In early 2006, as a twenty-four year-old Army sergeant I found myself sitting in a sterile university classroom, and looking back on my year in Ramadi, Iraq. Ramadi was one of the absolute worst places one could be during the Iraq war in 2004-2005, and my time spent there racked up memories like old broken records constantly on rotation in my head.
While sitting in a college philosophy class listening to the professor wax poetic about dead white guys, I could see people dying all around me. Projected images and olfactory hallucinations of the smells of burnt flesh overwhelmed me, but I continued to sit in silence, doodling in my notebook waiting for class to end. There wasn’t any proper venue in which I felt I could bring this up and I had no intention of doing so anytime soon.
The classroom environment hadn’t changed but I had. Like so many other veterans re-entering academia, I chose to blend in and not draw attention to my veteran status. If I was going to talk about the war, I preferred to discuss it with people who had been on the battlefield and had similar experiences. However, I knew no one personally in my city who was in Iraq, let alone anyone who deployed with me. I was apparently alone, but unafraid by this. I kept quiet and moved about my day.
Up to this point, I seemed to fit in with my classmates. Other than being a few years older than the other co-eds, you really couldn’t distinguish me from any other college student by looks or dress alone.
One morning as the philosophy professor opened the floor for discussion, other students began sharing diverse views of war throughout history. How they got onto that topic again, I had no clue. I was too busy trying to stop thinking about dead people. You could find me typically sitting quietly in the back, minding my own business until class ended. But not this time.
A female student spoke up, she was nineteen, but, of course, knew what she needed to know about Iraq from news sources online. She said that everything American soldiers were doing in Iraq was wrong, and that they all deserved to die.
“Excuse me?” I interrupted, “I was in Iraq for a year and, based on your generalized viewpoint, I should be dead?"
“Well, we didn’t belong in Iraq in the first place,” another student said.
I told the student that I agreed with her that the United States shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, but now that the American troops were there, they couldn’t just pick up and leave. That would be a disservice to the Iraqis and the existing power vacuum was a problem that won’t be going away anytime soon.
“We have to fix it. We have to make things right before we leave. And we have the ability to do so,” I said, attempting maintain composure.
Usually when I spoke up in the classroom, I stayed in student mode, articulating my thoughts and opinions without profanity. But I couldn’t maintain that reaction for long after hearing something so callous and flippant that went against the core of my being. That’s when I reverted to my role as sergeant, and the person I was talking to became a subordinate.
The nineteen-year-old continued to mutter negative stereotypes about veterans “killing babies” and so on. In an instant, I felt my entire year on the battlefield was being invalidated and violated by this student and by those who remained silent in their seats. At seventeen, I joined the Army. I had already served in the military for over seven years by this time and had worked for everything I had. Now, a nineteen-year-old living off her mom and dad was telling me how life worked.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” I said, glaring steely-eyed at her, a war-made realist with no tolerance for frivolous attacks. “At least I’ve been there. Where have you been outside of the US? Say what you’ve just said one more time. Please,” I asked, knowing quite well that I was now baiting her into a fight that she unknowingly sparked.
She repeated what she said verbatim, quite brazenly, that all of us deserved to die for being in Iraq. I sat there and felt my honeymoon phase turn off, and like a light switch, I was turned on to fight mode.
“Really? Why don’t you come over here and kill me then?”
The nineteen-year-old girl exclaimed, now visibly nervous after meeting the expression her statement caused, “I don’t have to sit here and listen to you.”
“Neither do I, so you can do us all a favor a keep your ignorant mouth shut. What the hell have you handled in your life without relying on mommy and daddy to foot the bill, you spoiled imperial brat?!”
She looked at me in astonishment for a moment, and then quickly turned around in her seat.
“You openly disrespect me, tear my life apart in a sentence, and you know absolutely nothing about life and suffering. I invite you to prove me wrong on that. Months ago, I was helping a girl your age who got her legs blown off by a roadside bomb and you’re telling me that she deserved to die a slow, painful death. Fuck. You. Put your money where your mouth is and come over here and kill me yourself if you think I deserve to die.”
She remained facing forward, just a few seats ahead of me and to my left. I had been gripping the sides of the desk with wrathful arms and hands but with a calm, murderous affect. I was longing to pick up the desk and smash it over her privileged head. I was dying for her to make the first move. It would be an excuse to act upon my desire, and to return her gesture of disrespect with amplification. Like the gratification of an indigenous woman finally getting to smash the embodiment of the conquistador in the skull. It felt so justified. Please, get up.
The professor, as well as the other students, remained silent and seemingly in shock. After my outburst, I could no longer hide that I was a veteran.
Emotionally and mentally, I had little, if anything, in common with my classmates. We were oceans apart in life experience. The students had learned in a flash that in spite of my physical stature, I was more than capable of being overwhelmingly terrifying when angry.
Since returning from deployment, I’ve felt out of place, but I masked it and set it aside by simply paying attention to the things that most Americans take for granted. Food. Electricity. Clean running water. Toilets. Hell, toilet paper. Service on-demand. Wi-Fi. A safe place to sleep at night. Driving down the road without your car being hit by an IED. Seeing clean streets not littered with corpses. But it still wasn’t enough.
