Paradoxes of Women in Uniform Take Deep Listening

Paradoxes of Women in Uniform Take Deep Listening

By Chris Lombardi

In 1944 Dorothy Hanson was a 20-year old Army lieutenant, a nurse, stationed in a Staten Island hospital when a corporal “put something in my drink,” she explained 50 years later. “He hit my head with a rock. I was beaten and kicked.” After a few days of concussion-induced amnesia, Hanson realized what her subordinate had done, she said. “He said: say anything and you’re dead.” Hanson would ultimately become one of the oldest living survivors to be granted disability compensation from the VA for sexual trauma experienced while on active duty.

I interviewed Hansen in 1997 when I was on the staff of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) in San Francisco, which meant I was also answering phones on the G.I. Rights Hotline. For the past 15 years, I’ve spend a considerable amount of time focused on American women whose lives were shaped by their involvement in the U.S. Military, most recently completing a book on war dissenters of both genders.

Throughout U.S. history, to be a woman in uniform was a form of dissent. The U.S. military has been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity. But all along, there have been women who wouldn’t go away.

In the Revolutionary War, there were women camp followers. In the Civil War, Union Army nurses Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton invented battlefield nursing. Harriet Tubman served as a nurse, as well as a Union spy and recruiter for the new U.S. Colored Troops. At least 250 women fought in the Civil War by passing as men, collecting soldiers’ pay in the armies of both sides.

In World War I, women were being recruited for overseas service, although in still-constrained roles, like the “hello girls” who were supplied by AT&T. Nurses ran overseas hospitals, despite the refusal of commands to even recognize them as officers. By the Second World War, 150,000 women served in the Army alone, while Navy and Air Force nurses filled hospitals in Europe, the Philippines and India.

Most Women Vets Report Harassment

All of these women met with no end of distrust by male peers. WW II troops expressed scorn for “Wackies” in the Women’s Army Corps, and the endemic level of sexual harassment accompanying sometimes crossed the line to assault, as with Hansen. Of the 3,000 or so court-martials conducted overseas during that war, a significant portion were for rape (a capital offense), about one-third of the time for rape of a fellow service member.

By the time I started at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in 1995, women had been welcomed into the U.S. military. Their increased involvement was a solution to personnel shortages in the post-Vietnam “all-volunteer army.” It was 20 years after the war in Vietnam, in which rape had been most famously wielded as a weapon of war and of shame, as with the gang rapes of Vietnamese women later chronicled in Brian de Palma’s film, Casualties of War. By the 1990s our basic-training facilities and elite institutions alike were still full of misogynist chants, naked ladies painted on U.S, aircraft, and racked bad behavior, with women enlistees mostly taught to “suck it up.” And it was five years after that silence had been broken by Paula Coughlin who was assaulted at the annual conference of elite navy fliers at Tailhook.

Recent scandals
make hazards for
women more evident

As an aspiring pacifist, I had marched in the 1980 Women’s Pentagon Action and a few years later written an antiwar play as a college senior. But only after coming to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors did I begin learning about the long tradition of pacifist groups working to support soldiers who were questioning the military establishment. I was keenly aware of the new Veterans Administration study on military sexual abuse (Murdoch & McNichol, Archives of Family Medicine, April 1995). That study, like the 20-some similar studies that have followed, included reports that 90 percent of women veterans had been harassed, a third of whom had been raped.

But answering phones on the G.I. Rights Hotline changed me and my sense of members of the military, leaving me with an ever-evolving understanding of how it embeds the military’s core paradoxes in our society and our selves.

At the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors I answered calls from men and women who wanted out after joining for what are now the usual reasons: to raise money for college, to escape an abusive home or poverty-stricken town and to be part of something bigger – something important. I learned quickly how much they were like me, even the ones who didn’t share my anti-war convictions. Eventually, I worked with a team of veterans answering the calls, and began to value their perspective as deeply as my own. By 2the time I left CCCO several years later, I was thinking and saying, “If we have a real revolution, it’s going to be led by antiwar veterans – because they’ve come out the other side.”

