What It's Like Being a Woman On the Front Lines

Miyoko Hikiji's U.S. Army unit was called to active duty in Iraq in early 2003, and she recounts her year spent on the front-lines in this exclusive interview.

In January, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta lifted the military's official ban on women in combat, opening up thousands of additional jobs for women, many of which on the front-line. But when Miyoko Hikiji's U.S. Army unit was called to active duty in Iraq in early 2003, the 5'3" journalism student was forced to confront this 2013 reality a decade earlier. In Iraq, Hikiji drove a five-ton truck that transported supplies, troops, equipment, and enemy prisoners — a supposed "non-combatant" role that was still fraught with danger and anxiety. Hikiji's new book, All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, is an account of the year she spent in Iraq securing the northwest quadrant. We were able to chat with Hikiji about the ins and outs of her time in the Army, right here.

Marie Claire: What made you want to join the service?

Miyoko Hikiji: I didn't have money for college, and my dad was in the Army as well, so it was a tradition. I was also definitely a jock-athlete-type growing up. When I saw those commercials for the Army, it wasn't anything that remotely intimidated me. I was looking for an adventure. I was really very excited about it, especially when they had "I'm Proud To Be An American" playing on the loud speakers when I first enlisted. It was like stepping into a whole new world, and it all just really fit from there. I knew it was what I supposed to be doing. I also really never wanted to be a teacher or anything like that. M.A.S.H. was one of my favorite TV shows growing up, and I saw a little bit of myself in Margaret.

MC: What was the hardest part of being in Iraq for that year?

MH: The hardest part was just not really knowing what was going to happen or what was happening. Everyday when we would have meetings, they wouldn't tell us if they were running any ambushes. Whenever we saw helicopters, we knew it was a looming threat that somebody was hurt or somebody was dying; a looming threat that tomorrow it could be me.

I was fortunate that I had a higher love of purpose. I was a pretty good Christian, so I went whenever there was some kind of a church service available. I did use my faith and reflection a lot, and spent a lot of time with chaplains trying to find the greater good in it all. There were also 15 women in my unit, so we leaned on each other a lot.

MC: What was your relationship like with those 15 women?

MH: It's always kind of a mixed bag. We kind of have a love-hate relationship; we're definitely a dynamic group. Of course, we would always huddle up and take care of each other, but if we were all staying in one room, we would fight. We had different schedules, so people would get upset if someone left the lights on — that sort of thing. Once, someone put me on a mission to go to the Syrian border, and one of the women fought to go with me — isolated women in that environment was a dangerous situation for me. So, we holed ourselves up in a little room in a border for a week.

MC: As you know, January marked the first time women could officially participate in front-line combat. After serving, what is your stance on having women actively participate in the military?

MH: The military certainly has a standard for physical fitness, and if you pass the physical test, you're good enough. If you have the standard, then that's all there is to it, regardless of your gender or sexual orientation. Women are highly organized, and we have a level of compassion that many people see as a detriment, but is actually a benefit. We really do look at our fellows as our family. There's the theory that if you're a women, you're weaker because you're sensitive, but some of the things we're able to do are actually very strong benefits. They're interesting benefits, ones that even the men can appreciate.

MC: What are two improtant lessons that have resonated with you from your service since returning to the states?

MH: One is that love is everywhere. It's often not that easy to find, but it exists if you look for it and it can get you thorugh any situation. We found that some Iraqis had great love and loyalty for us and the U.S. It was easy to think of Iraqis as the enemy, but they're just from another country. They were great people and we had to be openminded enough to see that. It was easy to be angry at everything.

We also really did some things we never thought we'd be able to do or endure — we really could be quite feisty and mean! When I came home and wrote the book, I tried to capture that no one person was all good or all bad, and that's normal.

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Schaefer