Our second group of writers will be blogging about Women and War. Journalists, experts, female soldiers and veterans share their experiences and discuss issues including women in combat, sexual assault in the military and inadequate benefits for female veterans. What do you think about women in the military? Share your thoughts, raise a question and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
I joined the Marines in 1999. I was 24, a year out of college and very naive. An only child of ambitious Indian immigrants, I was running away from a lot of things at the time. I was a first generation American with more cultural expectations on me than I could handle. The military presented a way out of dealing with these pressures and taking control of my life. It was my rebellion and my escape.
The Marine Corps was the most extreme and enticing version of an alternate reality that I could muster. (Special Forces were not an option to women, much to my disappointment.) The recruiters were practically drooling to get me to sign up, as they were hard-pressed to recruit women. Women make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps, and women officers even less than that. If I had thought through the implications of these statistics, it probably wouldn't have made a difference. I have always liked a challenge.
What I didn't expect was that my gender would be the single factor that I could never take for granted in the Marines. Before then, I'd never been told I couldn't do something because I was a woman. No one had ever questioned my ability, or insulted my intelligence. All of that changed in the Marines.
Our head drill instructor at Officer Candidate School (OCS), a legendary staff sergeant who was the embodiment of a fire-breathing demon, warned us "nasty females" that half of us would gone by the end of training. The idea that women were an inferior species, ill-equipped for the physical and emotional pressures of the Marine Corps, was ingrained in me every day from then on. I came to understand that women were a separate species that contaminated the legendary institution. We were, apparently, weak, and therefore made the Marine Corps look bad.
During my first physical fitness test at OCS, I finished a three-mile run way ahead of the women in my platoon; in fact, ahead of most of the men, as well. A drill instructor laid in to me (that's putting it lightly), accusing me of missing a loop in the run. It was only after my commanding officer discovered my average run times back home that I was proven innocent.
Marine Corps culture was difficult for me to digest. It seemed the Marine Corps wanted to do everything it could to highlight the fact that women were different. I didn't understand why our platoons were segregated by gender, unlike the rest of the armed forces. I'd always trained, studied with and succeeded alongside (not in spite of) men. Why was that forbidden now, in the Marines? Absurd gender regulations further isolated us from our male counterparts; in fact, the women in our platoon were ordered to shave their legs or be kicked out of OCS. Double standards for physical fitness further gave the impression that women were weak. We weren't required to do pull-ups (though many of us insisted upon doing them to prove a point).
I adapted to this indoctrination at a snail's pace. I thought and hesitated way too much and wasn't easily impressed. However, I was athletic, persistent and smart. They couldn't find a good enough reason to kick me out. I made it through OCS, but as our drill instructor had warned, half the women who started with me ended up not making it.
In five years as a Marine officer, I volunteered for the toughest assignments and schools I could find, and faced hostility and harassment at every unit. Without much sense of self-protection, I chose to confront bigotry and tried to protect women, people of color, religious minorities and gays and lesbians from discriminatory treatment. I learned the hard way that doing the right thing was never going to make my life easy. I was often alone, and at times, I went through hell. But risking my career often endeared me to the Marines I led and supervised — men and women who valued moral leadership.
Now a veteran, I carry a lot of hurt inside of me — both physical pain and emotional trauma — from my time in the Marines. I had to forgive a lot of people — both men and women — who were themselves greatly damaged, and then I had to forgive myself for becoming so much like them. I grew to believe that women made all of us look bad. The Marines taught me to vilify women and hate myself. It was a survival mechanism I unconsciously developed in order to perpetuate the hope that I was somehow not like those "nasty females."
The irony of my experience is that despite my trauma, I am as much a Marine on the inside as the hardiest, most celebrated grunt. The Marine Corps is an addiction for me — the memories of it induce overwhelming highs and bottomless lows. I can't seem to knock the desire for belonging and acceptance. I fear the pull will never go away. My biggest challenge is integrating my love for the Marine Corps — if it can be called love — with the betrayal I felt, and moving beyond both.
Today, I am a veterans' advocate. I do it because it helps to heal me. It means practicing compassion, patience and forgiveness. I want no other human being to experience what I did.
The non-profit organization I direct, the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), aims to eliminate indiscriminate harassment and abuse of servicewomen and other minority groups in the military, via policy reform and public education. Through community programming and other direct services, we offer servicewomen and veterans non-institutional peer support, legal services, therapeutic workshops and trainings to help heal their trauma and reintegrate to civilian life.
We've created a space where women veterans will directly determine policy and shape resources for other women and men in need. It allows many of us to heal personal wounds we incurred during service, while creating meaningful institutional and social change for future generations of servicemembers and veterans.
Veteran and Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network