One Female Soldier's Story, (With Thanks To All Soldiers), On Memorial Day

The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Expedient ...
Image via Wikipedia

From O magazine, a powerful story of Ashton Goodman, a young female soldier who served in Afghanistan, and who died there:

Under leaden winter skies, nine air force and army soldiers, bulky with gear and weapons, waited on rain-darkened gravel near tan, mud-splashed Humvees to begin the drive north to their small forward operating base (FOB) in Panjshir Province. The youngest, Air Force Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman, 21, stood beside me in camouflage uniform with pistol, carbine, knife, heavy boots, and helmet, explaining that as a vehicles “op” (short for vehicle operator dispatcher), she maintained and drove Humvees, Land Cruisers, “whatever has wheels.” She added that she couldn’t wait to drive one of the newer Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected all-terrain vehicles, a paleolithic-looking monster built to survive roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and ambushes. A former supply truck driver on mine-infested roads in Iraq, Goodman was about two months into her new deployment in this relatively peaceful, “model” province.

Established in 2005 by combined American military, civilian, and NATO forces, the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), working closely with the Afghan people, was responsible for diverse humanitarian efforts, from medical clinics and vaccination programs to schools and engineering and agricultural projects. Although at the time its 70-member team was the smallest of the 26 PRT sites throughout Afghanistan, FOB Lion was considered a showcase. I was going there to write about the five female soldiers on that team.

My initial impression of the diminutive, blue-eyed, athletic Sr. Airman Goodman that bleak afternoon at Bagram was of a wholesome G.I. Jane action figure come to life. She’d missed her dream of becoming a fighter pilot, she later told me, by being one inch under air force height requirement.

I wish I’d met Goodman. I’ve interviewed female — and male soldiers; Kayla Williams’ book “Love My Rifle More Than You” offers a searing look past the headlines to the gritty (no showers) life she lived. After she returned home, she and her husband, a fellow soldier, suffered from PTSD and TBI, traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts, caused by the explosions of IEDs. Coming home sometimes offers little peace.

I once interviewed the father of a soldier whose helicopter had toppled off a mountaintop, killing all aboard. When he answered my call, he offered to email his son’s eulogy, which he was in the middle of writing. Until you speak to a soldier or their loved ones, the personal cost of war can remain something distant and abstract, a photo or a story or something on TV.

Their collective sacrifice is invisible to most of us, and extraordinary.

Thanks to all who have served, and still do.

With His Photos of Young, Fallen Soldiers' Bedrooms, Ashley Gilbertson Casts A Fresh Eye On War

Africa during World War II:  a Vichy French Do...
Now for something a little different...Image by gbaku via Flickr

“I’ve been covering conflict and war for more than 10 years, but this is the first time that I’ve really felt like a war photographer,” said Mr. Gilbertson, who is based in New York.

This, from The New York TimesLens blog, one of my favorite on-line destinations, which offers the story behind the story:

Although his coverage of Iraq has won awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club of America in 2004, Mr. Gilbertson, 32, said he has stopped photographing combat zones because the American public isn’t responding anymore.

Now concentrating on showing the aftereffects of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Gilbertson looks at bedrooms as a way of memorializing the lives — rather than the deaths — of young combatants.

“It’s powerful to look at where these kids lived, to see who they were as living, breathing human beings,” Mr. Gilbertson said. “Their bedrooms were the one place in the house where they could express themselves with all the things they loved.”

To find the 19 rooms published by The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Gilbertson regularly visited “Faces of the Fallen,” on The Washington Post’s Web site. He narrowed his search to casualties who were around 19, then reached out to their families. In some cases, he spent months building relationships. He has also started a Web site with information on memorial funds.

A Record 5,704 Marched Today In The New Mexico Desert, Honoring WWII Veterans

Route taken during the w:Bataan Death March. S...
Image via Wikipedia

Those who know their WWII history know about the Bataan Death March, one of the most brutal events in the Pacific. Every year for 22 years, walking a marathon 26 miles through the White Sands Missile Range, thousands have come to honor their memory and sacrifice, including the dwindling number of survivors.

Today’s march had a record 5,704 people registered — one-third of them women — from every state, Canada, Britain, even Cuba.

I learned about it when I interviewed Boy Scouts who did this grueling march, and wrote about it for Boys’ Life.

From the El Paso Times:

• Among the marchers will be 29 “Wounded Warriors,” military personnel who have been seriously injured in combat. Although many of them have lost limbs, they will use prosthetics to complete the 26.2- or 15.2-mile memorial marches.

• Twenty-three survivors of the Bataan Death March will attend today’s event. Of those, 11 are from New Mexico.

