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Many Americans assume that women in the U.S. military are stationed far from the fighting. While it’s true they can’t train for frontline combat positions, the changing nature of the Iraq war has placed many women at the center of the conflict. Yet the women serving and dying for the U.S. have received very little attention. Who are they, why did they join and what are their experiences and points of view?
On this edition, Sarah Olson speaks with veterans of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, and to one active duty soldier who served for a year as an Army journalist in Iraq. Each woman has a unique story, but all share an understanding of the power politics of the U.S. military and the price that is paid by women seeking to serve their country.
Anuradha Bhagwati, Former Marine Captain; Maricela Guzman, Former Information Technician in the U.S. Navy; Linsay Rousseau Burnett, Sergeant U.S. Army, first brigade combat team 101st Airborne division; Stefani Pelkey, Former Army Captain.
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TENA RUBIO: This week on Making Contact.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: I love the roughness of it and the intimacy of it. And the Marines are incredibly crass and physical and ruthless. I love that.
TENA RUBIO: Many Americans assume that women in the US military are stationed far from the fighting. While it’s true, they can’t train for front line combat positions, the changing nature of the Iraq War has placed many women at the center of the conflict. Yet the women serving and dying for the US have received very little attention.
Who are they? Why did they join? What are their experiences and points of view? On this edition, Making Contact’s Sarah Olson speaks with veterans of the US Army, Navy, and Marines and to one active duty soldier who served for a year as an Army journalist in Iraq. I’m Tena Rubio, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: My name is Anuradha Bhagwati. I was in the Marines between 1999 and 2004. I was a captain. I am 31 years old. My parents are from India, and I’m an only child. As a first-generation American, I think I was definitely trying to forge my own identity in this country, as a lot of children of immigrants do.
And I was a bit rebellious at the time. When I decided to join the Marines, I was definitely rebelling against my upbringing. And I wanted to do something independent, extreme, completely unexpected. And the Marines, for me, were very much about my belonging to a larger sense of nation and country. And I don’t mean in a patriotic sort of way. When I joined, I was missing something inside of me.
MARICELA GUZMAN: My name is Maricela Guzman. I served in the US Navy from 1998 to 2002. I was an IT, Information Technician. I was an E-5. During my service, I served overseas.
As a teenager, I had to drop out of high school many times because I had to help out my family with rent. So at the age of 18, I decided to go back to high school. Like, it took me three years, but I eventually got my high school diploma through community college.
And then my dream was to go to college, knowing that the hard work that it took me to actually get my high school diploma. Not wanting to get the GED. I wanted that high school diploma. Unfortunately, my first semester of community college at East Los Angeles Community College, I was approached by a recruiter, and he promised me everything that I wanted to hear– money for school, you know, the capability of actually traveling. And for a kid coming from the inner city, this was a dream come true.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: My parents were not physical. They were neck-up thinkers. And so even if that was expected of me, I wanted to do something on my own terms. And I loved physical things. I love the roughness of it and the intimacy of it and the crassness of it. And the Marines are incredibly crass and physical and ruthless, bestial. I love that. I love the profanity and the vulgarity and, you know, the rough and tough talk. And it’s something that was completely foreign to my world.
MARICELA GUZMAN: I basically told my family two months before I left, knowing the fact that they were going to get really upset at the fact that I joined the service. That’s not something they wanted to see from their daughter. My parents came to this country as illegal immigrants in the mid-’70s. And for them, seeing a man of uniform or a specific person of uniform, it was a very negative image for them. Specifically, when we were kids, one of the things they were afraid of, they were always afraid of the police.
Having the fear factor, that they’re going to take us away from our family. They’re going to send us back to Mexico. So they always had that bad image. So they really didn’t want me to go into that environment, specifically as a woman, and specifically as a woman of color.
LINSAY ROUSSEAU BURNETT: My name is Linsay Rousseau Burnett. I am a sergeant. That’s an E-5 in the United States Army. I’m active duty. I’m currently with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault, stationed out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I’ve spent almost the past three years with them.
I had a lot of reasons for joining the military. And if you talk to anyone who knew me prior to joining, they’d tell you that the Army was absolutely the last thing they’d ever see me doing. You know, I was a well-known campus advocate at William and Mary. I engaged in peace vigils. I was a women’s rights proponent. I worked for Amnesty International. I worked on Ralph Nader’s election campaign.
And so I was very well known for my political views and for my interest in the global community. But when I did join, those same people who said that this was something they’d never see me doing, those same people were like, well, you know, if someone was going to do this, it was going to be you, Linsay.
There was a lot of reasons. Money was a definite issue. Obviously, graduating from college, you have a lot of debts.
