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American Women at War
Sergeant Michelle Brookfield Wilmot on guard duty in Ramadi, Iraq in April 2005. Photograph by Spc. Miranda Mattingly.

Sergeant Michelle Brookfield Wilmot on guard duty in Ramadi, Iraq in April 2005. (Photo by Spc. Miranda Mattingly.)

In the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American women in uniform are everywhere and almost anywhere. In conflicts without clear front-lines, where old distinctions of combat and non-combat troops are hard — impossible — to uphold.

In the air over Tal Afar, in a Kiowa scout helicopter, chasing insurgents down alleyways from the sky with a .50 caliber machine gun and rockets at the ready.

On the ground, gun in hand, guarding convoys, raiding homes, saving soldiers with a medic’s pack, rumbling through the roadside bombs.

And they’re bringing what they see back home, as veterans, with more bloody, in-the-thick-of-it memories than female American vets have ever known.

This hour, On Point: On Veterans Day, American women at war.

You can join the conversation. Female veterans, tell us about your experiences at war. In Iraq. In Afghanistan. Tell us about going, fighting, surviving. Tell us about coming home.


From Baghdad, we’re joined by Tina Susman, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. She’s recently been embedded with U.S. troops.

Joining us from Washington is Ann Scott Tyson, Pentagon and military correspondent for The Washington Post.

From Amherst, Mass., we’re joined by Sergeant Rachel McNeill, Army Reserve. She served in Iraq from December 2004 to December 2005, starting out as a heavy construction equipment operator and shifting to security for convoys out of Ramadi. She’s 24 years old, grew up in Wisconsin, and joined the Army Reserve her senior year of high school, after 9/11, when she was 17.

Also from Amherst, we’re joined by Kirsten Holmstedt, author of “Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq” (2007). She’s at work on a new book about women returning home from war.

And joining us from New York is Meg McLagan, a documentary filmmaker and cultural anthropologist. She’s co-director and co-producer of the new documentary “Lioness,” which documents female soldiers of the Iraq War who took part in the Lioness program, in which women accompanied male teams on raids and house searches. The film will air nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens this Thursday, Nov. 13.

More links:

You can watch the Independent Lens “Lioness” trailer on YouTube, here:

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  • sylvia spasoff

    Canadian women are also serving on a equal basis with their male colleagues in Afghanistan. One of our heroes is Captain Nichola Goddard who was killed on duty in 2006 while serving as a forward observer from a tank to direct artillery attacks. On this
    Remembrance Day we are remembering all of our troops killed in Afghanistan, as well as the earlier wars.

  • Deborah Douglas

    There seems to be some confusion among your guests and callers regarding U.S. law. For example, one of the extraordinary changes following the first Gulf War was the repeal of the legal restrictions that barred women from serving in combat aviation. The new law allows each branch of the service to make their own decisions about what positions should be open to women (and men for that matter). As the callers have suggested, the military and society are still debating the question “should women be in combat” but there is no legal barrior preventing them from doing so. This is quite different from the first Gulf War when women in the same situation as today’s military women would be in violation of law.

  • http://www.emofree.com lorie michaels

    I’m prior service (no combat) & experienced sexual harassment several times. I’ve been working with other vets & women who have experienced traumas – I really want to pass on a web site & info about a process that has been working extremely well for both war & sexual trauma. It’s called EFT & the web site for more information is http://www.emofree.com
    It has made a huge difference in my life & with the men & women I’ve worked with.

  • Kim Ponders


    I’m a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve and the author of a novel about a woman flying in the Gulf War called “The Art of Uncontrolled Flight”. Women have shown themselves to be just as brave and tough in combat as men despite the fact that they’re all too often treated as second-class soldiers by their own peers and supervisors. As a nation, we’ve preferred to avoid conversations about the role of women in combat because it’s an uncomfortable subject. But women ARE in combat. There’s no denying it. Recognizing that and discussing it on the national level will go a long way toward allowing female soldiers be treated with the respect they deserve. If we continue to avoid a national dialogue on this subject, far too many women are going to continue to be subjected to sexual harassment and other gender bias.

  • ti

    This was an excellent show and I, sadly, was not able to pay full attention to it at work. I heard one of the callers recount her request to serve in the field, the tension in camp (unspoken expectation for payback from asking for routine favors such as a ride, having to deal with being chatted up near the latrines, etc.). I would like to thank her for her courage in sharing this story and in facing not only the enemies of her country but also simultaneously facing those within her country who have chosen the reprehensible path of the sexual bully. It seems, given any high concentration of men (schools, prisons, camps, fraternities, and armies) a group of these abusers will self-organize and begin a hushed but self-congratulatory predation of women or, in fact, anyone they think they can successfully assault without immediate reprisal. This group enjoys inflicting the abuse and sees it as a deserved benefit of their position of authority. It is important to realize, however, that these predators (though often never pushed and sometimes even given a clandestine sort of admiration) do NOT represent all of male humanity. They are a surprisingly large minority that are afflicted by an appallingly ignored form of sociopatholgy. Women such as the caller who have faced these people and survived are brave and strong and righteous. Predatory groups such as these need to be identified, treated, and dissolved (as opposed to being slapped on the back, admired, and promoted). Men who participate in these activities are sick and should seek help — the fact that others participated with them does not mean that they are “normal.” Healthy men who condone this abuse (whether through secret chuckles or through willful ignorance) are cowards, and, though surely surrounded by many more such cowards, should not feel any less ashamed at letting this sort of behavior go unresolved. This is an enemy within our psyches and must be brought to light and fought in the open. Historically the ability to inflict unnecessary humiliation and pain upon ones peers has been (sometimes quietly, sometimes publicly) admired as an expression of power. In fact, it is an expression of deep weakness, mental illness, ignorance, and lack of self-control. It is incumbent upon healthy people to identify and de-escalate this behavior whenever possible, and those, such as the caller, who have faced this head on are the bravest of all of us in this struggle.