• About 1,800 Americans who were surrendered to Japanese forces on April 9, 1942, were from New Mexico. They were forced marched to prison camps or to awaiting “Hell Ships,” which took some of the prisoners to Japan to work as slave laborers.

• The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989. In 1992, WSMR and the New Mexico National Guard became co-sponsors of the event and it was moved WSMR, where it’s been every year since – except 2003.

From the Las Cruces Sun-News, which interviewed a few marchers:

SSG Higgs, Jonathan

I am a native of Las Cruces, and have been in the Army for 7 years. I have recently moved to Ft Bliss this January and am happy to be back “home”. I have always wanted to do the Bataan Memorial March, as i grew up realizing the history behind it. This year I am honored to finally be a part of the tradition.
Angela Tolliver

We have a group participating but we are only doing the short march. Next year we will do the long march (not all of us are fit enough this year to do the long one.)

My sister is currently in the 515th in Iraq, her unit will be doing a march of their own in Iraq to honor the people who were in the Bataan Death March. We are participating for all the soldiers Past, Present and Future in the 515th. They have always been there and will continue to be there for us, this is just one way that we can show our appreciation.

From IEDs to CVs — The Challenge of Finding Work After War

A US soldier arrests a mock suspect wearing ar...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

If there’s any job tougher than being a soldier, it can be finding a civilian employer who truly understands the skills a soldier brings.

From the New York Post:

The unemployment rate for returning veterans is around two percentage points above the national average.

Given how high that average is to begin with, “That’s pretty catastrophic,” says Tarantino, who’s now a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lobbying on veterans’ behalf in DC.

Veterans and their advocates say a number of barriers can stand in the way for vets seeking jobs, as well as those returning to work after serving in a war zone. They include long gaps in private-sector work histories, the lack of a network, difficulty adjusting to a work environment after the extremes of combat and a corporate world that often fails to appreciate the crossover value of the considerable skills, both hard and soft, that soldiers acquire.

Throw in a disability, either physical or an invisible one like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and things get harder still. And the cruel irony is, finding work is often a crucial step toward successfully readjusting to civilian life after a deployment.

Young veterans face the most difficulty, reports the Los Angeles Times:

Young combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have another challenge waiting for them when they return home: steep unemployment.

More than 1 in 5 can’t find work, according to data released Friday by the Labor Department.

The unemployment rate last year for veterans ages 18 to 24 reached 21.1%, compared to 16.6% for that age group as a whole.

In addition to the recession, veterans groups attribute the high jobless rate to a lack of education, job experience and job training in the years before entering the service. Also, many return home with health and mental health problems that make it difficult to find work.

“When a person is deployed, it takes them out of their natural environment and they’re not out there able to compete with the general public for jobs,” said Joseph Sharpe, director of the economic division of the American Legion. “And when they return, they’re not on an even playing field.”

One video game developer is putting its money where its mouth is, donating $1 million to help veterans find work, reports the Washington Post:

The military’s predominantly male makeup falls squarely into Activision Blizzard’s preferred 18- to 35-year-old male demographic. The military has started using video games to train recruits, and service members often spend their down time with game consoles in hand. Activision Blizzard regularly donates video games and gaming consoles to the military through the USO, and the donations have helped the company identify and hire veterans who are interested in the gaming industry.

The foundation will make its first donation of $125,000 to the Paralyzed Veterans of America to help open a vocational rehabilitation center, the company said.

Yet some veterans are doing just fine, reports Fortune, thanks to a special mentoring program:

News Corp. (NWSA) is one of 17 major companies and universities — from Campbell Soup (CPB, Fortune 500), General Electric (GE, Fortune 500), Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500), IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500), Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500), and the University of Texas to, just recently, Bloomberg, Deloitte, and Harvard — that has signed on to provide mentors to veterans through American Corporate Partners since it launched in 2008. Currently ACP has more than 500 mentors matched up with veterans. There are another 800 veterans on a waiting list hoping to be assigned executive role models.

The non-profit is the brainchild of a former investment banker named Sid Goodfriend, who spent 25 years working first for Merrill Lynch and then Credit Suisse (CS). Goodfriend, 50, has no military background himself. Prior to forming ACP, he didn’t even have any close friends who had served in the armed forces. But in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he says he had developed a really deep sense of appreciation for how fortunate he’s been in life and an admiration for the soldiers that serve to keep him and his family safe. “I owe so much of what I have to these young people who decide to put country first and their welfare second in a lot of cases,” he says.

