When I heard that my sister was helping The Women’s Mosaic to arrange an event to honor American military women, I knew it was going to special. Mainstream media has shown little interest in reporting stories about female soldiers, except for occasionally depicting them as victims (and potential victims) of sexual assault from other male soldiers. I knew there had to be more to the story. On Tuesday, March 11, 2008, I was proven right.
That evening, The Women’s Mosaic hosted a signature panel discussion series entitled My Life as a Female Soldier in Iraq at the OneSpirit Interfaith Alliance in New York City. It was an intimate and friendly affair that brought together five very different women from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps (including my sister), and a mostly civilian audience. With Adaora Udoji of WNYC/PRI as moderator, people who knew nothing about military culture and the women who exist in it were given the unique opportunity to listen and interact with the panelists about their experiences. During the discussion, they shared their feelings about how the military has changed their lives, and addressed issues such as veterans’ benefits, sexism, friendships, and this year’s presidential candidates.
Staff Sergeant Luz Gonzalez, the first panelist to address the audience, credits the military for giving her opportunities and stability. During her seven-year career, Gonzalez was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. She described her one year in Iraq as “hectic” and “crazy,” but that she enjoyed spending time with her fellow soldiers. “They become your second family,” Gonzalez said. After working twelve-hour shifts as an ammunitions specialist, she and the others in her unit made time to play video games and bond with each other.
My sister, First Lieutenant Jennifer Karakat, became enlisted through the ROTC program at Fordham University and served as platoon leader in Kuwait during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005. She also shared mostly positive experiences, like meeting third party nationals (TCNs) from India who helped her keep to her vegetarian diet with “good Indian cooking.” While Jennifer admitted that she felt initial frustration with her limitations as a woman, she did not become discouraged. Working harder helped her to excel in physical fitness training and to forge strong connections with soldiers from all over the United States. “I feel like I’m a better woman because of the experiences I’ve had,” Jennifer told the audience.
Soft-spoken Specialist Petty Officer Emily Stroia joined the U.S. Navy at the tender age of seventeen. She acquired skills as a photojournalist during her service, and served as one of 500 women on the USS Nimitz (along with 6,000 men) in 2007. As a woman, it was mind-boggling to imagine being surrounded by men in such close quarters. As someone who lived through it and experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of being outnumbered by men on a Navy ship, Emily had a generally positive outlook on it all. As the target of unwanted male attention at times, she tolerated it by remaining smart and professional. “It’s just one of those things,” Emily said. “You have to stand your ground.”
All the women on the panel agreed that while there were and are disadvantages to being outnumbered by male soldiers, there experienced unique advantages to being female in the Middle East. Being a woman and a U.S. Marine patrol leader for an all-male unit allowed Sergeant Chrissy DeCaprio to search Iraqi women on the ground, who were often used to conceal bombs and other dangerous equipment under their clothes. Sergeant Carolyn Schapper had the unique opportunity to talk with Iraqi women in tribal areas, something her male colleagues could not do because of religious and cultural restrictions.
Each panelist addressed misconceptions that civilians and men in the military have about them. The most amusing of these was shared by Jennifer, who told the audience that she is sometimes asked why she didn’t get her head shaved. The enduring image of Demi Moore’s shaved head in the movie G.I. Jane is obviously still on many people’s minds when they think of women in the military.
Carolyn shared two misconceptions about female soldiers that I personally knew nothing about. She speaks publicly about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and how most people assume that women who suffer from it are all victims of sexual abuse. While it is a problem, Carolyn stressed that it is not always the case. She also shed light on how many people are ignorant of women’s participation in combat. “Women do get into battle, and they do get hurt,” she told the audience in a matter-of-fact tone. Carolyn gave us an example when she told the story of her friend returning to her base after being shot in the leg by a sniper, and having her injuries assumed to be the result of a fall by her fellow soldiers. “No one had even assumed that she had been shot … just to be treated like she wasn’t part of the situation … it angered her.”
Passivity and ignorance also breeds misconceptions, as Emily pointed out to the audience. She reminded all of us to encourage others to give proper respect to men and women who have served in the military. “One of the things that infuriates me … when you mention someone in the service, and they act like it’s nothing,” she said, “because it’s not nothing … it’s really important.”
Luz and Chrissy shared their commitment to serving the U.S. military, in spite of any misconceptions about their abilities from men in the military. “I love my country as much as a male does, and I’m going to be able to do what a male can do if I need to do it,” Chrissy told everyone. I doubt anyone in the audience would not believe her, especially after having been in combat and handling a 50-caliber machine gun. Luz also confessed that her capability as a soldier is sometimes doubted by her male counterparts, which only makes her work harder to equal and even surpass them. “I would have to say that I am proving the guys wrong,” she said confidently. At the end of the Q&A period, I applauded with heartfelt admiration for each of the women on the panel. I can safely assume that the other members of the audience did the same.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up 15 percent of the U.S. military, and 1.7 million of them are veterans. While most of the mainstream media continue to focus on scandals and corruption, it was a welcome relief to see and hear from some of the women who have lived un-glamorous and dangerous lives in service to this country. Regardless of how any of us feel about the war in Iraq, it is important to have events like My Life as a Female Soldier in Iraq to remember and honor that small, but significant minority of women who continue to change attitudes about gender in the U.S. military.
By Pauline Karakat
Photo Courtesy of The Women's Mosaic