Women at War: Stories & Poems

Dog tags against a brown background
This is a collection of stories and poems reflecting my military experience.  There are poems written during Desert Storm.

Desert Storm war veteran Linda Maye Adams shows the diversity of what war is like for the women who deploy in this collection of short stories and poetry. The stories run from “First Night,” and “Between Black and White,” because war seldom ends when the war does.

The poems include:

  • A Woman Goes to War
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Only Questions
  • Little One
  • The Lonely Sounds of War
  • No Safe Places
  • Just Like Me
  • That Wish

Flash fiction stories and poetry collection available from your favorite booksellers.

Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War

Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War
When I came back from Desert Storm, everyone asked me “What was it like?” It took 25 years to figure out how to answer it.

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Within twenty-four hours, he controlled the entire country. Five days later, the United States was deploying soldiers and had named the military operation Desert Shield. This would be the largest deployment of women at the time. Over 40,000 women went to war. It was so new that people questioned whether women should be there, and what would happen to the families they left behind.

Linda Maye Adams was one of those soldiers. Soldier, Storyteller is a rare inside look at war from a woman’s perspective.

Her memoir answers the question: “What was it like?”

Available from all your favorite booksellers.

Desert Storm: Packing Even More Equipment!

I was at Barnes and Noble and saw the “U.S. Army Survival Kit” they were selling. It was a box, about the size of two hardback books laid side by side. Had a blanket and and few other things in. I was kind of scratching my head it because none of seemed particularly hardy enough for what the military really has.

In additional the uniforms we would be taking, we also had a long list of individual equipment for each soldier:

  • Two blankets: These were green wool blankets, like the ones you see on M*A*S*H. Since cots were twin sized, they were twin-sized blankets. Very scratchy.
  • Sleeping bag: This was green also and looked like a caterpillar. Not like those nice rectangular ones you get at the camping stores that are more like folding a blanket in half.
  • Rain poncho: A woodland camouflage piece of plastic with a hood. It wasn’t really much protection against the weather if it was raining harder than a sprinkler.
  • Poncho Liner: Any soldier will tell you this was the most useful tool around. It was not standard issue; purchasing it came out of our own pockets, and we all bought one. It was a quilted rectangle of cloth that could be fastened to the rain poncho to create an impromptu sleeping bag. It could be also used in addition to the blankets, or to sit on, or hang up like a wall.
  • Rain jacket and pants: This was a heavy duty rain covering, rather like the yellow ones you see in rescue movies, only ours was green and stank of plastic.
  • Galoshes: These were your basic galoshes that you pulled over your own shoes and hoped you could get off when you feet sweated too much.
  • Chemical boots: Or my nickname, fish boots. They were black plastic and had this weird part on the bottom that you had to pull up and tie around your ankle with
  • Chemical clothing: A jacket and pants. We actually brought the training version (don’t ask; it’s army logic) and the real thing, which was sealed in a package. It was heavily quilted, so quite warm when we put it on over the uniform. After we got to Saudi Arabia, we received a notification that one entire lot of them was defective. The recommendation was to wear the rain jacket and pants over the top. Comforting.
  • Entrenching Tool: Army speak for a collapsible shovel.
  • Shelter half and tent stakes: The shelter half was a cotton half of a two person tent. The only place I ever used one was in Basic Training. It was just extra weight to lug around though it did make a great wall to accompany the poncho liner.
  • Duffel bags: Each soldier was given two of these as part of normal issue.
  • Ruck sack: Army speak for a backpack, but nothing as fancy as the ones you see hikers carry. It came with a frame to put the weight on your hips.
  • Footlocker: For the war, we were issued one footlocker. Pretty much like the ones on M*A*S*H, though dark brown. The footlocker was the only packing tool where we could use it for whatever we wanted.

Hardly a box the size of two hard backed books! From what I read, for the later wars, the soldiers carried even more weight. We would get cots when we got there, but those were part of the company’s inventory, rather than the soldier’s equipment.

Off next to packing all this stuff!