  • JB Finn

    Can you please define sexual trauma? How is it different from sexual harassment or sexual assault?

  • Bob Carey

    Dear On Point,

    I am an Army brat and a Viet Nam infantry veteran. Great show and thanks. But this is just what should be the beginning of this topic. You need to do more shows (plural).

    I only served for one hitch and never saw a female GI. But today, though I have lived most of my life away from military service for men or women, I live near Ft. Lewis, McChord Air Force Base, and several naval bases.

    Not only do I hear about how the wars are stretching many military families to the breaking point on NPR, but I see it all the time at work. This is a place (western Washington) of many veterans and currently serving military personnel and their families.

    I happen to be off today because of my work schedule. I have never, like all veterans, had a day off because I am one. It is quite popular today, unlike when I returned from the Nam, for media stories about veterans. I am glad women are finally getting some of what is due them for their service. But RIGHTNOW, while listeners are listening to this, military families are under incredible pressure to survive in Irag, Afganistan, and the USA. Many families have two serving partners and sometimes children. The all-volunteer services, national guard and reserve are being destroyed by these two wars. And then there are numerous stories how the pentagon, congress, and the VA are failing the veterans, their families and many active service personnel.

    This is extremely important.

    Please do a show on this stuff!


    Bob Carey
    Sgt. E-5
    Co. A, 5th Btn, 12th Infantry
    199th Light Infantry Brigade
    Mekong Delta, Viet Nam

  • http://www.stressproject.org lorie michaels

    Hi JB,
    I would define sexual trauma as the effects of sexual harassment or assault. One could also experience a trauma to the body (physical injury) – but in the context I’m addressing, it’s the lasting mental & emotional damage after the actual “situation” has passed. Same with war trauma…still seeing it, still feeling scared/jumpy, insomnia, unable to know who to trust…going inward & wanting to just be left alone. Numb.
    It’s a tragedy, and it’s so prevalent right now that it’s getting a lot of press – so I dearly hope that people are finding their way to help & getting out of the slump that either of these situations can land you in. And so many women are experiencing both. If anyone reads this page & knows of a vet with PTSD, please send them the link to the EFT website. Or the StressVet Project…which is offering free, confidential help to vets with PTSD. http://www.stressproject.org
    And thank you to the women who have voluntarily placed themselves in combat situations – you have my respect and gratitude.

  • http://stopmilitaryrape.org Frederic C.

    FYI-Democracy Now did a show at the beginning of this year featuring a member of, “stopmilitaryrape.org,” and there was a stop military rape day (in May, I think).

  • HH

    [for context, I'm male]

    Your guest talk about jaws dropping when people here about female soldiers. I’ve been hearing about female soldiers for so long that I’m kind of surprised to hear such a big deal being made about it, and surprised at the limitations still there about where and how women serve.

    From my perspective, women should be equal, both in rights and in responsibilities. The end.

  • Military Realist

    The situation for women in the armed forces serving in Iraq is the fault of shortsighted military policy. Allowing women into any branch of the military was the opening of the flood gates. While combat branches like the Infantry may hold out for awhile, with current current social and political trends full integration seems inevitable. While many feminists and female veterans may celebrate this as a triumph for the gender most military experts have argued that women lead to disunity in the ranks, especially in combat situations. Cohesion is essential in any combat unit and soldiers must be able to depend on each other for survival. The fact is that women in the military are held to a lower physical standard then men, and combined with the natural distraction women create the overall effectiveness of the Army is reduced.
    The only solution which can preserve the effectiveness and performance of the armed forces in Iraq is to remove all women from service on the ground. No unit stationed in Iraq can completely be classified as non-combat, therefore the only option that follows the spirit of these military rules is to remove all service women from Iraq, and revert to the age old structure of an army.

  • Sonya

    I just want to say I couldn’t be any prouder of all these women. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service to your Country. I am truly apalled you have had to put up with so much sexual abuse from your “brothers” in arms with no justice in sight. I find it quite hypocritical that these are the same men who claim to be “protecting” women. What a joke. Be strong, be brave and remember you are every bit as good and better than any man serving next to you.

    Oh and Military Realist, you are an a$$hat!

  • David

    My Sister is a Marine that served as a Lioness in Iraq. She was in a number of firefights and was IN combat.

    The ban on women in combat needs to go. It is insulting to women that have been in harms way.

  • Jj108499

    I am a female combat veteran. I went to Iraq for the entire year of 2004. I must say this was the best and worst experience of my life.
    Death was so real, like I have never experienced before. When bombs were up above, there was nothing one could do…
    I was terrified and didn’t even know. Hell, I couldn’t know or show my fear. I was already seen as weak, and didn’t want to bring any more negative attention.
    I love the United States of America. I am thankful everyday I was born here.
    When I was 17, I joined the military. I was seeking a new perspective on life, and man did I receive one.

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