Seeing Saudi Arabian Women During Desert Storm

One of the things that fascinated me was the women of Saudi Arabia. Before we deployed to Desert Storm in October of 1990, we were given many different briefings on the culture. The army didn’t want us screwing things up!

What we heard kind of scared the women in our unit, because we really didn’t know what to expect. It was all very strange and different, and this was before the internet, so it was a little like stepping off a diving board and not knowing if there was water in the pool. As it turned out, we would spend most of our time in the middle of nowhere, with no contact with human life other than our fellow soldiers.

But in the first month, we were in Dharhan, and I had an opportunity to go to a mall. Some things are universal — the mall looked like any other mall. In one store front, I saw these gorgeous dresses in stunning colors. I was told that the women wore these under their abaya. That’s the long, black covering the women wear.

I wandered off in search of a bathroom, because in the army, you always go when there’s an opportunity. You never know when the next opportunity will be available. As I come out, I’m greeted by three Saudi Arabian women. We stop some distance from each other and stare at each other. At least I think they were staring at me.

The women were dressed in black abayas that covered them from head to toe. Even their faces were covered by sheer black cloth, so I could not see what they looked like. I didn’t really think about it until then, but we rely on a lot of visual cues with faces and eyes, and I couldn’t do that with the women. Even the garments hid body language cues.

The women stared back at me, and I had the distinct feeling I was like an alien from outer space to them. Since they were on their way to bathroom, they circled around me, maintaining their distance. And all I could do was wonder what it was like to always look at the world through a veil.

I Won’t Enlist Because That Soldier is Pretty

The army’s had an embarrassing week.  It’s been roaming around the news that someone leaked an email officers sent each other saying that “ugly women” should be featured in ads depicting soldiers because they are perceived as more competent.

I get how they arrived at that.  When NCIS cast Lauren Holly as the new director, they got comments that was she was too pretty for the role.  I actually agree with that.  She was “model pretty,” which is to say a standard most people wouldn’t fit into.  She did not look like a high-powered Washington, DC woman; rather, she just looked like she was cast because the producers thought guys would be attracted to her and watch the show.

But the reality is that a job like the director of NCIS, or any other government agency, would be very wearing on a person.  High-powered government officials have long hours, equally long meetings, and probably not eat right because of all those long hours and meetings.  Even when they go home, they are on call.  If there’s a crisis involving whatever they do, they get called.  Sorry, but the character isn’t going to look like a model with all of that.


There were two problems with what the army did here.

The first was that they assumed that because a female soldier was pretty, she wouldn’t be competent or would be sleeping around to make rank.  News flash!  We all went through basic training and suffered having a drill sergeant yell in our face.

The second was a more curious one.  How would they define “pretty”?  Or, let me put a different way: Would you want to be the one they defined as “ugly”?


None of this is helped by the media and the book industry.  We have an ad airing now that’s gotten a lot of controversy because it’s men in boxer shorts and jackets.  Yet, no one is bothered by another ad where a woman dances very proactively and is dressed in something that I don’t think qualifies as clothes.  Book covers for urban fantasies are designed to be provocative and have characters who need to be surgically removed from their clothes.  Yet, if any women complain, the men are like “What’s the big deal?”

But a key difference — and I think even the army missed this one — is that the media and the book industry are using s** to sell (I’m trying to avoid getting a ton of spammers here) products.  With the army, all the soldiers — male and female — are dressed the same.  It’s awfully hard to make a military uniform glamorous, especially when it doesn’t fit really well to start with.

Yet, looks are still the first thing these officers went straight to.  It’s not an easy answer, because it so wrapped up in our culture.  But there are actually answers to beginning to solve the problem the army was clumsily trying to address.  It’s just a first step, but might make a difference.

If the army wants women to look more competent:

They should photograph them more.  When I’ve searched for photos of military women for this blog, I can barely find any.

They should photograph women doing army things, like the men.  When the army does photograph women, it seems like most of them have the soldier talking to children.

There are some soldier stuff photos, but there’s not a lot.  It’s like the photographers get out in a group of soldiers and tune the women out entirely as if they weren’t there.  It sends the message that the women really aren’t that important, and that what the men do is.  Yet, we’ve had women die in combat, women save lives.  I’m watching episodes of China Beach, and without the nurses, some male soldiers probably would not be alive today.  And we’re worried about women being too pretty?  Please.