Desert Storm: A Soldier’s Daily Wear

According to USA Today back in 1990, the average soldier deploying to Desert Shield would be carrying a total of 83 pounds. We were probably a little under that, since they listed the soldiers as carrying bayonets. We definitely didn’t have anything like that! Here’s a list of what we would be wearing in Desert Storm on a daily basis:

Uniform: The army uniform was made out of heavy duty cotton and practicality was designed in. Instead of a zipper for the fly, we had buttons. A button is a lot easier to replace than a broken zipper. The pants also had huge cargo pockets, large enough to store a meal pouch or a 2 liter bottle of water — both things we would have to do during Desert Storm.

On the jacket/blouse, the sleeves were designed to be rolled up and rolled down. We normally wore the sleeves down in fall and winter and up in spring and summer. In Desert Storm, the male soldiers wore the sleeves up and the female soldiers wore them down. That was because of Saudi nomads. In some respects, it may have been a good thing for the women since we ended up being exposed to less sun than the men.

On the pants, we tucked those into boots. You could get either blousing rubbers (a piece of stretchable string with two hooks) or a blousing strap (much wider, with velcro) to get the bloused effect. Sometimes I liked the blousing rubbers, but they also left marks in my skin. The blousing strap was more comfortable in some respects and not in others. It was too wide, probably made for someone taller.

Hat: Better known as cover. We had ball caps on the green side, and floppy brimmed boonie hats on the brown side.

T-Shirt: We always wore a brown t-shirt under our uniform jacket/blouse. It was cotton, and a lot of times it would get stretched out or the color would leach out.

Boots: We started out with the basic issue of leather boots. I remember the first time I was issued boots during Basic Training. I stood in line at the clothing issue facility, and the woman behind the counter looked at my feet and gave a pair without me trying anything on. Up until (and long afterward), I’d spent most of my life trying to get any shoes that feet. I had extra wide feet. I was amazed that they fit perfectly with room for my toes!

Prior to Desert Storm, I did purchase on my own the jungle boots. These were supposed to have originated during the Vietnam War, and they had basic leather for the for the shoe part of the boot. The part that covered my leg was green canvas. Later during Desert Storm, the soldiers would ask for these boots, though without the vent holes in it, since sand apparently got into them. I never experienced that.

Socks: The army issue was a basic green — no changes for the desert uniform. The socks were a cheap wool and very scratchy. I brought a softer wool and cotton blend. At the time, we were allowed to make substitutions of some things like socks and boots.

Kevlar with cover: That’s actually the helmet you see all the soldiers wearing. We don’t call it a helmet because the army never calls anything by it’s logical name. Kevlar is the material it was made out of. It came coverless, so we would have to put on a cloth cover that matched our uniform. Ever try putting on plastic bag over something round? Yup, it was a challenge to get on.

It also had an elastic band that fitted around the base — not to hold the cover on the helmet, but as another bit of army practicality. If you were camouflaging yourself, you could stick twigs and leaves in the band. The band was also great for storing paperwork, like your firing range qualification.

Sometimes it was known as the brain bucket.

Body armor: This was far different than the ones you see in the news today. Picture a piece of cardboard with arm holes and you’ve pretty much got the flak vest we wore. It was fitted for men (again!), so way too big on me. When I sat down, the flak vest collar pushed up the back of my helmet. It came in original woodland camouflage, so the army issued a desert camo cover — just like the helmet cover. It had velcro and straps all over and I could turn it this way and that way and could never quite figure out how to get it on.

Suspenders and ammunition belt: Our ammunition pouches, and more importantly, canteens would be mounted to this. The belts were made for men, though. I had the belt on the last notch, and it was still too big. The suspenders were clearly made for a much taller man, so the back of them was always getting twisted all over the place on me.

What we didn’t have: The goggles that you see in pictures of today’s soldiers. The army may have issued some during Desert Shield, but it would have been to the Rangers or Special Forces. The rest of us didn’t rate.

If it sounds like a lot of stuff, it was!

Desert Storm: We’re going to war — wait! You’re a woman!

By the time we hit two weeks into Desert Shield, the army started to figure out there might be some special challenges.  Saudi Arabia is pretty well-known for its view of women.  The women are not allowed to drive, and yet, we were a transportation unit with women drivers, so we would be coming into direct conflict with that.  So it was off for more training.

The women soldiers were sent to a nearby post auditorium, where we barely filled the first two rows. There were not a lot of us in our battalion. We were a mix of Caucasian, Black, a few Hispanic, and two Native Americans. I sat in the second row with a friend.

