Female Soldiers Face Tough Switch From Front Lines To Homefront

Mar 17, 2013
Originally published on March 21, 2013 10:36 am

In a series of reports this week, NPR's Quil Lawrence looks at some of the most pressing challenges facing America's nearly 2 million female veterans. Like men, they often need assistance in finding jobs, dealing with PTSD and reintegrating into their families. And all too often, women say their military experience included sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Alyssa Corcoran experienced combat on her first patrol in Afghanistan. After she walked seven miles through the hills with 70 pounds of gear on her back, Corcoran and her platoon arrived in a mud-brick village in Logar province.

But they stayed too long in one place. Leaving the village, Corcoran heard for the first time the noise of bullets passing way too close.

"We were pinned down for about 20 minutes. We didn't exactly know where the gunfire was coming from," she says. "It actually sounded like firecrackers above your head."

Over the yearlong deployment, she stopped counting the number of times she was shot at — and the number of rounds she fired back.

Women like Corcoran just laugh at the mention of a Pentagon rule against female troops in combat that was recently lifted.

The Pentagon spent 10 years bending that rule in Iraq and Afghanistan. Infantry patrols and Special Forces units have learned the value of having women on their missions, as they started picking up a trove of intelligence from female soldiers' interaction with Afghan women.

"I think that we quickly realized how effective these women were," says Mike Hall, who served as the command sergeant major of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.

Women make up nearly 15 percent of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active-duty personnel and 18 percent of guard and reserve forces. In the last decade, wars with no clear front lines blurred the distinctions between combat and supporting jobs, which put women under fire as often as most servicemen.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 1.8 million female vets currently and an estimated 50,000 more will join the group in the next five years. Women have also expanded into the ranks of the fallen: 152 female soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan so far.

A Difficult Homecoming

Acknowledging they've been fighting these recent wars may be the first step toward aiding female veterans through the transition back to civilian life. But veterans' advocates say they're hard to find — and, therefore, harder to help. It's easy to spot a male veteran at a college campus or at the mall — they often keep the same crew cut and boots.

But female vets don't wear it on their sleeves as much. When they get out, many vets say they're eager to drop the masculine clothes and tight ponytails, and return to looking more feminine.

Just like men they need help: getting jobs in a tough economy, dealing with post-traumatic stress and reconnecting with family members left behind on deployment. That can be harder for women, who feel the guilt of having left their husbands or children behind, says Jane Grimes, a U.S. Army reservist.

"It's not acceptable for a woman to go," she says. "It's acceptable for men to go because they are men. 'My mom is not supposed to go do this stuff.' "

Divorce is higher among female veterans than male, and many complain that deployment has caused them to lose child-custody battles. Despite a push to build women's health clinics, the VA still looks like a men's club; many facilities lack everything from female doctors to women's bathrooms.

That lack of care, or reluctance to seek it out, hits female veterans hard: They're the fastest growing group among homeless veterans. Even for the women who don't make it back from war, things are different: Grieving families say women are often forgotten when Americans talk about fallen soldiers.

Betrayal From Within The Ranks

For all their success at new, higher-level jobs, the darkest side of women's military service persists. The Pentagon estimates that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted during her military career.

Women in the military are at an increased risk of rape compared to the general female population, and a high number are raped more than once. Sexual assault is the leading cause of PTSD among women.

Many servicewomen describe a workplace atmosphere of constant sexual harassment, and a culture that sees women as weak and subservient.

Sabina Rangel is a Navy veteran who left a successful career behind after her commanding officers refused to investigate her rape by a senior non-commissioned officer.

"We were seen as providers — medical providers, food providers. We're also seen as sexual providers," she says. "It hasn't changed."

Reporting the crime brings on an ordeal nearly as bad as the sexual assault, according to dozens of women interviewed for this series. While the accused rapist is rarely detained, the victim faces the threat of retaliation by a chain of command that prosecutes only a small fraction of complaints.

Less than 10 percent of rape cases result in jail time — more often, the charges are downgraded to a misdemeanor like adultery, with both the victim and the rapist punished. The Pentagon has pledged, not for the first time, to tackle the problem.

"Sexual assault has no place in my Army, and no place in my military," says Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who directs the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "It is an affront to the values that we defend and it erodes the cohesion that our units demand."

But a case just last month cast the Pentagon's most recent promise in doubt.

In November, a military jury handed down a rare jail sentence to an Air Force pilot for sexually assaulting a sleeping houseguest.

But last month, exercising a power allowed under the military code of justice, his commanding officer simply dismissed all the charges against the pilot. Female veterans say they doubt they will ever see real equality in the service with the military code and culture stacked against them.

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This year, the U.S. military made a big change. Pentagon officials decided that they will no longer keep women out of ground combat roles, to which women already fighting in Afghanistan said you're a little late, we're already in combat. The debate revealed just how little is understood about what women serving in the U.S. military are living through. All this week on MORNING EDITION, we're going to hear the stories of women troops - stories of war and their very unique take on balancing work and family. NPR's Quil Lawrence has reported this series and he's with us now to talk more about what he learned. Good morning, Quil.


