humor. “The sexual harassment was constant during the whole deployment,” she says.
Smith accepts what happened and is trying to move on. She is not vengeful. She feels she is, in a way, a pioneer who was ordered into war out of necessity and helped pave the way for future women soldiers taking a role in combat.
“I don’t want to demonize our unit or our base. Not all of them were animals. This problem is about military culture in general,” Smith says. “It’s a boys’ club and there was a lot of anger towards me because I wasn’t them.”
Smith, who writes Regular Fury, a graphic and pain-filled blog about her military experiences, has been asked many times why she never sought justice after being raped in a combat zone. She replies, “I wasn’t threatened about the consequences of reporting it, [but] I was led to believe that I would be a bad soldier if I reported it.”
On her blog Smith wrote “I was shocked when I discovered how morbidly furious I am with myself” for not reporting the rapes or fighting off her attackers. She adds that she had thought she would die in Iraq and that “I was too afraid [during the rapes] to do anything to make them stop other than cry.”
The military has come a long way since Army Ranger Capt. Brian Mitchell’s 1989 book,“Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military,” was a best-seller and presumably a must-read within the military academies. Women are joining the military as never before, a trend that accelerated during this past decade of war, which was also a decade of high unemployment. The main reason Gena Smith enlisted was because she couldn’t find work in small-town Mississippi.
In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel, according to military documents. Today, that number is 14.3 percent, representing roughly 200,000 women, and when troop levels in the Iraq theater were at their highest there were four times more women there than during the 1991 Gulf War.
Women are fighting in combat. The Pentagon still bans female soldiers from combat roles, but only officially. Their bravery, at least, has been recognized. Since 9/11, women have garnered two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest decoration for extraordinary heroism while engaged in combat with the enemy. One hundred fifty U.S. military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq during the American military involvement in those two countries.
No doubt the military is increasingly relying on the female soldier, yet the Pentagon has been accused of fostering a culture of abuse as women in the ranks seek greater acceptance and respect.
The military, say women soldiers and their advocates, is indifferent to the entrenched problems of misogyny and sexual assault. Because of this, they say, some male soldiers believe they can treat the female soldier as though she has no legal rights.
“This matter [sexual assault] is a laughing stock among men in the military,” says Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel who quit the State Department in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has since dedicated herself to the struggle against rape in the military. “It’s a joke for the guys because they know they’ll never get prosecuted. The atmosphere in the military is you know you can get away with it.”
Here are the Defense Department’s own numbers: It estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred within the armed services in 2010 but that only 13.5 percent of those were reported, because victims in some cases either feared retaliation from commanding officers or believed nothing would come of a report.
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