Women at war, examining the experience

Female soldier
A U.S. female soldier from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment, shows the way to an Iraqi woman on Feb. 25, 2008, as she arrives at an improvised clinic set up by the U.S. military, at a school on the al-Abara neighborhood of Baquba, 12 miles northeast of Baghdad. The neighborhood suffered a lot of destruction during heavy fighting in December 2007.
Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Women still don't serve with the front line infantry units, but in today's military, more women are seeing combat.

North Dakota State University Assistant Professor of Sociology Christina Weber wants to know how women's changing role in war affects the women who've been deployed. She wants to know if more should be done to help those women return to civilian life.

Just hearing little stuff, like, and as mean as this probably sounds, but little stuff like, oh that really bothered me when that car cut me off today. And I'm, like,'yeah well try to have it blow up next to you.'

Weber believes women who saw combat react much like men, with anger and silence. But they also struggle with gender roles.

The women she interviewed were guaranteed anonymity. This woman suffers post traumatic stress syndrome. "I'd hear a door slam and I'd freak out. Just little things. Like, I would hear a kid scream and my instinct is to run and see what the hell is going on," the woman recalled in her interview with Weber. "And then, I could finally think about the things I did and I felt guilty. I felt, you know, like I murdered someone. You can put it any way you want to put it, but these people are dead. And I shot, I killed them. And it took me a long time to say that to anybody."

"She had to kill people; she was in these really difficult combat circumstances," says Christina Weber. "She in particular didn't want to talk to her friends or family about anything she had to do."

Weber said while women and men seem to respond in similar ways to many war experiences, women often wrestle with their gender role.

"One of the women really did contextualize it within the frame of being a woman. You have all the stereotypes of the gender and she felt that made her more callous because she had to do all these things society thought were antithetical to what women should be doing as opposed to men," said Weber.

Some of the women felt empowered by their deployment in Iraq. They were challenged and felt they grew stronger as a result. Other women came home feeling they could never again return to a war zone.

And several women talked about unique dangers they faced right on the military bases where they were stationed.

"But, like, there were instances of people getting raped or whatever. Or we had weirdo guys that would sit in our showers, you know. Literally there would be a guy in there," recalled one woman. " Or like, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, we would wake up a guy to go with us. "

Weber
Christina Weber wants to know how women respond to the intense, traumatic situations they experience in a war zone.
Courtesy Christina Weber

"It was interesting, a lot of them didn't want to talk about those difficulties, they tried to brush them aside," said Weber. "But when they were on the base it was clear there were certain dangers they had to watch out for from other men outside of their units."

The women Christina Weber interviewed were reluctant to talk about many things they experienced in Iraq. Weber said the gender stereotype that women share their feelings more readily than men doesn't seem to apply to veterans.

Weber said many of the women wanted someone to hear their story, but found it hard to talk about their experience with people who had not been there.

As a result, many of the women struggled with the return to civilian life. They felt disconnected from family and friends.

"I'm sure I was rude when I came home because I found civilian issues to just be completely stupid. Being upset about whatever. Like something little like having to pay the bills or take the garbage out. I was like, "Who cares?" I mean it really, really bothered me that they would even dare to bitch about anything," recalled one woman.

Another woman recalled an awkward experience with her parents after returning from a tour in Iraq.

"The Ground Round is my favorite place to eat, and so my parents took me there. And, I just sat there, and they were kinda staring at me. And I didn't want to be stared at because I think that makes it worse. So I was like. What am I supposed to say? 'So this one time I was driving down the road in Iraq?' I don't want to talk about it. So I was like, 'if you guys want to know something, you have to ask me. I don't know how to tell you everything'", the woman remembers. "So that was the hardest part for me, by far. And then just hearing little stuff, like, and as mean as this probably sounds, but little stuff like, oh that really bothered me when that car cut me off today. And I'm, like,'yeah well try to have it blow up next to you'".

"Some of (the women) that had the best reintegration process said they really stuck with people who were in their units when they came back. They felt bad that they were not talking to their friends and family but they felt that was what they had to do to get acclimated back to life here," Weber said.

Sociologist Christina Weber said her preliminary research leaves more questions than answers. Women seem to respond much as men do to combat stress, but will the same counseling techniques help women recover from post traumatic stress syndrome?

How do gender roles affect reintegration to civilian life? Weber said it appears war may lead women to delay starting a family, while men often leap quickly into that role after being in combat. "I think there needs to be a lot more work done to uncover some of the issues," says Weber. "What's particular to being women and coming back as daughters, wives and mothers?"

Weber plans to continue her research with a couple of goals in mind.

She wants to better understand the effects of post traumatic stress on women. She also wants to make sure women's voices have a place in the narrative of war.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.