Women Get Blown Up, Too
By Lana Duffy
This one is sort of for the ladies. We need to have a chat, especially with the hoopla around women in combat roles and such and the general softening of feelings these days. I don’t want to upset anyone, but we need to step up our game. We as a gender get offended, defensive, and obnoxious about the disparity that is clear between males and females in the military, and I’d love a frank conversation about it.
Does it exist? Yes. That disparity had a direct impact on at least 8 out of 10 years of my military career, and recent conversations like female Marine officers attending the infantry school are stirring it all up again. But we need to fix ourselves, too, and without getting defensive about it. Identify the solution and fix the problem.
Offended? Defensive? What? Yeah, we do. People seem to get sensitive easily these days. Don’t get me started on the caliber of soldiers the “no yelling” policy started breeding for a little while there, too. If you are that sensitive, why did you think the military would be a good idea? But I digress already. Story time:
Back in ‘aught five I got in a little tangle with an IED in central Iraq. Long story short, it took Mother Army roughly two years to take my encroaching blindness, near-total memory loss, debilitating headaches, and loss of balance seriously enough to finally do an MRI. Then came the phone call of “Get to Walter Reed.” “When?” “Yesterday.”
See, we’d continued mission that day despite me suddenly not knowing the names of anyone in my convoy without reading their nametape. My Combat Action Badge, the angriest Christmas wreath in all the land, was initially turned down for lack of evidence. The all-male team in Tal Afar, meanwhile, got Bronze Stars and Combat Action Badges and probably a few extra days tacked onto their leave. Not their fault – my eye rolling is directly pointed at those above them.
What really made me giggle was my four months spent wandering the campus of Walter Reed as an injured female soldier with no visible scarring. Cue aforementioned disparity.
My ex-husband was there with me; he’d come back from Iraq two weeks early to sit next to my hospital bed while I had my brain cut and vacuumed. He was a big, tattooed, infantry enlisted man, the exact type you’d expect to see toughing out a serious combat wound.
My arms were covered in bruises from the days of IVs and near-constant blood work. My face was mottled with healing black eyes from where the doctors had punched out the cartilage behind my nose to get access to that sweet spot in the middle of my head. But no one seemed to notice it was my ex helping me walk and not the other way around.
Instead he constantly got the question “So where were you when you got hit?” while I heard, “He looks great! Is he just here for follow up?”
I came to realize that I had two things going against me, and they were things that no amount of gentle reminders would change.
One was that my injury was essentially invisible: I didn’t even have a scar or shaved head to back me up. TBI is terrifying in that at first the symptoms are similar to other ailments, and often it cannot be seen on an MRI. Even with my concurrent massive brain bleed, it still took years until someone took me seriously. People still look askance at my Purple Heart – I look normal unless I’m so tired that one eye starts drifting off to do its own thing. The coagulated nonsense around the carotid artery in my cavernous sinus is hidden nicely from view, and I’ve been through enough therapy that I can almost walk in a straight line and I can usually find the words I’m looking for when speaking.
The other is the unspoken truth evident in the four months spent walking around the Walter Reed campus clinging to the arm of an infantryman: the belief that girls just don’t get blown up.
Despite females in the military police. Despite EOD. Despite human intelligence. Despite combat medics. Despite despite despite…
I knew when I enlisted that I was heading into a male-dominated culture. I was coming from an engineering degree and my classes and subsequent career were surrounded by guys. I think I could count on one hand the number of close female friends I maintained even before signing my life over to Uncle Sam. I thought I was used to it.
Then I encountered having to fight for things, and that’s when it got to be less fun. Convincing, or trying to convince, people that I wasn’t sleeping around and might be good at what I’m doing which was why the Embassy wanted me to work for them. Hell, if I’d gotten laid half the amount of times I was accused of it, I probably would have been in a much better mood for most of my Army career. Proving that I could shoot, carry, and operate radios, that I could run a platoon, were all just a little more challenging. I watched male counterparts goof around with the first sergeant while I’m still trying to stay out of trouble for suggesting we pack the MILVAN a little differently.
And then came convincing people that I was injured, that something was wrong and it wasn’t just me being sensitive. There was something wrong, wasn’t there? Why was the dark spot to my right being ignored, my headaches sent to psych instead of neurology? Requests to see a different doctor or even go back to the doctor were often met with annoyance, the assumption I was trying to get out of something. Yes, I have always hated to run, but seriously I can’t see the road and really think I need to get that checked.
It got to the point where even I began to doubt myself and stopped reporting my symptoms, since no one would take me seriously. It took a new command noticing I’d repeatedly missed a post-deployment health reassessment to even get me back into the doctor’s office. I didn’t want another trip to Community Mental Health, I wanted my headaches to stop.
Finally, a PA listened. Then a neurologist. Then a surgeon. Then two more years until the Purple Heart came through, then nearly two more for the CAB. It was just too tough for someone to grasp that a female had a combat injury. Hats off to my (male) first sergeant at the time, who was my champion to an entire battalion staff who just seemed to wonder why I wasn’t back from the States already.
So I have no idea if it was the invisibility of TBI or just plain being female that caused the delays, but I know I’m not the only one to encounter the marginalization for both. And while TBI finally is starting to get recognition and acknowledgement, statistics on our apparent disease of “being a girl” are absent.
But listen up, ladies, from someone who had plenty of female soldiers turn into great NCOs and some not so much: we don’t always do the right thing to help ourselves, either. Most of the time we are, but each case of military women who sleep with the wrong people, each case of complaining and failing to meet any requirement and bragging that we don’t have to do as many pushups… you aren’t doing the rest of us any favors. Sexual harassment and assault are disgusting and are on everyone to correct, but this perception of being unfit or less fit: this is something we females can work to fix.
I spent the bulk of my time with the infantry and other combat units. They were my brothers, and they treated me like their sister. Most of the guys I worked with might even have positive things to say about serving alongside females. If you notice, many who oppose females in various roles have observed negative actions or never served with females at all. So what do we need to do? Change the perception. Be the positive influence whenever possible. The onus is indeed on us to prove where we belong.
And yes males do it too, sure, and I’ve seen plenty more of that as I moved up the ranks, but we are in a culture we don’t run, and it’s an uphill battle. Is it a double standard? Yes. Is it stupid and wrong? You bet. But instead of complaining about it, let’s prove it. Meet the maximum standards if you want the job, regardless of the standard set. Hold yourself to a higher moral ground. Don’t give someone the ammo to doubt you.
And news flash: this continues in the outside world. We still don’t run things out here, and there is still an outdated perception of women in a lot of male-dominated fields (engineering, finance, construction, you name it). So keep at it. The minority clouds the perception of the majority, even as veterans, so don’t be in that minority. Be the example. Push yourself. Be better than they think you are.
I know you know this, but sometimes it takes a reminder. I got the harsh reminder with every battle I fought and from helping female soldiers fight similar wars. It’s not easy, but we are under the microscope and, for better or worse, need to keep our game up.
And then maybe someday at least the rest of them will believe that women get blown up, too. And isn’t that something worth leaving the next generation of female veterans?