By 2007, the financially well-off Goodfriend decided that he wanted to leave Wall Street and spend his time giving back to veterans who have served since 9/11. The question was how? As a board member of a New York City non-profit called Student Sponsor Partners, which matches at-risk students in New York’s public school system with sponsors who pay for them to attend a private school and take a role in their education, he had seen firsthand the power of mentoring. And he knew how important mentors had been to him in his own career at Merrill. He figured veterans trying to break into business could use some expert guidance.

Fortune’s March 22 cover story features several veterans now being recruited by major corporations.

Buzz For The WASPS — Pioneer Women Aviators Finally Win Congressional Medal of Honor

Harlingen Army Air Field, Texas--Elizabeth L. ...
Image via Wikipedia

About time!

The women who flew airplanes in WWII — yet whose contributions remain invisible to many historians — were finally honored today in D.C. with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

From the AP:

These aviators — all women — got long-overdue recognition on Wednesday. They received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.

About 200 women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were on hand to receive the award. Now mostly in their late 80s and early 90s, some came in wheelchairs, many sported dark blue uniforms, and one, June Bent of Westboro, Mass., clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died.

As a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.

“Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the pilots went unrecognized for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the U.S. military.

In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, of Waco, Texas, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.

The WASPS were crucial to the war effort. From Wikipedia:

The WASP women pilots each already had a pilot’s license. They were trained to fly “the Army way” by the U.S. Army Air Forces at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP service, and less than 1,900 were accepted. After completing four months of military flight training, 1,078 of them earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. Except for the fact that the women were not training for combat, their course of instruction was essentially the same as that for aviation cadets. The WASPs thus received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and acrobatics, but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. The percentage of trainees who were eliminated during training compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.

Florene Watson preparing a P-51D-5NA for a ferry flight from the factory at Inglewood, California

After training, the WASPs were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. assuming numerous flight-related missions, relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew sixty million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II was also flown at some point by women in these roles. In addition, a few exceptionally qualified women were allowed to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets. Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Over fifty percent of the ferrying of combat aircraft within the United States during the war was carried out by WASP pilots.

Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war—11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be in the military under the existing guidelines, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be put on fallen WASP pilots’ coffins.[5]

The Hurt Locker — On-Screen Winner, But How True to Life?

The Hurt Locker
Image via Wikipedia

Not so true?

Here’s what some soldiers in-country had to say about the veracity of “The Hurt Locker”, Oscar’s Best Picture.

From The Globe and Mail:

But the film’s admirers don’t include those who actually do the job – defusing or destroying makeshift bombs. Canadian explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) soldiers in Kandahar, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile and bomb-laden provinces, say their life is no Hurt Locker.

“First reaction was, ‘This is pretty Hollywood,’ ” says EOD soldier Lieutenant Caroline Pollock. “All of us were laughing at the movie, at parts in the movie where no one else would laugh. Like, this is ridiculous.”

The Canadians, for example, think Guy Pearce’s character – killed early on while wearing the heavy bomb suit and running from an explosion – shouldn’t actually have died.

“The guy was 100 metres away and running when it exploded? I was surprised he died,” said Leading Seaman Doug Woodrow, a 13-year Forces veteran who has donned the suit himself.

In one scene, the boys get into a sniper fight alongside some mercenaries. Sniper and EOD skills are not typically offered as a joint course, nor are bomb experts expected to clear massive industrial buildings on their own, as Sgt. James and his team do.

“I was like, ‘Who the hell does this? Can I have their job?’ ” Lt. Pollock says, laughing. “It was a good movie, but I didn’t think it was that great … I don’t think it was accurate of what EOD operators do.”

Here’s a book by a British soldier about his job defusing bombs.

BBC Radio Looks At Women At War Worldwide

A female Swedish soldier participates in joint...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

I’ve spent the week listening to a powerful BBC radio series on “Women At War”. One of them focused on the issue of sexual assault on American female soldiers:

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who sits on the Military Personnel Subcommittee, successfully lobbied last year for the development of a Sexual Assault Database to encourage accountability within the Armed Forces.

“There are plenty of phone calls that come into my office of alleged assault of women by our military men,” she says.

“They are heartbreaking. Some women don’t want to go public with it, some have gone public with it and they’ve been drilled out of the military.

“I’m told that the statistics are that once you have been raped in the military you are most likely to be raped over and over.”

She says that not enough prosecutions are happening and that while the Pentagon is taking it more seriously, big changes still need to be made.

“Why is it that when a woman alleges rape, the outcome shows that the man who supposedly did this was demoted or moved to another unit? I want to know why this is happening!”