My first semester back at college was obviously a disaster. I couldn’t concentrate. When students said they knew what was wrong with the war in Iraq and I tried to set the record straight, no one seemed to want to hear what I had to say, even though I had been there and had firsthand experience. I knew exactly what was going wrong but I was preferably unheard, muted.
My studies began to take a nosedive. It was a day or so after that incident that I reached out to the regional VA office in Atlanta, Georgia. After a few minutes of explaining that I wasn’t looking for benefits, I asked to get screened for mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as the signs and symptoms were blaringly present. I was told by the woman on the line to prove I was ever in the military, let alone Iraq.
Oddly enough, she had pulled my records over the phone by using my Social Security number, so I inquired about this, only to have her also demand my DD214 (discharge papers). The requested document was mailed and I waited three weeks before making contact again with the regional VA office. I was met with the voice of a different woman, who, like the one before her, had the audacity to question my military service and my service in combat as a female. When I argued the point that I had used some of my GI Bill money and that as she had pulled up my information with my Social Security number – she had to have known my military service record existed – she quickly hung up on me.
It took me years to get beyond that alienation, by not only my fellow Americans, but an institution that was supposed to take care of me as a veteran. While I had initially reached out to VA, this was followed by a lapse in contact that lasted several years and proved to be one of the most difficult periods in my life outside of serving in Iraq. It should go without saying that women have not only been making historical strides, but also paying dearly for their bravery. I was paying the price now in not only dealing with those ignorant to my service, but now I felt even more invisible than I had initially planned. It wasn’t that I was merely anonymous, it felt as though they were ensuring that I didn’t even exist.
Others around me didn’t want to acknowledge a woman in combat because it was so contrary to their beliefs. In my view, I just worked with Iraqis in one of the most brutal periods of the Iraq war. It was a job, and I acted on my honor – something only I could know.
No one had the story right nor did anyone want to listen to the one person around who was there. I felt desperate to be heard but was met with a sea of deaf ears, and that left me feeling painfully alone. It was a dangerous mindset, as I felt I had absolutely nothing to lose.
Prior to going to war, I likened myself to Ferdinand the Bull, the storybook character who would rather smell flowers than participate in bullfights. Ferdinand would sit in the middle of the bull ring failing to take heed of any provocations of the matador and others to fight.
I was never one to start fights but once they started, I would be the one to end them, often jumping in between a friend and a bully when I was younger or protecting women and children in war from bloodthirsty men as an adult.
Without question, I would rather sit around and smell the flowers, uninterested in everything else and daydreaming. But once I get stung, someone is going to get gored. I’d been called names and been harassed throughout my life and could laugh it off with perhaps a sarcastic comment. Yet relentless, persistent harassment and vindictive behavior by my unit in Iraq had worn my patience and resolve down to the bone, and now I was either being antagonized or dismissed at home.
The conversation in the philosophy classroom certainly made me much angrier than I would have been had I not been a combat veteran. After the heated exchange in the classroom, I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up five times a night. I got chronic stomachaches and had some form of illness or allergic reaction that consistently appeared after a stressful event. I stopped going to class. I couldn’t stand to look at any of the students, the one I argued with or the ones who sat by silently.
They were just as complicit in their silence. It was the worst part of Iraq over again. You see, it wasn’t combat or even losing friends that torments me most; it’s what my unit did to me. I believed in being a Good Samaritan. If you see an injustice being committed, you have an obligation to intervene. With knowledge comes accountability. If someone is being hurt, one should not idly sit by and watch. Yet, I was persecuted and no one moved a muscle. Tolerance, to me, means validation.
It sickened me to look at the other students. When I did look at them, I became tense, I quaked with anger and turned red. My body and mind returned to Iraq and the cowardly people who persecuted me, falsely accused me of a crime I didn’t commit, and tore me apart. My mind shifted from philosophy to killing in seconds. If I had to listen to any more of my classmates talk about the war as if they knew what was going on, I was going to explode. I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t be there. But where could I be? I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere.
As the homecoming blues set in, my anger, my sadness, the emptiness within stirred quietly. Every fiber of my being was slowly unraveling.
While we see more coverage of women combat veterans in the wake of "Ashley's War", let us not forget that the female face of war existed long before Gayle Tzemach Lemmon pointed it out. The face of the female combat veteran experience, in order to be seen, must also be heard from a first-person narrative. Yet, what we see is a massive misappropriation of that voice.
In "Ashley's War", I got the impression that Lemmon wasn't exactly looking to set the record straight; she was trying to sell a book with a watered down version of our history to suit the palate for mass consumption. No discussion of moral dilemmas, a minimalist nod of the prelude to Cultural Support Teams (CST), and descriptions of the women that focused more on their looks than their intestinal fortitude.
The narrative the public grabbed onto, to include Reese Witherspoon who bought the rights to produce the film before the book was published, was not that of any woman standing in our vicinity, but one that was already dead. The message I read was that the only time people are willing to pay attention to female combat veteran PTSD and related issues is if it's a story told post-mortem. We're not exactly seen or heard while we're alive - and perhaps that is still the preference of the general American public and Lemmon merely responded.
Dispatches from an itinerant and irreverent artist.