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September 20, 2007

Life as an American Female Soldier

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There were lots of reminders that you weren't just a soldier — you were a female soldier. When you were on a convoy, you couldn't say, "Please stop, I have to go to the bathroom." You just had to hold it. Once, a female second lieutenant asked if anybody had a cup. Two guys in the vehicle held up a poncho to give her privacy. She peed in the cup, then threw it out a window. In Kuwait, we didn't have showers — we just cleaned ourselves with baby wipes. That lasted four or five months.

We had three identical uniforms we rotated through. When it was too hot and we'd take off our jackets and wear just our T-shirts, the sexual remarks were endless. You'd hear, "Oh, my God, she's got boobs." I'd just go in my office and close the door.

Even if you don't sleep with anyone, people will say you've slept with the whole unit. And truthfully, a few people did. Some soldiers were dating, even though they faced disciplinary action for any form of PDA. They'd have to sneak off at night to the Porta-Potty. One couple got caught fooling around behind the Dumpster. Yeah, that's love: "Meet me in the trash!"

I was told that the guy who'd assaulted me had orders to stay away from me. But during a break at an army base in Germany, I was going up a flight of stairs when I saw him. I freaked out. I raced down the stairs, hyperventilating. Those experiences got me started drinking, smoking, and taking tons of meds. It was a low, low point.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. They brought me back to Walter Reed in Washington, DC. I spent nine days in a psychiatric ward — what a nightmare. They took away everything, including my stuffed dog, Cheetah, because he had a string around his neck. I mean, I'm going to hang myself with a two-inch string? Give me a break.

I was angry about what happened to me. I testified before the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues on Capitol Hill. On the morning of the hearing, a member of Congress came up to me in the hallway. She had looked at my testimony and was concerned about certain things I was going to say.

"Can you take this material out?" she asked.

She wanted me to cut some of the vulgarity in my statement, to pretty it up. I refused. I told her I was keeping everything or I wasn't speaking at all.

Today, I'm the manufacturing manager at a Maryland factory that makes medical components for pacemakers. A hundred people work under me, and I make $74,000 a year. I just had my third promotion in two years.

What does the rest of America know about the war? Not much. These days, even I barely follow the news from Iraq. The headlines are always negative: "Thirty-seven soldiers killed today." And you're like, "I hope it isn't another one of my friends."

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