Fight Like a Girl (In Iraq and Afghanistan)

Cross-posted at Feministing.

The recession is driving up recruitment rates for the U.S. Armed Forces. When men and women are laid off, they frequently turn to the one agency that is always hiring: the Army. But women, increasingly seeking out the Army for employment, are being turned away because of the struggles of the Army to accommodate their mentally and physically wounded. One woman I know who enlisted in January had her basic training canceled, while 2009 ROTC graduates in America’s colleges have to wait until well into 2010 to take Officer Basic Courses, their first step towards deployment after graduation. This is not unique to women who attempt to enlist, but disproportionately affects women because of the recession.

Back in July, a U.S. fighter plane called the F-22 was essentially discontinued by the Senate, because Secretary of Defense Gates deduced that the U.S. owns enough. He proposed using the saved money to expand the Army by 22,000 troops. This was approved.

My knee-jerk reaction was “No more troops.” The Army is requesting additional troops because, on paper only, it has bumped up against its Congressionally-mandated end strength (maximum size) of 547,000 soldiers. The Army is “full.”

Active duty soldiers sustaining mental or physical injuries are classified as Wounded Warriors. There are 55-60,000 Wounded Warriors in the lengthy process of medical evaluation under the Department of Defense, but not yet discharged into the Department of Veterans Affairs. In limbo, these 55-60,000 are unable to deploy, while their numbers count against the Army’s limit. The Army is 10% smaller than we think it is.

For now, Secretary Gates justified the 22,000-troop replacement force as a stopgap until the VA can process the backlog. While not a permanent solution, the recommended troop replacement will prevent women from being turned away from the Army with such frequency while the VA gets its processes back on track. Moreover, it shows that the administration is acutely aware of the weaknesses in the treatment process of Wounded Warriors.

And while the increased entry of women into the workforce during the recession necessitates this job creation, it overshadows the problematic recruiting practices in communities of color and lower-income schools. No Child Left Behind required that high schools give military recruiters access to students and student information. In my plurality-white high school in 2004, a signature-gathering campaign drove recruiters off campus, while nearby campuses with greater populations of students of color devoted entire buildings to the Army. Enlisting is presented to students as young as 11 as an alternative to college in a time when tuition and state deficits decimate financial aid, driving women and communities of color towards instant employment and away from higher education.

It’s known that the U.S. Armed forces are trans-unfriendly, and can be a dangerous work environment for women. There is an unofficial Military Sex Offender Registry, and the Army launched its own Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program. A task force was created in 2004 that found that between 1999 and 2004, 67% of all reported assaults occurred on-post. Ann mentions that this NY Times article profiling women in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) glossed over the problems faced by women in the military. Congresswoman Jane Harman recounted that 41% of women at an Los Angeles VA hospital reported being raped by a fellow soldier in 2008.

For women who enter the military knowing the risks of sexual assault, or who are not offered the choice of a different career path, Secretary Gates’ troop increase means a paycheck. The base pay for ROTC graduates (2nd Lieutenants) is $26,204.40 regardless of sex. At the very least, this represents entry level pay equity and an assurance of continued employment. Veronica at Girl With Pen showed how starting salaries straight out of college differ for graduates. Entry-level army positions can be financially equitable.

Women still cannot serve in the Infantry or Army Rangers. Since 2001, the floodgates have opened for women facing military threats– the Army reports that 95% of positions are open to women. Women are allowed in combat theater, meaning the geographic region in which combat occurs. Because of the high operational tempo (exhausting pace of military operations), close proximity to Improvised Explosive Devices, and high exposure to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, women are, for the first time, being diagnosed at record rates with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Fortunately, as of June, Congress has the chance to take the tremendous step extending PTSD resources to all service members “in combat theater,” instead of just those in “combat with the enemy.” This expands those eligible for PTSD benefits to those on active duty who are not necessarily in the infantry: that means women. Every Monday, the VA publishes statistics about its unresolved benefit claims. That’s how the VA’s progress is monitored.

Post-Vietnam, 30% of servicemen and 27% of servicewomen were estimated to have PTSD. In today’s wars, where women are increasingly exposed to trauma, a doctor at the VA’s Puget Sound healthcare system estimates that servicewomen exposed to a trauma develop PTSD at twice the rate of servicemen exposed to the same. The expanded resources for servicewomen, both in benefits after combat and in mental resiliency training beforehand, should help. But knowing the VA’s overwhelming workload, it is doubtful that they are able to cope with this new benefit eligibility.

More servicewomen are being diagnosed with PTSD, often with severe symptoms. Some encounter sexualized violence by other soldiers. They are unable to sustain employment or personal relationships, and are undeployable. The backlog before they are discharged causes a false estimate of Army numbers. Then, additional women seeking to enlist are denied entry. This pernicious cycle affects women at every stage.


The New Generation of Women Veteran Activists
Support Women Veterans
The Combat Within: Female Veterans and PTSD Benefits
Women at war in Iraq
Friday Feminist Fuck You: The U.S. Army
Piestewa Peak officially named
Homecoming: PTSD, violence against women and other consequences of the unjust, illegal war in Iraq
Female Soldiers’ Hell


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