- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Laura Westley
Best Defense guest commenter
I graduated from West Point and was commissioned as a U.S. Army officer just three months prior to 9/11. Suddenly, war went from the history books to reality.
Over the ensuing years of war, many of us service members were affected in profound ways. Incidences of traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress, suicide, and the high veteran unemployment rate illustrate that the burdens of war know no gender, race, time in service, or other qualifiers. But for me, and imaginably for many other women, the changes have been fundamental to my existence.
My unit, the 3rd Infantry Division, had been assigned as the leading force in the Iraq invasion. As we convoyed toward combat, I had to shut down my brain and simply execute my marching orders. Paralysis by fear seemed a clear and present possibility. This was especially true because my job required invading a sovereign country while I remained unconvinced that invasion was ethical. Fear-based paralysis could have become even more amplified when I realized the invading force did not have a sufficient plan for post-conflict stability operations, and the participating units had limited desert training and inadequate gear — which was exactly my situation.
If I questioned our orders, I risked punishment or being accused of cowardice. So I crossed the berm into Iraq, not being able to fathom how we were going to execute this war, let alone what waited for me afterward with respect to my emotions, mental and physical health, and especially how I view my identity as a woman.
Four years prior to 9/11, I had ventured off to West Point for many reasons: to serve something bigger than myself; to challenge my mind and body in the toughest way imaginable; and to become an esteemed leader admired by society. Another driving force leading me to the Academy stemmed from my need to flee my repressive youth and desire to make my father respect and love me more.
I grew up enmeshed in evangelical Christianity. My father and church both obsessed about my purity and virginity. My father also demanded perfection in all of my pursuits and used a belt to whip me until I was 17. Most of all, he punished me for not being a boy. I imagine girls who grow up in radical Islamic families face similar scrutiny and abuse. West Point was an effort to prove myself to my father, but also escape his controlling grip on my life.
What I found at West Point, however, was that the military offered no escape. West Point exercised the same control over my body, demanded the same perfection, and also made me feel like I had to apologize for my inferior gender. It was easy to maintain my virginity in such a rigid environment: Sex wasn’t allowed in the barracks, my bible study leaders constantly warned us about setting strict physical boundaries within our relationships, and several West Point male cadets swore they would never consider dating a woman cadet.
I did date a fellow cadet who was just as devoted to the Christian community as me. We struggled with intimacy, and when I acquiesced, even though I maintained my virginity, I still felt ashamed. This cadet was also devoted to ingrained beliefs about a women’s place in the world. He told me I didn’t belong serving as the choir president, because only men should hold positions of authority in the church.
He wasn’t the only one who told me I couldn’t do something, simply because I have a vagina. For starters, my West Point Christian mentors taught me that my number one purpose in life is to serve my husband, and that women are “helpmates” to men who have authority over us.
So what do the challenges of my youth and the chauvinistic culture at West Point (which has improved under new leadership and a higher percentage of women) have to do with how I experienced the aftermath of war and 9/11, specifically as a woman?
When preparing for my career, the military restricted women from entering the very fields in which we trained and were evaluated. I didn’t protest, because I had learned to suck it up and do what I was told. At that time, many peers scoffed at women who joined the military for not being manly enough to lead men into battle, while also claiming that we weren’t womanly enough to date or marry. I kept quiet, because military women were conditioned to accept these scenarios as the norm. It became second nature to tolerate these injustices and abuse. Speaking out would only cause detrimental retributions to our careers.
Then, in 2003, bombs and gunfire threatened to cut my life short. There’s nothing like facing death to instigate existential change within one’s own soul.
I stopped caring about what others thought and approached the rest of my military career with searing cynicism. Why follow orders anymore, when they were designed to serve the needs of men with fragile egos? My father’s abuse destroyed my psyche; my church mentors attempted to usurp my ambition and power; my combat chain of command’s antics put me in far more danger than necessary; and even my commander-in-chief authorized an unethical war so he and his cronies could become more wealthy while thousands of soldiers died.
In the middle of war, I allowed myself to think again and promised myself that I would never blindly follow something I didn’t believe in or understand. I began to challenge everything. I believe this approach has allowed me to become more intelligent, thoughtful and empowered.
Being an outspoken, bold feminist isn’t always easy; sometimes it can feel isolating and daunting, especially when others aren’t as impassioned to fight along with you. But for me, it’s the only way. Sharing the journey in my forthcoming memoir, War Virgin, of how I survived the repressive environment in the military and ultimately came to experience true liberation, has been empowering. Ironically it took being at war, under the guise of liberating another country, in order for me to being the process of liberating myself.
Had it not been for 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq — and perhaps, all of the psychological turmoil I’ve endured because of these events — I don’t know if I would have discovered my true self. War is a horrible thing, but sometimes there is a silver lining.
Laura Westley graduated with a nuclear engineering degree from West Point and has an MBA. She is a combat veteran, author, playwright, and veteran mental health advocate. Her book, War Virgin, is available on Amazon.
Photo credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency/Wikimedia Commons