My good friend Leah Charles chatted with me on Instant Messenger about her experience as a woman in the army. She enlisted post 9/11, has served three years, and was recently married to a soldier. She is in the United States until June 18th, as she came home to recover from a surgery (unrelated to the war zone). For now, she is hanging around the Fort, doing busy work. The conversation about discrimination started with the inquisition on whether her cohorts will think she is being a "typical woman" in that she is home healing, instead of fighting.
B.S: If you don't mind me asking, do you think your unit will discriminate against you because of time off (well not off, but not in Iraq)?
L.C.: I think that some of them will be haters
L.C.: because they know I have been enjoying it while I can
B.S: Have you felt discriminated against because you are a woman -- do you think this incident will be yet another way for some to marginalize?
L.C.: but I went through a lot with this surgery, and even though I think some people are jealous that I got to come home, I know that they wouldn't want to trade considering the circumstance
B.S: Of course. Surgery is no fun. I am sure they are missing your awesome self.
L.C.: most people know that if I wanted to I could start developing 'phantom' pains. If I kept going back to the doctor saying I was still hurting, they wouldn't send me back
B.S: I can imagine that many folks would take that "easy" route.
B.S: And many may expect a woman to go that route.
L.C.: yeah, there's some of them like that here now....
B.S: Women, men?
L.C.:two girls in particular that are getting out of the army and all they do is complain
B.S: What are the reasons?
L.C.: I'm not sure what their reasons are exactly. One seems to have the view that everyone is out to get her. Both of them are somewhat of storytellers. I take everything they say at face value.
L.C.:but there is a guy like that here as well
B.S:Do you think people are afraid, bored, etc?
L.C.: I think that they just take too much for granted
L.C.: don't get me wrong,
L.C.: there's a lot of things that frustrate me about the service,
L.C.: but it has a lot of benefits too
B.S: What kind of benefits?
L.C.: I'm not sure. It's definitely not a job for everyone...it's a lifestyle, and it takes a lot of getting used to
B.S: Do you think it is harder for a woman to make those adjustments? Or is it easier because women tend to organize, reach out, emotionalize themselves and connect -- and therefore fight the good fight with vigor?
L.C.: I'm not sure. I think that it depends on the individual. Everyone deals with things different.
B.S: Really, I am curious because our society often pigeonholes women and men into these pre-destined gender roles, and from what I read, those who step out of the roles are at a higher rate of discrimination.
L.C.: That's a good point.
L.C.: I think that women in the service are rewarded for stepping out of the gender roles.
B.S: And it appears that most people's ears perk up when they think of a woman with a gun.
L.C.: ha ha true. I love my rifle.
B.S: Don't get me wrong, I think it is kick ass, because I fight the roles on a daily basis, but the arguments continue...
B.S: Don't you kind of hate that women are rewarded for doing their job?
B.S: How can we ever move in to a world where women are seen as equal if we keep pinning women up for not cooking a pie, and instead fighting for the country (not that we can't do both!!)
L.C.: I feel that I am just as smart as a man...
B.S: But while WE know that we are more smart, it is not us who we are fighting...is it?
L.C.: but in some aspects, we will never be the same
L.C.: for instance...
L.C.: I was chosen for combatives
B.S: go on...
L.C.: There were only a few people selected from our company to get certified.
L.C.: I was the only female in the class....
L.C.: the instructors had NO mercy for me
L.C.: I fought dudes, all day everyday for 2 weeks
L.C.: I came home everyday so sore that I could barely make it up the steps
B.S: Did they ever say, "I can't hit a 'girl?'"
L.C.: and ours instuctors told them that they better, or I would beat their ass
B.S: And you would!
B.S: I mean, isn't there a command that says not to hurt women or children?
B.S: What are they the only innocence? The men are too...no?