Other women in the series include a former girl soldier in Eritrea and a female combat soldier in the Israeli army.

Military Base Commander Charged With Murdering Two Women

The commander of a military base in Ontario, Colonel Russell Williams, has been charged with two murders, reports AFP:

Williams, 46, was arrested on Sunday for the disappearance and death of 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd last heard from on January 28.

He was also charged in the murder of Corporal Marie-France Comeau who was under his command at the base in November, and in two home invasions in September in which two women were confined and sexually assaulted.

The daily Globe and Mail, citing unnamed sources, said Williams confessed to the crimes, and guided detectives to the body of his latest victim hidden in the woods near the base.

Williams, who is married, once piloted the jet used to ferry Canada’s Governor-General and prime minister, as well as the British royal family on a visit.

He commanded 437 Squadron in Trenton for more than a year, and previously was in charge of Canada’s secretive Camp Mirage in the Middle East, said to be located near Dubai.

The Trenton base is among the busiest in Canada, receiving the bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and sending daily aid flights to Haiti following last month’s devastating earthquake.

Women In The Military Finally Get Access To Plan B

Seal of the United States Department of Defense
Image via Wikipedia

Women in the military now have the same option as their civilian sisters — ready access to Plan B, the birth control method that can be used after unprotected intercourse.

Women’s health advocates had long been pushing the Obama administration to allow the sale of the morning-after pill at military facilities. The same panel made a similar recommendation in 2002, but the policy was never implemented.

“It’s a tragedy that women in uniform have been denied such basic health care,” said Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which estimated that the decision would affect more than 350,000 women in the military. “We applaud the medical experts for standing up for military women.”

The morning-after pills consist of higher doses of a hormone found in many standard birth-control pills. Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it has been shown to be highly effective at preventing pregnancy.

Any woman who is raped needs access to Plan B. Reported The New York Times:

Jessica Kenyon was raped twice during her one year career in the US Army, once in basic training and once in Korea. She is now a counselor (http://www.militarysexualtrauma.org) for other veterans who have been raped—women and men. Jessica’s rapists were never prosecuted.

Suzanne Swift was raped repeatedly by her squad leader while they were in Iraq. She was court-martialed for refusing to go back to Iraq with the unit in which the rapist still served. The rapist was never prosecuted, returned to Iraq as a private security contractor and later fired from a position with a law enforcement agency in the Seattle area. Suzanne is now out of the military and in college.

Stephanie (last name not disclosed), was raped at Fort Lewis, Washington. Like the majority of women who have been raped in the military, she never reported it as she thought no one would believe her as the rapist was a senior officer. Stephanie and her husband both served in Iraq. Her husband committed suicide after his return from Iraq. Stephanie speaks frequently on the issue of military suicides. [more]

a. Please click here to download the United States General Accountability Office on the Military’s handling of sexual assaults.
b. Please download the Pentagon’s 2006 report on gender relations that says that more than three quarters of sexual assault victims in the military do not report the abuse.

When rape and sexual assault is sufficiently widespread within the military that the Department of Defense has created special programs to deal with it, this decision is overdue.

The issue of access to Plan B isn’t new, as this Stars and Stripes piece makes clear.

It’s appalling enough that women serving their country face assault within their own ranks, but without a ready solution to a possible unwanted pregnancy, like Plan B, they have been left doubly vulnerable.

Women Soldiers Fight Another Enemy — Sexual Harrassment By Fellow GI's

050616-A-5930C-013 Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, vehi...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s not a new story, although not an easy one to report with names and photos of women wiling to speak out publicly on the record. Female soldiers say they face significant sexual harrassment, let alone rape, according to today’s New York Times front-page story.

Here’s a two-year-old story from website DissidentVoice. And here’s an AP piece:

Of the women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have walked into a VA facility, 15 percent have screened positive for military sexual trauma, The Associated Press has learned. That means they indicated that while on active duty they were sexually assaulted, raped, or were sexually harassed, receiving repeated unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.

In January, the VA opened its 16th inpatient ward specializing in treating victims of military sexual trauma, this one in New Jersey. In response to complaints that it is too male-focused in its care, the VA is making changes such as adding keyless entry locks on hospital room doors so women patients feel safer.

Depression, anxiety, problem drinking, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic abuse are all problems that have been linked to sexual abuse, according to the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides support to victims of violence associated with the military. Since 2002, the foundation says it has received more than 1,000 reports of assault and rape in the U.S. Central Command areas of operation, which include Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Miles Foundation, based in Newtown, CT, focuses on helping women facing these issues.

How ugly and abusive that women brave and patriotic enough to fight in war face enemies within their own ranks.