STEFANI PELKEY: My name is Stefani Pelkey. And I’m a former captain in the United States Army. I served for four and a half years. When I started in the military, I was 23 years old, and I am now 31 years old.
I had a fascination in the military from the time I was probably a teenager, about 13 years old. Originally, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. I had hoped to make a lifetime career out of that. I was the first in my family to graduate from four years of college. I wanted to start off with a college education. And the military allowed me to do that.
I felt like there was a great amount of opportunity in the military for women to be successful. And later on in my career, I didn’t find that to be true.
MARICELA GUZMAN: The first day I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to actually start the process of going to boot camp– you know, what you become afterwards. So I wanted to be that person. I couldn’t wait to be that person after I graduated from boot camp. But for me, one of the worst experience of my life actually happened in boot camp.
It was about a month after I was in boot camp. And I was assaulted. I was molested as a servicewoman while I was in boot camp. It’s a very difficult thing to explain, to give details. During watches– we have different things, you know. We get laundry sometimes. And during your night watch, you give everybody their laundry. And you put it on the side of their bunks while they’re sleeping.
And as I was doing that– there’s very dark corners around the compartment, because all the women are sleeping there. And towards the end of the compartment, which is very dark, and there’s an isolated area, I was grabbed by somebody. I was taken to the corner, and then I was assaulted.
I don’t know who the person is. I just remember– I just remember the first thing I did was close my eyes. I wanted to forget what was happening to me. So I thought that if I didn’t see this person’s face, that it wouldn’t be real to me. So that’s what I did.
I’m the first generation who was born in this country. And my parents, coming from Mexico, having their daughter be a virgin, and having their daughter, you know, get married in a white dress, that meant a lot to them. I didn’t want to bring shame to the family.
I didn’t want to dishonor my parents, but having this happen– at that time I didn’t know it’s not my fault. I blamed myself for going to that corner. And a lot of people don’t understand that, yes, once you’re assaulted, it doesn’t just go away, that moment. It keeps happening to you over and over again. It’s been almost eight years since that happened, and I’m having nightmares most of the nights.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: So I walked into a Marine recruiting station. Was completely turned on. And this is a very typical story. I was just kind of intoxicated by the whole experience of meeting the Marine recruiters. They were extremely polished, extremely tough.
They hadn’t realized at that point that I’d been to college, and a pretty good college. And so they were surprised that I scored really well on the test that they gave me. They told me, you know, you can be an officer. You know, and they very– they said it with a lot of reluctance because there was a lot of machismo at that recruiting station. And there was the understanding, I think, at that point, that I would become an officer, and then I would be giving them orders. [LAUGHS] So it’s an amusing thing.
But they showed me a boot camp video before I left. And I was completely turned on. I just thought it was the most amazing thing. You know, a bunch of young people with their faces in the dirt, low crawling, and the physical exertion, the ropes, the obstacle courses– I loved it.
So I thought, this is for me. And I walked out of the recruiting station. And I went straight to the officer candidates’ station. And then my journey began from there.
STEFANI PELKEY: My first duty station aside from schooling and everything was Idar-Oberstein, Germany, where I was the first female in 1st of the 94th Field Artillery Combat Arms Unit. I was one woman out of 630-plus men. That’s where I met my husband, Michael. He was actually my sponsor into the country. And sponsors are people that just kind of show you around the unit, help you get acclimated to the environment since it is a foreign country.
LINSAY ROUSSEAU BURNETT: When I was involved in a lot of those activities before joining the Army– you know, I’d go to protests. And you always have those people out there shouting at you, telling you that you’re a traitor, that you hate your country. And now, because of my service, I feel that I have the right to stand up and say, yes, I love my country. But I’m going to disagree with it. But at least I’ve done something for my country.
So if you’re going to criticize me for my views, then why don’t you put on a uniform and pick up a rifle and go out and show your commitment and your dedication to this country? Because I’ve already done that.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: The Marines are a very insane group of people. You get very die-hard people willing to do psychotic things for the name of the Marine Corps. I didn’t understand that coming into it, this idea that I was serving this nameless, intangible thing called the Marines.
There was this program called the martial arts program. And it’s there where I met my true mentor. Then he was Lieutenant Colonel George Bristol. He’s now a colonel. He forced me to overcome this slight hesitation in learning how to kill somebody. And there was a moment, I remember, during the fifth week, where he challenged me to a little duel. And I succeeded. I succeeded in what he laid out for me.
And it was this feeling of adrenaline, this ultimate rush, that I had no fear, that I was able to use my bayonet against him. That’s when I got it. And I changed immediately.
