Women enlist in the different branches of the military for the same reasons that men do: patriotism, challenge, impulse, dare, career, family tradition. Yet, women’s experiences are sometimes not akin to men’s; mental abuse, sexual harassment and rape are realities.
In “Soldier Girl,” a new, raw, no-holds-bar film, 31 South Carolina female veterans speak – often for the first time – about their experiences serving in the armed forces. Cathy Brookshire, speech communications and rhetoric instructor at U.S.C., located women representing a wide range of ages and years of service to contribute to her 30-minute documentary. It was released this past spring and is available worldwide for private showings.
A report on National Public Radio prompted Cathy to notice that female soldiers are rarely mentioned in the media. She asked a female student who is a veteran about her experience in the military, and a verbal flood spilled forth. Cathy knew there were more stories like hers to be told and was able to secure grant money to create a film. She spread the word that she would like to interview S.C. female vets, and women came forward in droves. With more than 35,000 female veterans in South Carolina, there was no shortage of candidates for the film; ultimately, the stories of 31 are presented in “Soldier Girl.”
From left to right: Rebekah Havrilla, Susan Cosson, Virginia Jamison
“They were so enthusiastic about sharing,” says Cathy. “Many said they had never talked about their experiences.”
What the women had not talked about was how joining freaked some of them out; how they took pride in fighting for something bigger than themselves; and how there was no recourse when male soldiers touched them inappropriately.
Just like many American men, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mary Jane Matthews enlisted as a Marine. Her boyfriend was killed on the Arizona that day, and she was spurred on by both patriotism and a desire to fight in memory of her loved one and those who served with him. Yet, women enlisting was such a novel concept in 1941 that the military scrambled, she remembers, to figure out how to process her.
From left to right: Norma King, Cindy Williams and a fellow soldier, and Virginia Jamison
Over the years, female vets have battled against unsupportive family members, friends and even fellow officers. One woman featured in the documentary explains how her father, who retired from military service shortly before she enlisted, was not supportive and questioned the sexual orientation of women desiring to serve. “The public makes assumptions about life in the military based on simplistic notions of what a military life consists of, particularly for women in the service,” says Cathy.
Being in close quarters with healthy, active, young men, results in an often stressful, complex environment. It is not unusual, explain female soldiers, to wake up, open their doors and find flowers, chocolates, gifts and notes – all from fellow officers vying for attention. “It’s really a microcosm of a larger society,” points out Corrie Frohnapfel, who served as a Marine for nine years and is now a schoolteacher. Neither she, nor Norma Kent, a Marine for 13 years, ever personally experienced or witnessed rape, but they knew fellow Marines who had.
“It really did depend on the leadership, just like in a lot of situations,” says Corrie. “If the leadership conveyed that they weren’t going to put up with it, then it didn’t happen.”
Susan Jarvie, an academic advisor in U.S.C.’s College of Engineering and Computing who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1976 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1982, describes the lack of safeguards for women who were not under leaders with strong moral integrity: “There were no social actions to protect you. There was no one to go to to file a complaint of harassment. You just had to put up with it because that was the price of being on the flight line, and you had to find a way to fight them back.”
Some women shared how they couldn’t fight back. Cindy Williams returned to civilian life in 2003 and did not reveal to anyone, until her interview for “Soldier Girl,” that she was gang raped while she was a soldier. The mental scars of the crime proved extensive: she was suicidal, had trouble with employment, struggled with family issues and generally had difficulty functioning.
Separation from children, parents and husbands can also be traumatic. And those who have served in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan share in the documentary about the horrors they witnessed on the battlefield.
“This guy had blown himself up outside a barber shop,” says Rebekah Havrilla, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist in the Army from 2004 to 2008. “It was my first suicide bombing. Guys were like, ‘Here, chew this gum to help take some of the smell out of your nose and mouth.’ At that point he is in pieces. My coping mechanisms were a non-reality. It was like a video game of sorts.”
From left to right: Leah Leash and Virginia Jamison
Another struggles with the image of flesh-eating chemicals that plague her thoughts.
Cathy says that remembering the details of military service motivated two women featured in the film to seek psychological counseling. One of her goals in making the film, in fact, is to encourage veterans’ hospitals and programs to offer more specific services to female veterans. Currently, the film is being used for training purposes by the U.S.C. Military and Mental Health Initiative.
Cathy says that although there was funding for only a 30-minute short documentary, she gathered enough footage to make a much longer film. Film Editor Lee Ann Kornegay viewed 22 hours of interviews shot by cameraman James Henderson, who had just finished the film, “Troxler’s Truckers: Memories of Vietnam.” U.S.C. classics professor, Dr. Hunter Gardener, served as co-director for the project.
“Some of the women we’ve interviewed have had some rough times,” says James. “And, though we’re not therapists, it seemed to do some good for them to be able to talk about their experiences.”
Despite military service being no picnic – as one woman in the film describes the experience – and some of the women having serious issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sexual trauma, most of the women interviewed described their enlisted years positively. One said she appreciated America more, while another maintained that women contribute greatly to the military. Most shared how the experience made them stronger and better suited to handle problems in civilian life, and many expressed regret that they were no longer in the military.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” says Virginia Jamison, referencing Scripture. She served in the U.S. Army for five years as a Medical Corpsman and then as an aero medical Technician with the Air Force for 15 years. “I wanted to serve my country and to provide the best medical care and treatment that I was trained to give – for the men and women from the battlefield to the receiving hospitals.” Regarding her interview for “Soldier Girl,” Virginia says it was good to cry, to “exhale,” and to know that her sacrifices for her country count for something.
Sally Drumm, a Marine from 1978 to 1998, adds, “Our female veterans deserve acceptance. They deserve recognition for carrying their share of the wartime burden, while still doing what women have always done: creating connections across lines of gender, race, religion and politics.”
James says that he would like the film to lead to a greater understanding of the role of women in the military and the problems they face. “These women chose the military as a place to do meaningful work.”
This past April, “Soldier Girl” was part of the Indie Grits Film Festival lineup. Half of the proceeds from two screenings were given to Hidden Wounds, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide counseling services for combat veterans and their families.
For information regarding access to a viewing of the film, contact Cathy Brookshire at email@example.com.
Services for Soldier Girls
Denice Green, women’s program manager at Dorn Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia, was on hand to speak after the viewing of “Soldier Girl” at the Nickelodeon Theatre in April 2012. She says the film brings to light issues that are being addressed by many facilities around the United States. Dorn, alone, provides care to almost 5,000 women. VA Hospitals around the country have adapted to the growing population of women in the military by offering gender specific care, including Military Sexual Trauma Coordinators. Dorn also offers the services of a psychologist specially trained in trauma counseling for women.
Millions of dollars were spent to open the new Women’s Clinic at Dorn. Promotional events, such as a recent Ladies Night in May, serve to highlight the clinic as well as to treat women soldiers and veterans to such offerings as wellness sessions, massages and mini-makeovers.
Soldier photos courtesy of Cathy Brookshire and “Soldier Girl”