Week 5: 10 Stories in 10 Weeks

Army woman in a wheelchair celebrates winning the gold.
Army Spc. Elizabeth Wasil wins gold in the 1500-meter wheelchair race during the 2013 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., DOD photo by EJ Hersom

Week #5’s story is done!  Just needs an edit and proofread to clean it up, and then it’ll be off on submission to an online magazine.  The theme I’m submitting to was war.  I figured that the publisher would get all kinds of submissions from male writers and few from female writers, and probably no one writing women characters.

The story needed to be flash fiction because that was the magazine’s requirement.  But I also had one, which was to make sure I wrote a story that wasn’t too theme specific.  If the magazine rejected it, I wanted to be able to find other markets fairly easily.

There was only one small problem …

I had no idea what the heck I was going to write!

Usually I have a generally idea by Sunday, but this time, I didn’t have anything.  War, fantasy, and flash fiction is a tough thing to put together.  Everything I was coming up with either was going to be a challenge getting the fantasy in, or was going too theme specific.  The short length was also presenting a challenge because the story has to get to the point pretty fast.

So I was in a bit of a panic because I have to finish a story and submit it by the end of the week.  I had to come up with something!

It kind of started with the question people always ask me about Desert Storm: “What was it like?”  I think every soldier lies when they answer this because no one wants to hear what it was really like.  By the time I got out at lunch and sat down to write, the idea had morphed into the secrets soldiers keep from each other.

It was about 900 words, and I wrote it in 30 minutes.

See also:

Female Vet’s Perspective: General Dismisses Assault Case

Marines silhouetted against an orange sunset.
U.S. Marines depart a checkpoint and patrol back to Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Afghanistan, May 30, 2010. The Marines are assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga. Department of Defense.

It’s been all over the news that yet another general has dismissed a harassment case, citing that the person charged was more credible than the victim.  This time, it was a female general.  How is this possible?  I think there’s two reasons.

1. Men think women overreact

This is more of a cultural issue than a military issue.  I’ve seen it turn up in the writing field, comic book industry, and even a male wrote it into a book.  But to give you an idea of how it is in the military …

When I was living in the barracks, the heat failed because a part burned out.  It wasn’t a problem during the day, but when the temperature dropped at night, the old wooden walls of the barracks sucked all the cold air in.  We were freezing!

Our first sergeant had just left for a school, so our request was routed to the acting first sergeant (noting this because the problem would not have happened under the first sergeant).  He decided we were whining about nothing.  Grudgingly, he got Facilities out there to check the heat, but he must have told the repairman his opinion.  The repairman barely checked the heater, spending only two minutes on it before he declared it was in working order.

So the barracks continued to be very cold, and twenty women complained to their squad leaders and platoon sergeants.  The more we complained, the more the acting first sergeant said we were whining.  He told everyone we were whining, and we were hearing it from our squad leaders.   This went on for a month, and one of the women was getting ready to go to the Inspector General.

That night, I was on staff duty with one of the female sergeants.  It was about 2:00 a.m.  She, too, repeated the mantra that we were whining.  So I challenged her to check out the barracks.

We went to the male barracks.

We went to the female barracks.

She got the heat fixed the next day.

The acting first sergeant went out of his way to proclaim that “Women whine.”  All he needed to do was call Facilities and report the problem and let them find out.  Instead, his bias affected the entire company.

Imagine that happening during war.

Now onto the second reason:

Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

Most of the men get caught at harassment and assault are senior enlisted or officers.  They have fifteen years or more in the military.  So when a general sees the case, she puts herself in their shoes.  She’s thinking that this guy is married, has two kids, and his retirement at stake.  If it were her, she wouldn’t risk all that to do something stupid like that.

So as a result, we get the credibility of the victim being questioned.

Thankfully, Congress is putting this out in the public eye.  It needs the exposure or it won’t get fixed.
Also visit my other military links:







Beauty of a Woman Blogfest: My Relationship With My Glasses

Beauty of a Woman Blogfest badge showing a dark pink background and an abstract silhouette of a woman.When I decided to participate in the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest, I didn’t realize what a tough subject the idea of beauty was going to be.  The first image that often comes to mind is what we are bombarded with in the media: The too-thin woman who has been airbrushed into perfection.

So much of it is that we have to look a certain way or we aren’t beautiful.  Anything that changes that is perceived to make a person instantly unattractive.  Like wearing glasses.


When I was in 7th grade, I had to get glasses.  My image of them came from my parents and the media.  My father was an absent minded scientist who wore Clark Kent glasses in basic dark brown.  My mother hid behind her 1950s cat eye lenses, also in basic dark brown.