I went on leave for a couple of weeks in New York where I’m from. And I think I had become slightly insane. Because I was walking down the street, and at that point I packed a knife. I packed a pocket knife, which is something that we had all kind of done at that school, was we all bought the same knife. And you know, we’d flick it around. And be ready at all times to, well, kill.
And so I was walking down the street with my pocket knife in my jeans. And I was suddenly conscious of the fact that I was walking around with this very, very strange aura, this highly sensitized alien, you know, walking down the streets of Manhattan observing people doing their thing. And I had quite an ego at that point.
I remember walking by a bunch of women giggling on a street corner. And I was so angry. I thought, what could they possibly be laughing at in their little world, in their little lives? You know, while the rest of us are here doing serious things and learning how to take life.
MARICELA GUZMAN: For me, going through the process of boot camp, one of the things they taught us was honor, courage, and commitment. And when you wore that uniform, that’s what you embodied basically. So I mean, that uniform meant so much to you. It meant the courage that you had to join the service, the commitment to continue your service within the military, and the honor to protect the Constitution of the United States.
That was something that was taught to us in boot camp. Coming out of that, what I saw was that there was not a lot of accountability within the hierarchy of the service. I started to really change my mindset of what that meant to wear that uniform. It really meant nothing for me at that time, understanding what we’re doing around the world.
When, like I said, I was stationed in [? DRC ?] and I was stationed in Naples, Italy. For me, a kid coming from the inner city and having this uniform to wear and thinking that this means so much, especially representing Americans, representing the flag, and seeing how we treated people, specifically wearing that uniform.
TENA RUBIO: We’ll have more in a few moments.
You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information, or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. That’s 800-529-5736. You can also download programs or get our podcast at radioproject.org.
STEFANI PELKEY: So about eight months after meeting and connecting as friends, my husband and I got engaged. We were engaged on September 8. And three days later, we watched a live broadcast of what happened in New York on September 11. And we knew, because of what happened and what we were watching unfold on TV, that our lives were going to change forever.
We got married originally in a courthouse after the September 11 attacks, so a couple of months later, we went back, we got married. That was the rush we were in to have that bond with each other. We wanted it so badly. But we knew that it could be taken from right underneath us at any moment because of the activities unfolding in the world at that time.
MARICELA GUZMAN: I became such a workaholic. I would take any of the workload. And that’s– unfortunately, you know, I became such a top sailor because of my work ethics. And it’s not that I was doing it because I wanted to succeed in the service. I was doing it because I wanted to actually survive the service, forget that everything was happening to me.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: So we would get about 400 Marines every month. They were made into Marines at Parris Island and then sent to us. You know, they’d been Marines for a few weeks at this point. [LAUGHS] Some of them straight out of high school and really didn’t understand the sense of urgency that was their lives.
I remember when Abu Ghraib happened. We had taken a hike. It was from 4:00 to 6:00 in the morning. I led them on a hike. I sat them down after their hike. They were exhausted, sweaty. Many of them were falling asleep because they were so exhausted.
And I was snapping them back to attention and telling them the story of how these American soldiers had tortured, sexually abused Iraqi people at this prison. And I had to communicate to them the urgency in that they could not do that, that they may find themselves in situations like that in a few months, where they’re dealing with human beings in another country, and that they are responsible for the lives of these other human beings.
I gave them many gruesome details. I tried to kind of shock it into their systems that this was not what the United States Armed Forces was about. And then they were on to their next training evolution. Boom, just like that.
STEFANI PELKEY: We had a weekend away together, and that’s where our son was conceived. And I think at that point, they made a decision to kind of write me off, because how dare I have a child in a combat arms unit. And they knew that, at some point, we were going to deploy.
And I think that they felt that I had done that in some attempt to get out of deployment. Of course, that was not the case. I was on birth control at the time. And my husband and I were adamant. So it was not a planned pregnancy. But nonetheless, I was very excited.
We knew that we were probably going to be deployed at some point. And that’s exactly what happened. My son was born on March 15. And two days later, I was still in the care unit for mothers because I had had a very hard labor, a 38-hour labor. And we watched President Bush give the speech and the announcement that we were going into Iraq. And we just held our baby and we cried.
MARICELA GUZMAN: I was in the service. I was in Naples, Italy. And it was early in the morning when the first plane hit one of the towers in New York. But I just remember that, the way the base closed down, basically. We couldn’t leave. And then after that we, for a couple days, we couldn’t even go into the base. Only the most important people were able to do that.
I was a computer tech at the time. And because I was such a good worker, I saw a lot of the intel that they had for Iraq. This is before we went into Iraq. And I didn’t agree with what was going to happen, that I saw.
