This is a long one. I try to keep my blog posts shorter, but this needed to be said.
I served in the U.S. Army from 1980 to 1984. Money was tight in our family, as it is in any family getting by on the salary of one public school teacher, and the GI Bill offered me the chance to pay for college. I’m grateful for that chance, and proud to have contribute to our nation’s defense.
Basic training was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—physically, at least. Over the course of three months, our two male drills sergeants—one young and hunky, one older and fatherly—turned a bunch of whiny teenaged girls into a tight-knit, disciplined platoon of soldiers. They were marvelous, honorable men. But one of the other male drill sergeants in our company had a list of girls he intended to sleep with. The list was found. My name was on it. He was not removed from his position; we were merely warned by our drill sergeants to keep away from him.
I was very fortunate: I enlisted at a time when we were not at war, except for the Cold War, of course. I remember our first “alert,” a drill in which we prepared to move out for field maneuvers in the middle of the night. We knew it was coming, of course, and so, when the notification came at three a.m., I ran up and down the hallway of our barracks, sounding the alarm. “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” I thought I was hilarious. My first sergeant thought otherwise.
It takes a lot of people to keep the armed forces running, and a lot of jobs. Mine was 71 Delta, legal clerk. My duty assignments were at the division JAG office, first in Frankfurt, Germany, then in Hanau, Germany, and finally at Fort Stewart, Georgia. I helped the lawyers with typing, phone calls, interviews, research, courts martial, as well as helping soldiers and their spouses prepare wills, powers of attorney, and file paperwork to be reimbursed for damages to their property during moves.
I’m very grateful for the experiences that serving afforded me. I got to travel in Europe, I got tuition assistance for the college classes I took after duty hours, and I met some very fine people from across our nation. Most of them were men. Most of those were good men.
But the constant rain of sexual harassment weighed me down. It’s funny—I remember it got really ugly around 1982, when there was a public service campaign against sexual harassment. It’s as if the male soldiers were pushing back against the idea that it wasn’t okay to yell abuse at passing females. (That’s what they called us, females–or other, uglier things.)
In Hanau, where I was stationed from ’81-’83, a favorite game among the soldiers was to pop their heads out of the top floors of the office or barracks buildings and yell charming things like, “Suck my dick, bitch,” or “You’re only good for one thing, bitch,” or “How much, Baby?”. I knew my rights. I’d march up to the front desk, fuming, and tell the NCO on duty what had just transpired, and what the perpetrator looked like. Sometimes I’d get as far as the commanding officer.
Not once did they do anything about it, except to laugh in my face. Not once.
And then there was the time my NCO organized a weekend run. A bunch of us from the base Legal Center were training for a 10K race. When I got there, it was just him and me, even though he’d led me to believe there’d be several people. Stupid young girl that I was, I left with him. We ran for an hour through the German countryside—the whole time, he tried to convince me to stop by his house “for a beer.” I laughed it off and kept running. Thank God, he didn’t push it; I doubt I could have outrun him.
Things got much worse at Fort Stewart, home of the 24th Infantry Division. The whole base vibrated with machismo. We had just adopted BDUs, the loose-fitting, camouflage uniforms soldiers still wear today. I was a scrawny little person, just over a hundred pounds, and they didn’t make uniforms small enough for me. I looked like a walking shrubbery—short hair, no make-up, cap smashed down over my eyes, my oversize uniform flapping around my skinny limbs. From my barracks, I had to bicycle to work on the other side of the base, a good five miles.
How they knew I was female, I’ll never know. But they knew, and they followed me, yelled at me from their cars—really ugly things. More than once, a car would pull up alongside me, and some guy would yell, “Get in.” I ignored them, of course, but that often made it worse. “What’s wrong, bitch? You think you too good for me? I’ll show you what you good for, bitch.”
Now, mind you, I had some marvelous male friends during this time, many of them gay but hiding it—this was before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” And if this sort of nonsense happened in front of my guy friends, they’d stand up to the bullies, challenge their ugliness.
But every day, I slunk from building to building, head down, middle finger up. Man after man greeted me with smarmy, sleazy “compliments” and offers of sexual acts. To the few nice guys who only wanted to wish me a pleasant day, I’m sorry—but the abuse was so thick and so constant that I couldn’t, wouldn’t risk talking to any strange male.
Years later, I was talking about sexual harassment with my then father-in-law, a lovely man who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He didn’t believe that the situation could actually be as dire as it was portrayed.
I saw red. I told him, mincing not one word, exactly what I endured for four years, exactly what those soldiers had said to me, done to me.
He was shocked.
Good. I’d had enough of protecting men I loved from the truth about that ugliness. No more pretending it’s really not so bad. It was. It is.