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Veterans Decry Institutional Sexism in Military

"I joined the military to defend my country, not my integrity and self-worth." So said an eight-year veteran of the National Guard named Abby Hiser on day three of the Winter Soldier hearings outside Washington, D.C. Speaking at a packed morning session titled "Divide to Conquer: Gender and Sexuality in the Military," her fellow panelists were mostly female vets slated to address everything from the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy to sexual assault within the ranks. But rather than personal recollections of sexual humiliation or violence -- and in sharp contrast to horror stories told by previous speakers describing their slaughter of Iraqi civilians -- the testimonials that morning revealed more about the kind of institutional sexism that, as an intractable power dynamic, defines the lives of women in uniform.

As soldiers, then as veterans, and, even now, as members of the anti-war movement, women in the military are still fighting to be taken seriously. "It's hard to be a veteran of the war and a woman," said Iraq vet Patty McCann. "... A lot of times my experience gets boiled down to what I experienced as a woman -- and I don't get to talk about some of the things that I experienced as a soldier."

Wendy Barranco couldn't agree more. Trained as a combat medic and deployed in Tikrit between October 2005 and July 2006, she worked in a medical unit where the gender ratio was "about 50/50," mostly male doctors and female nurses. ("A traditional hospital setting," she joked.) On the panel, she had described being sexually harassed nearly every single day of her deployment by a high-ranking surgeon who had fulfilled her request to be moved to the operating room. Feeling she owed him something in return, "this person would catch me alone or push up against me," she said -- but he stopped short of getting too physical. As she put it, "he knew exactly what he was doing."

Wendy never reported him -- "I knew command wasn't going to do anything about it, so there was no point" -- in no small part because it would end up being her word against his. Besides, she said, "are they gonna get rid of the guy whose making decisions and saving lives, or me, the disposable specialist?"

On the panel, describing the dread she felt going to work every day knowing that she had to be constantly watching her back, Wendy had briefly broken down, frustrated, muttering, "I hate to be the girl." Later, when asked about the sense that she was viewed first as a woman rather than a soldier, she said, "It's definitely true."

"You're seen as, like, the 'weight,'" she said. "The weakly being." Even in its less egregious forms, sexist attitudes were often the norm. "There's a sense of, oh, now we've got a woman, now I've gotta pick up her baggage and mine." Yet it was rarely discussed. Wendy called the sexist power dynamic in the military "the big pink elephant in the room."

Fellow veteran and Iraq Veterans Against the War member Jen Hogg agreed that the attitude of male soldiers could range from condescending to outright sexist. As a mechanic on reserve duty, she often had to work with cumbersome equipment that invited perceptions that she was weaker and less capable. If male soldiers tried to help, "they weren't trying to be rude" -- but it did play into a power dynamic that leaves female soldiers treated like second-class citizens.

A staunch opponent of the invasion -- "I was at a protest the day the war started" -- Jen never deployed to Iraq. She signed up for the Army National Guard in Buffalo, N.Y., in March 2000, was activated to enter Manhattan following 9/11, and got out of the military in April 2005. Having given a brief introduction to the gender and sexuality panel that morning, Jen went into far more detail later on, when asked about the ways sexism is codified within the military. She described women sergeants struggling to gain the respect of the men under their command.

She described certain sexist army running chants (cadences) called "jodis," in which trainers bark narratives of weak and scheming men having affairs with the soldiers' wives (aggression training that both feminizes civilian men and demonizes soldier's wives). Discussing the recent New York Times series on murder at the hands of Iraq war vets -- an article that upset many veterans -- she notes that a lot of the victims were wives and girlfriends. "I think that's highly related to sexism in the military." She also described shooting practice done in basic training that requires soldiers to shoot "pop-up" targets in three seconds -- no time to distinguish civilian or soldier, let alone women or children -- a description that recalled one panelist who talked about the way soldiers were taught to be suspicious of pregnant women, whose bellies were likely to be bombs.

The truth is, in the military, said Jen, "you're trained to view a woman as something less."

It should come as no surprise then, that, as was true in previous anti-war movements, groups like IVAW are grappling internally to dismantle the kind of sexist programming that exists in its ranks. "Even in the anti-war movement," Jen says, she'll be in a situation where she is wearing military gear and "have a guy ask me, 'Whose girlfriend are you?'"

Wendy, too, often encounters surprise or skepticism from people who learn she served in Iraq. "They don't believe that I'm a fucking veteran. They say, 'you're so tiny!' But what they're really saying is 'you're a woman.'"

Wendy joined the military after Sept. 11. "At that point in time, I believed anything. I was gullible, I was naive. I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, we gotta kick some ass." She admits bluntly, "I had no freakin' clue why we were in Iraq" but figured, "if they're sending us there, it must be justified." It wasn't until her deployment and all that came with it that she started questioning the basis for the war. After returning home, she joined IVAW a year ago. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, who is currently deployed and continues to support the occupation -- "he says 'as many lives as it takes'" -- did not understand why Wendy would speak out. "At first we got into arguments .... He would be like, 'why do you want to call attention to yourself?' and I would say, 'I want to call attention to the movement.'"

A similar tension has existed between IVAW leadership and those members who had to fight to include the panel on gender and sexuality at the conference. It was not much of a secret that some of the Winter Soldier organizers were resistant. "People really had to go to the mat to make it happen," one of the panelists told the audience that morning -- and both Jen and Wendy concurred. "It's always a bit of a controversy to go into those things," Jen said. With IVAW still in its formative stage and focused on reaching out to new members, there was clearly concern that airing too much dirty laundry could turn people off. Especially with the topic of rape, Wendy said, there was fear that the session might become "for lack of a better word, a 'sobfest.'"

When asked if there was any concern that those testifying would find themselves speaking before veterans who themselves had been guilty of sexism -- or worse -- Jen raised her eyebrows. "I haven't heard that," she said. Although, "it's definitely a possibility. Being in the military makes it a possibility."

In the end, many who attended the panel left with the sense that the speakers had been oddly restrained, or else had barely scratched the surface of what is a deep and serious problem in the armed forces. Just one day before, the Associated Press had reported an increase in sexual harassment in the military and no doubt people were expecting testimony that would speak more explicitly to that. But, especially in the broader context of the weekend, to expect a panel of victims of sexual abuse to tell their stories openly and without fear seemed a stretch -- even for a truth commission.

For all their courage, the male veterans who confessed what they did overseas could expect empathy from the audience and their fellow veterans at Winter Soldier. It's hard to imagine that female veterans -- many who had nothing to confess but the demeaning or violent actions of their fellow soldiers -- would have felt so comfortable. It's ironic, perhaps. But as Jen put it: "A lot of people think it's a women's issue and not a military issue."

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