The injury wasn’t new, and neither was the insult. Rebecca, a combat veteran of two tours of duty, had been waiting at the V.A. hospital for close to an hour when the office manager asked if she was there to pick up her husband.
No, she said, fighting back her exasperation. She was there because of a spinal injury she sustained while fighting in Afghanistan.
Women have served in the American military in some capacity for 400 years. They’ve deployed alongside men as soldiers in three wars, and since the 1990s, a significant number of them are training, fighting and returning from combat.
But stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture. It’s not that their stories are poorly told. It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture.
Women have the same issues as men upon return, from traumatic physical injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder. One young combat veteran told me a harrowing story of crushing a little boy beneath the wheels of her speeding Humvee. I am sure she hears the sound of that vehicle hitting his small body every day of her life.
In addition, as many as a third of all women serving in the military are raped by fellow soldiers during their tours of duty, compounding whatever traumas they may have experienced in combat.
And yet Rebecca’s experience at the V.A. hospital is common. I’ve talked with many women veterans, and like all soldiers, they’ve recounted the firefights, moral confusion and compassion for those whose lives are torn apart by war.
Each had a different experience, and each bore her pains differently. But there was this simple, common thread: their stories of being unrecognized at home, which always carried with it a separate kind of frustration and incredulity.
Male soldiers’ experiences make up the foundation of art and literature: From “The Odyssey” to “The Things They Carried,” the heroic or tragic protagonist’s face is familiar, timeless and, without exception, male. The story of men in combat is taught globally, examined broadly, celebrated and vilified in fiction, exploited by either side of the aisle in politics.
For women it’s a different story, one in which they are more often cast as victims, wives, nurses; anything but soldiers who see battle. In the rare war narratives where women do appear, the focus is generally on military sexual assault, a terrible epidemic of violence that needs to be revealed and ended, but not something that represents the full experience of women in the military.
Homecoming isn’t easy for anyone, but traditional domestic expectations can make it particularly challenging for women.
Feelings of wanting to be alone, of alienation, are more difficult, as women are expected to be patient nurturers who care for spouses and children. Parenting under the best circumstances can test a person’s patience, but parenting after life under fire is more than most of us could take. Studies show women experience elevated anxiety about caring for their families upon homecoming, including an increased fear that they may hurt their own children.
Lack of recognition is also a problem. I’ve stood next to my uniform-wearing brother, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, in a grocery store while three separate strangers approached to thank him for his service. Women veterans are rarely stopped by people who want to shake their hands. Even wearing fatigues and boots and carrying duffel bags standing in a bus station or at the airport, somehow they go unrecognized as returning warriors.
The sense of emptiness that can follow unacknowledged accomplishments and unacknowledged trauma makes women soldiers feel invisible and adds yet one more insult to injury. Depression, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and suicide do not just affect male soldiers, though theirs are the stories we see. Women who have served in the military are three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts.
I can’t help but think women soldiers would be afforded the respect they deserve if their experiences were reflected in literature, film and art, if people could see their struggles, their resilience, their grief represented.
They would be made visible if we could read stories that would allow us to understand that women kill in combat and lose friends and long to see their children and partners at home. They would be given appropriate human compassion if we could feel their experiences viscerally as we do when reading novels like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” or seeing films like “The Hurt Locker.”
Society may come to understand war differently if people could see it through the eyes of women who’ve experienced both giving birth and taking life. People might learn something new about aggression and violence if we read not just about those fighting the enemy but about those who must also fight off assault from the soldiers they serve beside or report to.
Female veterans’ stories clearly have the power to change and enrich our understanding of war. But their unsung epics might also have the power to change our culture, our art, our nation and our lives.
Cara Hoffman is the author of the novel Be Safe I Love You, about a female veteran.