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Introductions: Why I Had to Write About Women and War

written by Helen Benedict
on February 17, 2010

I began writing about soldiers after attending a vigil for the war dead in March 2004, the first anniversary of the Iraq War. I and my daughter, who was then 12, stood with a motley crowd at Columbus Circle in New York, holding candles while we took turns reading the names of those who had been killed — first American soldiers, all 906 of them; then Iraqi civilians; children and grandmothers, babies and parents.

Among us were Vietnam veterans, bearded and rough looking; a mother whose son had just been killed — she held up a picture of him, smiling and baby-faced in his uniform; and other parents like me, teaching their children to care. We read the name and age of each person killed, after which a woman thumped on a large, sonorous drum, moving us all to tears.

Then the young man who had been reading the names of the Iraqi dead explained why he knew how to pronounce them: "I'm a soldier just back from Iraq," he said, "and we're being used as cannon fodder. We're being sent into war without body armor or decent vehicles to protect us. And most of the people who are dying are civilians."

After that, I sought out more soldiers, eager to hear what they had to say about the war. After all, they knew what no civilian could know, and I wanted to hear it.

The Lonely Soldier by Helen Benedict, Book Cover

That's how I met my first female soldier — Mickiela Montoya, then 21, a Mexican-American from L.A. She was standing, fresh-faced and achingly young-looking, in the back of a classroom, where soldiers were talking about the war to a tiny audience. I approached her.

"Are you a veteran too?" I asked.

"Yes, but nobody believes me," she answered immediately. "I was in Iraq for 11 months. I was gunner, getting bombed and shot at every night. But when I talk about it nobody listens. And you know why? Because I'm a female."

"I'll listen," I said, struck by her anger. "What was it like being a woman in combat?"

"Well," she said, "the first thing you need to know is that there's only three things the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military: a bitch, a 'ho, or a dyke. You're a bitch if you won't sleep with them, a 'ho if you've got even one boyfriend, and a dyke if they don't like you. So you can't win."

That's when I knew I had to write about women at war.

Since then, I've interviewed at least 40 women from all over the country who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more who've served elsewhere. I've interviewed men, as well, and service members of all ranks, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. From these interviews, I formed my book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009) and my documentary play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which is all in the words of the soldiers themselves.

The women who talked to me served with the Army, the Marines, the Navy and Air Force. They used their real names, told me their real feelings, trusted me with their real stories. Their courage moves me to this day. In a series of blog posts here on POV's Regarding War, I will tell some of their stories and talk about the health hazards, injustices and abuse so many military women suffer. But I will also hail their courage, their experience, and the wisdom they have gained from seeing close up what so few of us see: war, and the violent legacy of a military culture.

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