The Voice of Women Veterans

The Washington Post published the Five Myths about Female Veterans today, and unfortunately, all of the are true.

When I came home from Desert Storm, I was hungry for something that explained how I was feeling.  China Beach had just been cancelled and gone into reruns.  I devoured it.

I also read and reread A Piece of My Heart, which is a book of stories of women veterans from the Vietnam War.  It was just about the time when the Vietnam vets started telling their stories, so there were a lot of books coming out.  I read all of them, because, other than Pieces of My Heart, there wasn’t anything representing the voice of the women.

I even went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars down in Tacoma, Washington.  I walked in and there was a bar with a bunch of old men sitting at it.  I might as well have been asking directions.

That’s still a mixed bag for the women.  Some have great success at their local organizations.  Others come in and are told to apply for the Women’s Auxiliary.

I’m also on a Facebook page for Desert Storm Combat Women.  Many of them report going to the Veteran’s Administration, and their civilian male spouse is addressed as if he is the veteran.  Or they have to prove they are a veteran while the male veteran standing next to them does not.

We have a local grocery store in Washington, DC that gives veteran parking. For the overseas people, it’s not a disabled slot or has any legal requirements; it’s merely something that a store does as courtesy, like the slots for pregnant women.  Two women have come out to find nasty grams on their windshields.  I park there myself, so I’m expecting one day for someone to do the same to me.

There’ll be an article in the Washington Post on something like PTSD, disabilities, or problems with the VA, and the reporter gravitates to all the men, unless it’s about a woman’s issue.

As a writer, I’ve submitted to a lot of veteran anthology calls. I was often the only woman veteran.  Usually they got a wife or daughter talking about a family member, but even there wasn’t many women’s voices represented.

Obviously, the women need to speak up more, but at the same time, it gets old hearing the same stories again and again.

Just remember that there were 40,000 women in Desert Storm.

Cover for Women at War: Stories & Poems

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,” and “That Wish.”




Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War

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?”

Cover for Red, White & True

Even as we celebrate the return of our military from wars in the Middle East, we are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles that await veterans on the home front. Red, White, and True offers readers a collection of voices that reflect the experiences of those touched by war-from the children of veterans who encounter them in their fathers’ recollections of past wars to the young men and women who fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The diversity of perspectives collected in this volume validates the experiences of our veterans and their families, describing their shared struggles and triumphs while honoring the fact that each person’s military experience is different.

Leila Levinson’s powerful essay recounts her father’s experience freeing a POW camp during World War II. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder provides a chilling account of being a new second lieutenant in Vietnam. Army combat veteran Brooke King recounts the anguish of raising her young children by day while trying to distinguish between her horrific memories of IED explosions in Baghdad and terrifying dreams by night.

These individual stories of pain and struggle, along with twenty-nine others, illustrate the inescapable damage that war rends in the fabric of society and celebrate our dauntless attempts to repair these holes with compassion and courage.


Military Accident = More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame

There’s an old saying that everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. In Washington, DC I imagine that happens if your car stalls out in rush hour and every news station reports on “stalled car blocking the middle lane.” But we had one soldier who got far more than fifteen minutes of it, all over the 6:00 news.

We drove 915 trucks, which are very similar to tractor trailors, except green. The trailer part is a flatbed, so pretty much anything can be put on it. Add sideboards and a tarp and you can carry pallets of mail as we did during Desert Storm. A forklift can add a shipping container, or load poles. Lots of things can go on it.

We also had two main roads that we could take. But had two bridges. The design was strange because the bridges were together, and the road dipped under the first bridge, and then came up. If the drivers had a trailer, they were not supposed to go on that road, becauase there wasn’t enough clearance.

One of the drivers was carrying two 20 foot shipping containers on the trailer. They contained medical supplies. He forgot about the second bridge and went under it with the trailer. Hit it hard enough to knock off one shipping container and damage the other. Medical supplies were scattered all over the street, and the news crews came out to take pictures. Accident! Military truck! Terrible! Shocking!

We had a second accident, which occurred a few years later. The news footage showed the truck—no trailer—sitting on the freeway divider at an angle. They’d flown a helicopter over it. The mutliple car accident had occured in front of the military truck, and the driver went on the embankment to avoid hitting the disabled cars and also to get out of way. But if you listened to the media, it was “Army driver causes accident.”

Sometimes what seems like the truth isn’t.

Drinking water out in the field

Whenever we went out to the field for training, our squad leaders had to bring “potable water.” Potable water is what you can drink and fill your canteens with. The field on Fort Lewis was always way out in the middle of nowhere, so we always had to bring out water and food. There wasn’t anything like water in the MREs, though at the time, they had powdered sweet drinks that could be added to water.