I also began talking to more women in those years after the Tailhook incident who were reporting abuse by commands, especially after a group of brave young women exposed rape by their drill sergeants at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. This led to the first of numerous Congressional and Defense Department task forces on this issue. I talked to more and more women who’d survived harassment and assault. One woman had been gang-raped on post. She said, ” I reported it, and I was given valium and sent home to my barracks.” A lieutenant suffered years of abuse and also racial slurs due to her Asian ancestry.

Learning to Engage and Disengage

My main guide was Kathleen Gilberd of the Military Law Task Force and co-author of Rules of Disengagement. She had also gotten her start as a pacifist, helping to end the Vietnam War by supporting dissenting sailors and Marines at San Diego Navy Base, who led a local campaign to stop the U.S.S. Constellation from shipping overseas. Kathy has never stopped. She has continued as a leader in both empowering military dissent and working on behalf of vulnerable servicemembers, from fighting for the privacy of HIV-positive personnel to giving wise counsel to those threatened with courts-martial (sometimes for exposing abuse). She’s become a leading authority on the issues facing military women during the ensuing years, while succeeding administrations have tried to chip away at the patterns that have kept the military as the very definition of a “hostile environment.”

I say “chip away” because the United States military, as an institution, is itself a diverse nation, and changes suggested or even mandated by task forces or commissions don’t “take” that easily. This is especially true in the post-2001 context, in which the scale and tempo of deployments have grown geometrically. That military “nation” has swelled with even more men in their late teens to mid-20s, often operating under extreme conditions of stress. Even more recent scandals in the military have made the hazards for women in uniform ever more evident.

Information about these scandals has become public because of a new generation of soldier-dissenters. Some belong to Iraq Veterans Against the War — like Wendy Barranco, who testified in 2008 about the harassment she endured as a combat medic in Iraq. Others founded the cutting-edge Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), whose director, former Marine Corps captain Anuradh Bhagwati, testifies frequently before Congress. Their congressional allies introduced bills to improve military response to sexual assault, such as the newly-introduced Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance Act.

The latter might prevent retaliatory atrocities like that reported by Specialist Marti Ribeiro, who’d thought she was doing everything right. She was raped one night in Iraq. After the rape, she went to the legally-mandatory sexual-assault response coordinator, a position created after previous scandals, only to be asked point blank: “Where was your weapon?” as if she’d forgotten to defend herself.

and patriotism

Others military women told their stories to journalists like Columbia University’s Helen Benedict, whose 2009 book The Lonely Soldier followed 15 women from recruitment to discharge, chronicling the harassment, assault and command retaliation that most had experienced along the way. Benedict’s book, like most by progressive journalists on the subject, punts toward the end from a dramatic critique of military culture to a set of common-sense recommendations for military accountability and safety protocols for women in uniform.

To really contend with the realities faced by women in uniform is to dance with dozens of paradoxes: to acknowledge their strength, resilience and yes, their patriotism; to refuse to turn away from whatever we don’t like about U.S. foreign policy while young people are still being asked to enact it. I think that every peace activist should take a turn on the G.I. Rights Hotline before making pronouncements about military violence. That might go double for feminist peace activists, who may find all our rhetoric about nonviolence and “reweaving the web of life” both challenged and enacted by the ordinary people we meet on those phone lines, encountering terrifying obstacles and working with us to create a way out.

So are many young veterans, especially women. SWAN director Bhagwati teaches yoga classes for vets in Manhattan when not testifying before Congress; while others are doing street theater or establishing sister-city relationships with former soldiers in Israel and elsewhere. At the same time, they are pushing Congress to make more changes. In short, this history is still being written.

Chris Lombardi is a freelance journalist. An editor at Women’s Voices for Change, Lombardi is a contributing writer at Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics and at, the web portal for WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Ms. Magazine, Poets & Writers, Women’s Enews, and the American Bar Association Journal. Her book, I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from George Washington to Bradley Manning, will be published by University of California Press in Fall 2012.

Also see War Resisters Inject Truth into Military Recruitment by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Next “Wave” Peace Activists Pour Feminism into the Mix by Jean Stevens in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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