One: The Lonely Soldier
On a blustery night in March 2004, I joined a small crowd in New York
City to honor the citizens and soldiers who had died in the first year of the Iraq War. Among us were children, Vietnam veterans, and a mother whose young soldier son had just been killed; she held his wide-eyed picture up throughout the vigil. Huddling together for warmth, we lit candles and read aloud the names and ages of the dead. After each name, a woman struck a huge drum, making a hollow thud that chilled us more than any cold.
We began with the soldiers: Christian Gurtner, 19. Lori Ann Piestewa,
23. . . .
Once 906 American names had been read, a young man took the microphone and read the names of some of the many thousands of
Iraqis who had been killed thus far: Valantina Yomas, 2. Falah Hasun,
9 . . . infants and teenagers, mothers and fathers, toddlers and grandmothers
It took at least an hour to read all those names, and afterwards the young man explained why he knew how to pronounce them: “I’m a soldier just back from Iraq,” he said, “and we’re being used as cannon fodder. We’re being sent into war without body armor or decent vehicles to protect us. And most of the people who are dying in this war are civilians.”
I was taken aback. This was the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion,
and it was unpopular for anyone to criticize the way the war was the lonely soldier
being run, let alone someone who had fought in it. Surely this young soldier was going to be called a traitor by his comrades. So I began to follow the other few veterans who were speaking out like him, curious to see what they were up against, which is how I found army specialist
Mickiela Montoya and learned about women at war.
I first saw Mickiela in November 2006, standing silently in the back of a Manhattan classroom while a group of male veterans spoke to a small audience. Sentiment had shifted by then, and a poll had just been released showing that the majority of soldiers were now highly critical of why and how the war was being fought. Among women serving in
Iraq at the time, 80 percent said they thought the United States should withdraw within a year, and among men, 69.4 percent agreed.1 Wondering how this young woman might feel, I approached her. “Are you a veteran too?” I asked.
“Yes, but nobody believes me.” She tucked her long red hair behind her ears. “I was in Iraq getting bombed and shot at, but people won’t even listen when I say I was at war because I’m a female.”
“I’ll listen,” I said. And soon I was listening to all sorts of female soldiers from all over the country who wanted to tell their stories.
In the end, I interviewed some forty soldiers and veterans for this book, most of them women. The majority had served in Iraq, but a few had been deployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere. I included a variety of ranks, from privates up to a general; all military branches except the
Coast Guard; and soldiers on active duty as well as those in the reserves and the National Guard. I thus use the word soldier to mean members of the Marine Corps and air force as well as the army.
Some women had only positive things to say about their service: it had given them a responsibility they never would have found in civilian life, and they were proud of what they’d accomplished. This was particularly true of soldiers in medical units. Captain Claudia Tascon of the New Jersey National Guard, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia at age thirteen and served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005,
was one of these. “Because I’m more in the curing business than the killing business, I’ve seen the good of what we’ve done. We had dentists and doctors put themselves in harm’s way to help kids in villages. I was in charge of a warehouse, supplying medical and infantry units all over northern Iraq, and I was also supplying the Iraqi army, who had nothing for wounds except saline solution. So I can’t say anything bad about the the lonely soldier
war.” Then she added, “In the civilian world, you’d never have a twentythree-
year-old in charge of people’s lives and millions of dollars worth of supplies like I was.”
Marine Corps major Meredith Brown, who comes from New Orleans,
was so proud of her service in Iraq that she said she would go back in a flash if called, even though she’d had a child since her return. “If I
got killed out there, my son would understand that I’d died to protect him and other Americans from terrorists coming to our backyard.”
But most of the Iraq War veterans I talked to were much more ambivalent.
Some praised the military but considered the war disastrous,
others found their entire service a nightmare, while yet others fell in between.
From all these women, I chose to feature five whose stories best reflected the various experiences of female soldiers in Iraq, although I
have included the stories of others as well. As different as these soldiers are, they all agreed to be in this book because they wanted to be honest about what war does to others and what it does to us. Above all, they wanted people to know what it is like to be a woman at war.