April 1, 2010

Politics & Social Issues

Lonely Female Soldiers

by Marti D. Ribeiro

I wish I could say that my story is unique, but it isn’t. Unfortunately, thousands of other females in the military have had to endure the same thing I did.

People support the troops and worry about their loved one’s encounters with the enemy. For the small percentage of females in the areas of operation, sometimes the enemy eats, sleeps, and works right next to them.

There’s an overwhelming sense that you’re in a “man’s world” when you step off the plane in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not just the Muslim laws that keep women at bay; our fellow Americans also give us the feeling that we are inferior. To prove that we’re not, many U.S. females stationed over there have to over-compensate for their skills and abilities. What would be considered an outstanding job stateside is mediocre for a female in the AOR (Area of Operations). Even those of us who are secure in who we are find ourselves going to great strides to try and fit in as “one of the boys.” If you’re able to do so, you’re protected. They will still make jokes at your expense and tease you from time to time, but the imaginary line won’t be crossed – you’re a “little sister” to them.

As a female soldier, you have a personal war going on inside of you. You want to maintain your personality, but it’s not possible. Your survival instincts kick into overdrive and you do whatever it takes to make it through the experience, even if it means losing who you are.

When I was younger someone told me that the Armed Forces don’t train service members to fight for their country, their family or their freedom – they teach them to fight for the person standing next to them. Unfortunately for females, the person they’re supposed to fight for is sometimes just as horrible as the person they’re supposed to be fighting against.

I was active duty for a little over eight years. I was a public affairs specialist, otherwise known as a journalist or combat correspondent. I loved my job, and just like with any job in this world you had the basic stresses of deadlines, grouchy bosses and stringent requirements. Yet as a woman, I had to deal with additional problems on a regular basis. At my first duty location, I had a senior non-commissioned officer harass me on a regular basis. He would constantly quiz me about my sex life, show up at the barracks at odd hours of the night and ask personal questions that no supervisor should ever have the right to ask. I went to my leadership and explained the situation. I was told to write a “memo for record” every time he said or did something that made me feel uncomfortable. I did that. After months of writing everything down, I had a binder full of MFRs and took it straight to senior leadership. Did he get punished? No. He went on to make E-9, which is the highest enlisted rank in the Armed Forces.

I had a few other small instances after that, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. Obviously it wasn’t worth it to say anything. Nobody got punished and it made you look bad in front of senior leadership that you had squealed on a fellow service member.

Fast forward to my first deployment in 2003 – it was my first time away from my family and I was scared to death. Luckily, I wasn’t anywhere near the fighting, but I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform I wore.

I had a colonel sexually harass me in ways I’m too embarrassed to explain. I didn’t tell my boss, because I didn’t think it would matter. After this went on for awhile, the colonel tried to talk my boss into letting me go with him to another location to visit his son. He wanted me to write a father-son deployment article. I knew what was going to happen, so I told my boss about the harassment. Did anything happen? Well, sort of. I got removed from his proposed trip, but the colonel never even got a slap on the hand.

I was a hard worker who loved her country and her service, and this is not what I deserved. Yet like so many other females in the military, I put up with it for the good of my family, my beliefs and my country.

Fast forward again to 2006, when I went to Afghanistan. At this point in my career I was a professionally accomplished NCO with years of dealing with sexual harassment under my belt. I decided this time was going to be different. I decided not to let anyone in and not to joke around with those around me. I was going to prove I knew what I was doing and that I was a credible service member doing her part in the war on terror.

I stepped off the plane into my own personal hell. Yes, I was able to put up a wall, but at a price. I’m tall, slender and blonde, commonly referred to as “Combat Barbie.” I stuck out like a sore thumb. I couldn’t go anywhere without being watched by a million eyes. My wall became thicker and thicker. I’m normally a very bubbly person, but that disappeared behind the wall and to this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever really regained that part of my personality.