A male staff sergeant — that’s a platoon sergeant rank — walks in. He was Arab, and his distaste for women soldiers was really evident. His jaw was set and his eyes were flashing. His tone bordered on confrontational, and at times, it seemed like he wanted to pick a fight with us.

He was likely one of the few Arab soldiers on the post and was ordered to brief us. He did his duty, but he didn’t want to. But that’s part of being in the army. You don’t choose which orders you want to follow (anyone remember the film A Few Good Men and Tom Cruise’s cross examination of one of the officers?).

Some of the things he told us included:

  • Showing our forearms was obscene. After the briefing, I rushed out and bought two long-sleeved shirts for my off-time. Believe it or not, I didn’t have any! I’m from Southern California, and I simply never wore anything long-sleeved.
  • He also told us that suggestive book covers were off-limits, too. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “There go your romance novel covers.”
  • If we met the eyes of a Saudi male, we would be struck.

As I write about this briefing, though, I wonder how much of the briefing was the sergeant’s opinion, or if the army was completely clueless about what the women might encounter. Maybe a little bit of both.

It was quite frightening to think about how easy it would be to make a mistake that could be disastrous — and all simply by being American women. I came away from the briefing afraid of encountering Saudi men at all — not exactly instilling confidence as the army intended!

But one piece of “training” that was absent was equal opportunity. The classes were required, but largely covered racism, not sexual harassment and were for lawyers to say “We checked the box.” The army did not teach the men how to serve with women.

The Huffington Post published an article on Why Your Daughters Need Science Fiction.  It’s about science fiction, but parts could be about the army, too:

Because girls are excluded and discouraged from [geek culture at] an early age, boys within this culture do not learn how to relate to girls and women as part of their peer group.

This creates all kinds of problems including discrimination, a condescending attitude and sexual harassment / sexual violence problems within both the scientific and science fiction communities.

Like science fiction, women were excluded from some military jobs. By Congressional Law, they could not participate in front line combat. That, in turn, created companies where men had absolutely no exposure to women and did not socialize with them beyond have girlfriends or relatives. Those men also served in companies with women.

Add to that young male soldiers who grew up only socializing with women in the context of dating and looking at women as they are portrayed in the media. It’s no wonder that the military is still having problems with sexual harassment of women soldiers 24 years later. They’re still stuck in the mindset of training, but they aren’t fixing the actual problem. And war has a way of getting inside the cracks and making things worse.

Desert Storm: Uniforms — One Size Fits All … Men

One of the curious things about the Army during this time is that they were not quite sure what to do with the women soldiers. So as a default, they treated us like we were men, except that we weren’t.

It was something never more apparent than with the uniforms we would be wearing.

We got our desert camouflage uniforms fairly quickly. I remember being bused down to the clothing issue building. It was a huge, cavernous warehouse, white on the outside and dark on the inside. We filed along a brown painted counter, and civilian workers asked us what size we wore. They gave us two each of the uniforms, which was the shirt and pants, plus one floppy brimmed hat (a Boonie hat). I was a small, extra short.

The normal issue was four, but supplies were already running low, so the Army was having to stretch things out. My company had one sergeant who was very tall, and they didn’t have any uniforms for him at all.

The women all had the opposite problem: Everything was both too big and too small. Mine was way too big across the shoulders. I always had this kind of puffed out part on my back, like I had a creature sticking to my spine or something. The sleeves were so long that I could curl my fingers up and my hands would disappear. Handy when it was cold!

The pants were always too long, but thankfully were tucked into the boots. No need to get expensive hemming done! I always had trouble with the waist, which was too big on me. I have an hourglass, and virtually everything I end up with is too big in the waist. Some of the other women had trouble with getting the hips to fit right, because the pants were made for a much narrower male hip. Unfortunately, if you went up bigger sizes, the uniform ended up bigger in other places, too.

More recently, the Army decided to have a look at getting uniforms fitted for women — but it took them over twenty years to figure out that women were different!

History of Uniforms, from the New York Times.  The uniform we wore was #16, and it did include that weird looking grid jacket.  We never knew what to do with that, so we often wore it to ward against the night chills when we were in civilian clothes.  Don’t forget to check on #11, which is WAC uniform from World War II.