The media image came in three flavors:

1.  The brainy scientist, as if somehow only smart people could wear glasses (which was never a complement).

2.  The outcast, who got stuck with thick black glasses that were always sliding down on his face and patched with white tape.  Other people taunted him with “Four eyes!”

3.  The beautiful blonde girl who got stuck wearing wearing glasses and only wore them when needed and as little as possible at that, even if she did walk into furniture.

And I was supposed to be wearing glasses?!

It didn’t help that, at the time, there were not a lot of choices for frames.  Anything as long as it was dark brown or black and plastic.

It was picking the best of bad choices.

I hated them, and hated wearing them.  I ended up being like the beautiful blonde girl — leaving them off until I needed to see, and then I would drag them out.  As soon as I didn’t need them to see again, I’d yank them off and stuff them back into my bag, hoping no one noticed them.

But I was seated in the front row and had trouble reading the blackboard, so eventually necessity won.  I looked at the school portraits in the year book –rows of smiling kids, and then this one girl that stood out because she was one of the few to be wearing glasses.  Worse, because of the frame design time had stuck me with, the glasses stood out more than me.

They seemed like the Grand Canyon to me, but looking back, I realize that no one made fun of me.  Instead, it seemed more like they pretended not to notice.


I enlisted in the army in 1989.  Even they were determined to punish people who wore glasses.  We were issued glasses a pair known infamously as Birth Control Glasses (that’s the politically correct name. There was a far more offensive one that was in common use).   Those who could afford it, replaced the glasses as fast as possible.  Fortunately, the drill sergeants allowed us to wear our personal ones.  Maybe they felt sorry for us.  The glasses were uglier than the ones I’d been forced to get when I was a child.

Then it was off to Fort Lewis, Washington for my  first duty station, and a little over a year later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  By September, we knew it was likely we were to go.  The biggest concern was that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons on us.  Every day, the news made sure all of the soldiers knew they were going over to Saudi Arabia to die.  We feverishly trained in chemical warfare, putting on a gas mask and the protective suit that came with gloves and shoes.

There was one small problem.

The most critical item was to get the gas mask on.

In nine seconds.

The time was not for people who had to wear glasses.  We had to take off Kevlar (helmet) and put it between our legs and yank out the mask and drag it over our head and seal it.  That’s a lot to do in nine seconds, and the glasses added two extra steps.  They had to come off and go somewhere.  I always tossed them in the Kevlar, but it consumed valuable seconds.

It was a struggle to make the nine seconds.  Contact lenses were not an option — we were not allowed to wear them because the gas could get under the lenses.  I spotted an op ed piece in USA Today showing a soldier with a skull for a face.

Would I be able to get my mask on time if we were gassed?

What would happen to my glasses after we had gotten gassed?

No one answered those questions, and I started to get that queasy feeling that I might die because of my glasses.  I went through the war, my glasses a constant reminder of potential death.


It’s only been recently that I’ve liked my glasses, and that’s because they’ve come into fashion.  My last pair of glasses were green and brown.  I picked the color because my eyes are green.  My current ones  are gold and white with some nice design work.  For the first time in my life since I’ve worn glasses, these two pairs got me compliments from both men and women.

But it’s still portrayed as something ugly in the media.  Women actors on TV rarely wear them, unless it’s to show a cliché.  Yeah, models do wear them, but only when they are selling the glasses, and I hate to say it, but I can tell the model doesn’t wear glasses.

How come not being the same as everyone else is portrayed as unattractive?  Do you wear glasses?  How were you treated by other people because of the glasses?

The League of Extraordinary Women Veterans

The Iraq War ended last month, not with victory cheers but more with a weary sigh.  When I came back from the first Persian Gulf War, I felt empty and tired and just wanted to be home.

One of the most memorable faces of the second was Jessica Lynch, who was taken prisoner in the early days of the war.  She was a female soldier, and what happened to her was a fear that we all had.  I think her photo — the Basic Training one that was published in all the newspapers — mesmerized people because she looked so innocent.  I looked at that photo and saw me.

When we deployed, women going to war was still a controversial thing.  Newspaper articles ran dramatic accounts of mothers leaving their families (ignoring the fact that men were also doing the same thing) and what the cultural differences would be.  Just from what we were given in briefings and what we were seeing in the news, it did not seem like we would be welcome.

The women in my unit were particularly in the spotlight because we were part of a transportation company.  We hit the sands and were on the road right away, a very visible aspect of how different the two cultures were.  It was illegal for Saudi women to  drive.  As the build-up started, we were on 50 truck convoys heading out to deliver ammunition.  Because of the shifting geology of the land, we didn’t even have good maps to guide us (no GPS then!).