MARTIN: So, let's start with Afghanistan, Quil. You covered the war there for years. Did you see women doing combat jobs?

LAWRENCE: Well, first off, the definition of combat has kind of changed with these wars. There's never really been a clear frontline either in Iraq or Afghanistan. So, lots of people, men and women, were getting rocketed and mortared along with everyone else. That said, there are groups of women who've become a very important part of counterinsurgency combat in Afghanistan, and we'll feature some of them this week - members of female engagement teams.

MARTIN: Those were the teams created to reach out to local Afghan women, right?

LAWRENCE: Yes, that's how they started. But soldiers started to notice that they were picking up lots of actionable intelligence that the men couldn't get access to, 'cause they couldn't talk to Afghan women. So, even the special forces units started requesting to have some of these female soldiers go out with them on their night raids where they get dropped miles and miles from a target in the dark. So, there were women carrying out some of these very complicated raids.

MARTIN: Those were dangerous missions. I mean, there were firefights.

LAWRENCE: Absolutely. We spoke to one woman, Sergeant Alyssa Corcoran. She said she was scared the first time she got in a gun fight but it sort of became routine for her.

SERGEANT ALYSSA CORCORAN: I was a gunner up in the turret. If we were able to have eyes on the enemy, we would then fire back. They fired upon us first, so we would always return fire.

MARTIN: And, Quil, another difference between what men and women in the military experience is the issue of sexual assaults, even rape. What did you learn about this problem?

LAWRENCE: That's been all over the news lately - hearings last week in the Senate and the Lackland Airbase scandal. But the statistics really are staggering. The Pentagon's own estimate is 19,000 sex crimes within the military a year, most of which aren't reported. When they are reported, the victims end up facing retaliation, and they say it ends up ruining their careers. And that's what we found. Some of the women we talked to said that they were in an atmosphere that was so full of harassment, they felt that men act as though they were almost entitled to sex. We can hear from one of them, Sabina Rangel, who she was hosting a support group at her house when we met her.

SABINA RANGEL: I was assaulted while in Army boot camp, and I was raped when I was in the Navy. It was almost like the men thought that they could say and do anything to me. Women were seen as medical providers, food providers, things like that. We're also seen as sexual providers.

MARTIN: How did you find women who were willing to share their stories, who were willing to talk about this?

LAWRENCE: Surprisingly, in some ways, it was easier than I expected. I covered this story almost 10 years ago and it was very hard to find women to talk about this. I think it's been somewhat destigmatized. And we first reached out to women through support groups on this subject, but before long there were some that were just volunteering their stories. I would call them on a different subject, and they would say, without me asking, that they had been sexually assaulted in the military. And the prevalence was just shocking. I think one day I made six calls and every single of them had been raped in the military.

MARTIN: I'm wondering about other attitudes, especially among military families. I mean, people comfortable with the idea of their daughters or mothers or wives fighting in a war zone? Is it different than if it were a son or a father?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I think there are questions that we started to ask in the series and we realized we would never have asked a man how do you balance your commitments to your family and your commitments to the military? It just goes without saying; men are men and they go off to war. Women have all of these other issues that, well, American society asks them about. And when they come back, if they've got the same sort of famous thousand-mile stare from PTSD, for me, again, that's expected; for women, why are you being so numb? Why are you unable to relate with your family? And some women don't make it home. We talked to Cedric Gordon, who's a police chief down in St. Petersburg, Florida. And he saw his daughter go off to war but it never really hit home how much danger she was going to be in.

MARTIN: What happened to her? What was her name?

LAWRENCE: Specialist Brittany Gordon was working as an intelligence analyst in Kandahar and she was killed by a suicide bomber in October. Now, Chief Gordon's got photos of her all over his house, including one that she sent him for Father's Day. Here he is describing the picture to us.

CEDRIC GORDON: She has a big smile on her face. She's sitting there with her rifle and all her gear on - 'cause I had never seen her in uniform like that, you know. And I thought, oh gosh, my baby daughter. It hit home again about how much danger she probably was in.

LAWRENCE: Chief Gordon told us this story about going up to Dover Airbase to receive his daughter's remains. And, of course, he wasn't alone. He was on a bus out to the hangar and there was a young family on there - a new young widow and her children. And he said it was the saddest thing he'd ever seen. For a moment, he forgot his own grief because he realized that they'd lost their protector. And he started to understand that his feelings were different. Even though Specialist Brittany Gordon had her flak jacket and her rifle and never would have said she needed protection from anyone, he was her father, and he said he'd always feel that way about a daughter, that he was supposed to look out for her.

MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence. You can her Quil's series on women combat veterans all this week on MORNING EDITION. Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Rachel.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.