I saw the change in the Navy specifically with the procedures that they did. There was definitely chain of command where you have to go during certain procedures, but because of September 11, you know, I know that we broke a lot of laws, especially a lot of international laws, [? in sea. ?] And after that, I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of that.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: When the entire time I was in, being a woman was my defining characteristic. It was the thing that entirely informed everybody’s perceptions about me because the system is so powerfully ingrained with this idea that women don’t belong and that they will never belong.
And I learned that pretty painfully when I was a captain. And a lieutenant in my command, who I was in charge of, was allowed to sexually harass a number of Marines in the unit. And I was shocked to realize that at the single institution which trained enlisted Marines, the single institution in the DoD that trained enlisted female Marines, that nobody was going to care if those Marines were harassed. It was such a betrayal.
I would have given my life for any of my Marines. I would have given my life. And yet the Marine Corps completely invalidated who I was. Women do not belong in the Marines. So how could I possibly imagine myself staying in that institution?
STEFANI PELKEY: The week that preceded Michael’s death, he was given a diagnosis on Monday that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. A few months after we got to Fort Sill, that’s when he started sleeping with a gun, a loaded gun, a fully loaded gun. I didn’t discover that until one day I was making the bed. And I kind of– you know when you take the sheets off, kind of like in a Downy commercial, and you fling the sheets around. This gun came flying out from underneath the sheets that had been under his pillow.
There were no debriefings, nothing to let us know that we could get help. We were ultimately outsourced to a marital counseling provider. And she diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. But they sent us there. And then after his suicide, they would not accept that post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis because it was not given by an Army psychiatrist.
LINSAY ROUSSEAU BURNETT: You know, seeing your fellow soldiers be killed and be wounded on a daily basis, just it starts to take its toll. And you really start to wonder, is this worth it? Was this, the life of this soldier worth a war– even though they don’t want to call it that– a war, that the Iraqi people don’t seem to want, the American people no longer seem to want? So isn’t there something else that we could be doing better?
MARICELA GUZMAN: After being a year and a half out of the service, I was very depressed. And so I thought that the best thing for me to do, (CRYING) since I’d caused so much harm and injury and pain to the people that I love, I thought the best thing for me to do was just to leave this world. And then that way, I wouldn’t cause them any more pain.
So at that time, I was taking– I was taking some sleeping pills. So I took some sleeping pills. I took the whole bottle. And once that happened, I realized that what I did was wrong, and I called my family. And I told them, look, this is what I just did. And you need to call an ambulance.
And the worst part is when you see your mother in tears, thinking that your daughter is going to die. And seeing my family come together and tell me that (CRYING) I wasn’t crazy, that it was OK, that they wanted me in their lives.
STEFANI PELKEY: They’ve ingrained in me to be a fighter from the very beginning, to lead from the front, and not to ever, ever give up. And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not giving up. I’m not letting my husband’s death stop me from living my life. And I’m not, I’m surely not going to let them forget my husband. And I’m surely not going to let them let down any other soldiers. I’m not going to let them do that to the men and women that are serving our country.
LINSAY ROUSSEAU BURNETT: I think that, especially as a female, coming out of the military, I think, in the civilian world, my military background will definitely help me. I think it will help illustrate the fact that I am a strong person and I am a strong woman. That I was able to endure a deployment in Iraq where I carried 100 pounds of body armor and equipment. I was able to perform my duties under stress and came out OK.
MARICELA GUZMAN: You know, I think that one of the most important things for me is when we talk about the Iraqi people there and how we’re trying to help them out. I think, like I’ve said many times, we need to look at our own country and see how we treat our own people. And if you really think that we treat our people very– you know, I don’t think that we treat people very fairly here. Do you really think that we’re going to treat people from another country that really have no connections to us in a very fairly way? I think the answer is no.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: There is a thirst in young people to belong to something extremely heroic. And by heroic, I mean there’s this sense that the American military is a thing which we should all aspire to do. But there’s so much more than just the issues of gender or race in the military.
And the real issues that I want to raise are, why are we there in the first place? Why is it so easy to get Americans to believe that the military option, that use of force, is the only way to feel satisfied, to feel secure, to feel whole?
TENA RUBIO: That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Special thanks to correspondent Sarah Olson for producing this piece and to Dan Turner, Ronald Rucker, and Steve [? Macer. ?] Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter Trio. For a CD copy of program number 1,307 call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Or go to radioproject.org.
Lisa Rudman is our executive director, Dorian Taylor communications manager, Phillip Babich mixing engineer, Alexis McCrimmon intern, and I’m senior producer Tena Rubio. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.