It was those convoys I thought of when I watched the film Saving Jessica Lynch.  That was a really bad made for television movie that was rushed into production after her rescue (I’m not commenting on the accuracy of the film itself).  But there’s a scene in the movie when Private Lynch’s convoy gets lost.  The convoy commander stubbornly goes on, even though he doesn’t know where he’s going and ends up in the town where they are attacked and Lynch’s life is changed forever.

I watched that scene and practically had a meltdown.  In that instant, I could easily see how one of our convoy commanders could have gotten us lost and done exactly the same thing.

That attack could have happened to us.

It could have happened to me.

We were all part of the same club: Female soldiers.

For more on my Persian Gulf War experiences:

21st Anniversary: Women at War

A Female Soldier’s Life During War

Clarity, Voice of a Soldier: Operation Liberty

21st Anniversary: Women at War

Twenty-one years ago today I was deployed to Desert Shield/Desert Storm and what is now known as the First Persian Gulf War.  Women soldiers then were more of an oddity.  Though women had been nurses in Vietnam — China Beach starring Dana Delaney was airing in prime time– there was nothing like what the military was experiencing for Desert Shield.  We would be truck drivers, supply sergeants, fuel handlers, clerks, and any other job the military could put us to work on.

From the day the news announced that Saddam Hussein had invaded Iraq, everyone in my company knew we were going — just not sure when.  No one would tell us anything.  There was this unspoken acceptance among all the soldiers that it was in our future, despite all the rumors that flew about so fast that it put Star Trek‘s warp speed to shame.

Getting deployed overnight is better than waiting for it to come.  Newspapers and TV news shows sensationalized everything.  Makes for great ratings, but hard on soldiers who are thinking about what might happen to us.  We were treated to a non-stop parade of news about Iraq planning to gas the soldiers.  One particularly memorable op-ed drawing in USA Today showed a soldier in a kevlar helmet and uniform with a skull where the face should be.

And we were going over to that?!!

The women soldiers were also given briefings by an Arab male soldier who told us what we would be facing once we landed in Saudi Arabia.  Even showing our forearms was considered a big no-no, and the covers on romance novels — well, my best buddy lamented the future destruction of her book covers.  Threaded through the instructor’s training was how much he disapproved of women going over there at all.  He didn’t say it, but it came across in way he talked.  We were all outraged by his attitude.  It wasn’t that he wanted to protect women; he thought we weren’t capable of being on the battlefield at all because we were women.

On October 25, we all got up for our final formation in the United States and marched to a nearby gym.  USO workers were standing by with lunches for us as we boarded a bus for a nearby Air Force base.  We were a quiet bunch.  Gone was the false bravado the guys had displayed while we waited for deployment news.  We were going, and we didn’t know what would be there when we arrived.

It was a little like leaving home for the first time — that fear that the lines have been cut, and we’re on our own.

The only difference was that the unknown we were going into might kill us.

Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what you were getting into until you got there? What did you experience?  Tell us about in the comments.

A Female Soldier’s Life During War

My book for the week is The Girls Come Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from the War in Iraq by Kirsten Hoimstedt.  It’s been a difficult book to read because, though it’s a different war than mine, the same issues are there.  The books contains stories about women soldiers who have been wounded, experienced post traumatic stress syndrome, or have been sexually harassed.  The book is a unique look into what life is like for a woman in the military and made me think about what it was like to be a soldier (Desert Shield/Storm 1990-1991).

Once a soldier deploys to a war zone — “Boots on the Ground” — she is in a different world.  She is surrounded by 20, 30, or 100 people she will see every single day and night. She might be the only woman in the company, or at least one of the few.  That’s her entire world.

The Army teaches soldiers to rely on their squad leaders and platoon sergeants, and to turn to them for help.  It’s one of the first things we learn in basic training and continues into active duty.

But war changes people.

Sometimes for the better.

Sometimes for the worse.

Then something goes wrong, and the soldier’s world shrinks to a world of one.  Here, in the civilian world, if something happens, there’s a lot of options.  But when in the middle of the desert, the only option becomes somehow surviving.

Then someone looks at the soldier when she returns and says, “You grew up.”  Looks at another soldier who was torn apart.  “She grew down.”

Do you know a female soldier, sailor, or marine?  Tell me about her.  And don’t forget to pick up a copy of The Girls Come Marching Home and Kirsten Holmstedt’s earlier book Band of Sisters.

I hope you’ll have a look at my story Grateful for a Gift to ‘Any Soldier,’ published in The Washington Post.