L.C.: The last day of class, to pass the course you have to go through a 'Punch Drill"
L.C.: The teachers hit you and you can't hit back
L.C.: you have to get them in a hold so they can't hit you
L.C.: it was no fucking joke...I got busted in the face a few times.....busted nose, blood and all
B.S: Gosh. That is severe -- vagina or not
L.C.: When it was all over, the instructor let me know that he never takes it easy on females
L.C.: It felt good. Cause I know I held my own even if my face was all fucked up
L.C.: But I know that physically, I'm not as strong as most men. But I'll never give up either.
B.S: What about post hit-in-the-face -- were you getting any kudos that included sexual discriminations
L.C.: in the class?
B.S:I ask because I have talked to men who have a fear of butch lesbians [and the idea of women with guns equates to lesbians in our society for some reason]
L.C.: ha ha me too
B.S: For them, these (awesome) women are intruding on their space; their turf. But at the same time, they would love to have sex with them, because the men think it is "hot" that they are aggressive and may punch them in the face.
B.S: And I'm like WTF? Not all butch girls want to punch people, and the whole point is that they DON'T want to be with men. It's just incredible that women -- no matter what -- get belittled by the patriach.
L.C.:I think some of them try to justify it in their heads that of course they could beat you...but I see men do that with other men as well. Everyone wants to think they are the toughest
B.S: For sure. Especially in the a war environment, you have to be tough, right?
L.C.: that was our instructors main point. I'm not gonna lie,
B.S: I think it is interesting that women are constantly in a double bind
B.S: On the one hand we should assimilate to to the "boy culture" (if we want to be a part of the military, and be seen as equal, we have to be tough, etc). I mean, look at the shit those women in the Citadel get...
B.S: On the other hand, we are expected to wear lip gloss
L.C.: I know you will hate to hear this....
L.C.: I think it's because I'm still 'girly'. I keep lip gloss in a bag with ammo.
L.C.:...(I'm so embarrassed to admit this to you)
B.S: I don't think there is anything wrong with you carrying lip gloss, instead, I see that you have a CHOICE, and that you can look/do as you please. That is a good thing.
L.C.: I do it cause i like it....but I feel what you're saying.
L.C.: those classes were all day long, everyday I would get my ass handed to me at some point. We would spend almost all day grappling (fighting on the ground....most fights don't stay up long) and we wouldn't take many breaks. So some of the guys would feel like they got a little break when they got to me....if I would slow down, our teacher would encourage them to beat my ass more.
B.S: Wow. Do you think the fights were unfair in that way then? I mean, what if you were just not strong (and were a man). Would the instructor insist the same way?
L.C.: The main one was an ass sometimes...but he was right
L.C.: Hand to hand combat is just that....he was trying to drive home the point that if you ever get into a situation where you are fighting an insurgent, they aren't going to take it easy on you. You fight for your life, and if you want to go home someday you better fight with eveything you got. Never stop...never slow down....NEVER QUIT.
L.C.: I probably have it easier, cause I seem to fit the mold of what is an 'acceptable' soldier
B.S: what is an acceptable soldier (you knew I would ask)
L.C.: In my opinion an acceptable soldier is one that does their job.
L.C.: But I mean from societies perspective,
L.C.: I'm still very much female....
L.C.: because I think you are right with the 'butch' women
B.S: How about the other side - are there men who are feminine as well?
L.C.: but I don't think you see it as often
B.S: I feel like it is more dangerous to everyone when we lay down these roles for people. Discrimination on all sides takes place. In our world one is damned if they stay in their assigned role, and damned if they step out of it.
L.C.: I would guess that there are some that would like to be more feminine, but don't want to show it cause of the attached stigma
B.S: I will say that I am happy to hear that you have been safe and treated with fairness.
B.S: In the feminist circle I hear raging numbers of harrassment because of gender.
L.C.: I think that the army knows that they have to tread lightly on issues of discrimination....
L.C.: We have mandatory training events that everyone has to attend. I'm not saying that harassment doesn't happen.The military is still dominated by men
B.S: Yeah, I mean waiters at Ponderosa have similar meetings [on discrimination in the workplace]...
