I Am Woman: 5 Books That Celebrate Our Female Veterans

Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)

Last week’s presidential election was historic for several reasons. For the first time, two female combat veterans will serve in the United States Congress: Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who served two tours with the National Guard in Iraq; and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a Black Hawk pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq by a rocket-propelled grenade. To celebrate their achievements and to mark Veterans’ Day, here are five books that explore the trials and triumphs of women in combat.

Tammy Duckworth is one of hundreds of fascinating subjects in Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross’s wide-ranging historical survey of women and war, "Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War, from Antiquity to Iraq." Aiming to correct the notion that war is a man’s business, the authors go back to the ancient world to uncover the stories of semi-mythic figures like Boudicca, the Amazons, and Cleopatra, and then show the importance throughout history of women like Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Condoleezza Rice as commanders and leaders of armies. The collection’s wide reach reminds us of the variety of forms “war” can take, including profiles of war correspondents, auxiliary servicewomen, revolutionary fighters, camp followers, troop entertainers, nurses, spies, suicide bombers, and women who fought in male disguise. Taken together, this series of biographical essays on subjects both little-known and legendary represents a rousing challenge to our stereotypes about war and womanhood.

Helen Benedict’s "The Lonely Soldier" profiles five female soldiers who fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, where more American women have died than in any war since WWII. Benedict’s subjects -- Jen, Abbie, Mickiela, Terris, and Eli PaintedCrow -- have diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, yet their lives in the army were similarly marked by the isolation and strain of being, often, the sole woman in a company of men. The book is a sympathetic exploration of these women’s lives and their multiple reasons for enlisting -- whether to join a cause they believed in, or simply to escape hardship and poverty at home. Their stories are backed up by interviews with another forty Iraq veterans, who also describe struggling with misogyny, racism, and homophobia in the army, and with PTSD when they come home. It is an urgent call for changes in military policy to help women live up to their potential as soldiers and leaders, as well as for better care for veterans returning home after traumatic tours of duty.

Kayla Williams describes herself as a “punk-kid rebel,” who somehow found herself “part of the most authoritarian institution imaginable.” Her memoir "Love My Rifle More Than You" is her attempt to work out how that change happened, and to describe how it felt to be a woman on the front lines in Iraq. After college she enlisted in the Army Reserves to train as a linguist, her decision made partly to improve her career prospects and partly to prove wrong a former boyfriend who made her feel “weak and vulnerable.” Williams’s blunt and confrontational tone in telling her story belongs to a long tradition of men’s wartime memoirs. However, her gender puts an unexpected spin on a familiar story of terror, tedium, pride, and comradeship: “Right into it,” she begins. “Sex is key to any woman soldier’s experiences in the American military.” By highlighting instances of sexual assault, promiscuity, and pregnancy, Williams draws attention to important and under-reported aspects of military life that her superiors might prefer to ignore.

In "Band of Sisters," Kirsten Holmstedt describes how the events of September 11, 2001, inspired her all-consuming interest in war, and particularly in the experiences of women in combat, who were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in greater numbers than ever before. Living in a military community -- Jacksonville, North Carolina, home of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune -- Holmstedt felt the closeness of these women’s worlds to her own: “Women I might otherwise encounter in the grocery store, coffee shop, or workplace were now fighting for their lives.” She set out to collect the stories of female veterans and military support staff, aiming to “delve into their heads and hearts,” and uncover the truth behind soundbites and brief newspaper profiles. Unlike some more polemical accounts, Holmstedt presents her subjects as hardworking, pragmatic and stoic, less preoccupied by the challenges of gender and instead determined, like their male colleagues, to assert that they are “just doing their job.”

Doing a different kind of job under fire is Heidi Squier Kraft, a clinical psychologist who was deployed to Iraq when her twin son and daughter were fifteen months old. "Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital" takes its title from a blunt truth articulated by the TV show M*A*S*H: “There are two rules of war. Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can't change rule number one.” For eight grueling months, Dr. Kraft’s job -- along with only three other psychiatrists -- was to treat the mental wounds suffered by over ten thousand Marines in western Iraq. Her memoir is an intelligent and vivid account of the war from the distinctive perspective of a mental health expert, mother, and wife of a Marine Corps pilot. Writing with a keen sympathy and understanding of the innumerable different forms of trauma, Dr. Kraft offers an essential reminder of the mental costs of combat.