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The Plight of Women Soldiers


Army specialist Mickiela Montoya was standing silently in the back of a Manhattan classroom while a group of male Iraq war veterans spoke to a small audience about their experiences as soldiers. It was November 2006, and she had been back from Iraq for a year, but was still too insecure to speak out in public. Anyway, the room was full of men, and Montoya had learned that a lot of men aren't much interested in listening to military women.

 

"Nobody believes me when I say I'm a veteran," she said that day, tucking her long red hair behind her ears. "I was in Iraq getting bombed and shot at, but people won't even listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I'm a female."

 

Montoya, who grew up in a Mexican family in East Los Angeles, served in Iraq for eleven months, from 2005-2006, with the 642nd Division Aviation Support Battalion. She was only 19 back then, but by the time she turned 21 she was as bitter as any old veteran, not only because of the lack of recognition she was receiving as a combat vet but because of the way she had been treated as a soldier—by her comrades, the army and by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

Many female veterans share Montoya's anger. They join the military for the same reasons men do—to escape dead-end towns or dysfunctional families, to pay for college or seek adventure, to follow their ideals or find a career—only to find themselves denigrated and sexually hounded by many of the "brothers" on whom they are supposed to rely. And when they go to war, this harassment does not necessarily stop. The double traumas of combat and sexual persecution may be why a 2008 RAND study found that female veterans are suffering double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for their male counterparts.

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This essay appeared in the Nation and is adapted from her book, The Lonely Soldier.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.