B.S: In this day in age, we are told that discrimination is not cool
L.C.:true....but there are alot of things that can happen to you in the service
B.S: But I contend that those "new" guidelines have pissed some folks off.
B.S: Do you think the numbers of rape, violence have been exaggerated?
B.S: I mean, maybe people want to get out of the service, and this is a ticket?
L.C.: possibly.....I'm sure it happens. But like anywhere, there are always incidents that go unreported
L.C.: it may even out for those that falsely accuse
L.C.: either way it's a messed up situation
B.S: True. It most certainly is.
B.S: So how did you and Chad meet?
L.C.: here at fort...after my first deployment
B.S: Not that harrassment was a segue -- sorry for the juxtoposition!
B.S: Do you think life is easier for a woman in the military who has a partner who is also serving?
L.C.: I will probably get out
B.S: get out of what?
L.C.: I probably won't reenlist
B.S: Oh, I see. Will he do the same?
L.C.: No, he has reenlisted.
B.S: How long is the serving time? Have many years have you completed (how many has he)?
L.C.: He will stay in until 2012, and then can decide if he wants to reenlist again
L.C.: We both have been in 3 years.
B.S: Do you mind me asking why you will not enlist again?
L.C.:Sometimes I think that I want to, because as mushy as it sounds....I am damn proud to wear this uniform. But I see what it does to families. I can't imagine us both being in and having kids. It would break my heart to have to leave them with someone else.
B.S: I don't think it is mushy. I think it is great to be committed -- be it your job, your family...
L.C.: If you stay in the same unit, you are on the same deployment rotation....so the alternative would be to get in two different units on the same base. But I have seen folks that have that arrangement. With the way rotations to the middle east have been going, mom is home one year and then leaves, then dad is gone the next year....and so the cycle goes. I don't want to do that to my kids. Worrying about one parent is enough.
B.S: So then you want to have kiddies?
L.C.: Very much so....whether they are my 'own' or not.
B.S: Well, being a mommy is being a mommy...
L.C.: what about you? Do you want some rugrats someday
B.S: No, I do not want children.
B.S: I also don't want to be married...
B.S: But I love and respect other folks outlooks on life...
L.C.: that's cool.
L.C.: you have to do what makes you happy
L.C.: although I do think that you would make an awesome mother
B.S: I am happy being an awesome auntie.
L.C.: that's good. That's the most fun, cause you can spoil them rotten and then hand them over
B.S: There are so many kids out there who need a good role model, and I keep thinking that where I am headed I will be able to take on that leadership.
B.S: Having kids will (among a list of other things) kind of hold me back...
L.C.: at least you realize that...too many people have them as show items...and then don't want raise them....
B.S.: When are you getting married? (Congrats again, by the way)
L.C.: Technically, we are already married.
L.C.: ha hah....I found out while I was driving down I-5.
B.S: What did you find out on the I-5?
B.S:That you were technically married?
L.C.: yep. crazy huh?
B.S: Yeah, what gives?
L.C.: The big wedding is planned for April. But we should be able to live together in Iraq, so we decided to do a double proxy marriage. Basically, they have stand-ins for you at the justice of the peace in Montana. So I got married and wasn't even there! And now I'm a newlywed with no groom. haahaha
B.S: I have never heard of that before!
B.S: Is that legal?
B.S: I mean did you take his name (or did he take yours)? Do you file taxes together?
L.C.: it's recognized in every state except for Idaho.... but it is recognized by all branches of the military
L.C.: we will file taxes together next time around. I probably won't take his name until April.
B.S: Well, congrats again to you.
B.S: Thank you for enlightening me.
L.C.: You too Bon
L.C.: hahah I feel smarter from just talking to you....you are expanding my vocabulary
B.S: I truly wish you the best in life - if you are anything like the ol' Leah, you will laugh and dance throughout your years.
L.C.: oh my yes.....
B.S: Ok Hon.
L.C.: take it easy
B.S: It is one in the a.m. for me...
L.C.: keep writing the great stuff
B.S: You too!