I had things said to me by co-workers and strangers that should never be said, especially not to a fellow service member. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I never felt like I was protected or part of the group. I’m sure some of it was the wall I put up, but some of it was the acceptance that harassing a pretty female service member was common practice in the AOR. I was supposed to “deal with it.”

A few months into my deployment, I was directed to pull night guard duty. I never asked for special treatment and made myself do everything my fellow soldiers did, so working all day and then pulling night guard duty wasn’t new.I smoked like a chimney while I was in Afghanistan and this night was no exception. I put my weapon and my radio in the guard shack and walked 20 feet to the closest “smoke deck.” If prior military members are reading this, they’re screaming right about now. You don’t ever leave your weapon anywhere while you’re in a combat zone – especially not while on guard duty. I had a momentarily lapse and let the wall down. I thought I would be okay 20 feet from my weapon.

I was wrong.

After a few drags off my cigarette, I found myself placed in a chokehold and dragged behind some power generators by a male figure much larger than me, but wearing an Armed Forces uniform. I had loud generators on one side of me and the prison holding the Taliban members on the other side. I didn’t have my weapon or my radio. All I had was what little strength was left in my body after struggling to get free while he dragged me to his “spot.”

I’m sure you can imagine what happened then. I tried my hardest to fight him off and actually got a few good kicks in, but it wasn’t enough. He finished his deed and left.

I didn’t know what to do. Do I wake someone up and tell them what just happened? Do I alert the authorities?

I pulled myself together and finished out my guard duty. I did what every CSI and Law & Order program tells you to do – I refrained from taking a shower. After some discreet searching, I thought I ended up in the correct office to report my assault. Yet after about 10 minutes into my story and a million tears, I realized I was in the wrong country to report a rape. I was told that I could report it, but that I needed to understand that I would also be in trouble for dereliction of duty. I left my weapon and my radio in a combat zone – you don’t do that.

I left the office and went back to my tent and showered…the evidence was gone.

I felt ashamed. I let this happen to me because I didn’t have my weapon. But even if I had had it, would I have used it?

I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t tell anyone. I was back in the states for more than six months before I started talking about it. I thought if I didn’t talk about it, then it didn’t happen and then maybe, just maybe, I could look back on a shining eight-year active-duty career.

It’s taken years for me to realize that this wasn’t my fault. Yes, I made some bad decisions, but the guilt lies in the predator’s actions. The military has a way of making females believe like they brought this upon themselves. That’s wrong.

If this happened to me and nobody knew about it, I know it’s happening to other females as well. There’s an unwritten code of silence when it comes to sexual harassment in the military. We get annual training about the consequences of sexual harassment, but I know I’m not the only one in the room during those training sessions who zone out because I know from experience that there really aren’t any consequences for those perpetrators. What’s scary is that there’s even an unwritten code of silence between fellow female service members.

It’s not fair that I had to be millions of miles from my family and thrown into a situation in which I could potentially lose my life. It’s not fair that not only did I have to worry about the enemy outside the gates, I had to worry about the enemy inside the gates as well.

What’s even worse is that it’s still going on, and nobody is doing anything about it.

We’re grooming a generation of women who have served honorably, fought bravely and given back to the community. Yet in return, we’re taking their self-esteem and dignity. I don’t know if they ever really get it back.

Marti Ribeiro grew up in a military family, following her father around the globe during his 28 years of active-duty service. She enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1998 and became a public affairs specialist, otherwise known as a combat correspondent. She served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom during two deployments overseas. After eight years on active duty, Marti finished her enlistment and went on to pursue a public relations career in the civilian world. Marti finished her undergraduate degree in marketing while in the military and is currently working on her graduate degree. She lives in Oklahoma City with her 8-year-old daughter and fiancé. She is affiliated with the Service Women's Action Network and can be reached via e-mail.

*NOTE: Marti's story is shared in the new documentary film, The Invisible War, released on June 22, 2012.  Learn more about the film at InvisibleWarMovie.com.