The first way was our own personal canteens. We carried one quart canteen on our equipment belt, and that was supposed to be full before we went to the field. In Desert Storm, we had two 2 quart canteens—it was wearing water balloons stuck to our hips. I hated drinking out of my one quart canteen. They were always used when we got them from central issuing, and the previous owner of mine had added the MRE powdered drink to the water. The taste had leached into the plastic, so when the water warmed up over the day, the water would have this vague flavor of cool aid. Yuck!

Our platoons also brought out water in five gallon containers. Amazingly, it’s for sale on Amazon! This is exactly what they looked like. My squad would fill up some and put them in the back of a CUCV, which was a vehicle we used after the jeep and prior to the hummers. It looks kind of like the suburban, except camouflaged in dull green colors.

When the container was full up, it was a two person job to fill a canteen. One tipped the container while the other held the mouth of the canteen to the mouth of the containers. Water usually managed to spill. The sergeants would also take one and turn it upside down so the spigot was on the bottom, then set it on a table by the latrines so we could wash our hands. During Desert Storm, a lot of times this was one of those ubiquitous bottled waters that were everywhere.

The last way we brought out water was at company level—a lyster bag was set up. I tried using the term in something, but no one knew what the heck one was. It looks like a canvas punching bag dangling from a frame, or a tree branch. It holds 36 gallons of water and was always sweating with ice cold water. A picture is here.

The sergeants were always making sure we drank water. One of the women hated water and just drank coffee. She refused to drink water when we were in Desert Storm and ended up getting it in her record that she had been told she needed to drink water. She did end up dehydrated and on an IV at one point because she didn’t get enough liquids. Even just in a normal field activity, you can sweat off a lot of water, so it was always important to have more water nearby.

Eating out in the Field

The military is really big about training. But then, the entire mission of the military is war, and the only thing soldiers can do is train until and if a war happens. The purpose is to know everything by rote so when the big scary stuff happens, the soldier doesn’t have to think about what to do because she already knows.

We’d go to training on Fort Lewis once a week. Training wasn’t like what’s in the corporate world, where you go sit in a classroom while the instructor races through PowerPoint slides. We went out to the field, which was the woods. We would have liked the classroom, since Fort Lewis could be cold and rainy, but we rarely did anything indoors. Fort Lewis has a huge expanse of woods—beautiful fir trees that look like telephone poles and smell like pine. Lush green everywhere.

Any time we requested one of the training areas, we got our training schedule back with a list of who we needed to coordinate with. There was a lot of competition for some training areas, and sometimes there was just a company nearby. We’d have to take paperwork around to all these different companies so they could sign off on it. If they didn’t, we’d have to find another place. I ended going to 1st Special Forces and 75th Rangers to get signatures. No women, so I stood out!

The main reason for the coordinations was because some of the companies used artillery to train, and we did not want to be on the business end of that.

Anyway, we’d scheduled training at the Military Operations On Urban Terrain place, or MOUT, as it was known. You can see some pictures of a MOUT site here. It had basic buildings, so we could practice war in a city environment. This particular training site was always popular, and we were sharing it with another company. We were at one end, and they were at the other.

At lunch, the cooks brought food in the back of a CUCV. It’s food straight from the mess hall. They cook it and fill metal insulated containers to keep it hot, then serve it to us. So we get hot food on paper plates and plasticware. We’re tired from the morning’s training and still have the afternoon to go, so we go off and find spots to eat.

And then suddenly our eyes and throats are burning. No! It’s not the food!

The other company used CS gas (otherwise known as tear gas). The wind was blowing it all in our direction.

One soldier sat there and continued to eat—no one was going to interrupt him!—while the rest of us tried to find a better place. Did kind of ruin the meal for us anyway.

Pizza debuting in the MRE in 2017

Pizza’s the mainstay of the military. When I was stationed at Fort Lewis, Domino’s set up shop just off post, in Tillicum. Tillicum was a run down strip of restaurants, a few cheapie car dealerships, and that kind of thing.

Domino’s would send their drivers over on Friday or Saturday night with boxes of cheese pizzas, and they would walk to through the barracks: “Pizza for five bucks!” Sometimes it would be free. But, of course, taped the box was a set of coupons and the phone number so you would buy more pizzas.

In 2017, pizza will debuting in the Meals Ready to Eat (MRE):

Soldiers always have a love-hate relationship with the MRE. An MRE is a “field ration”–a pouch of that you can stuff into your cargo pocket and eat out in the field. It doesn’t need to be cooked and it provided a hefty dose of calories (abut 1,200 a meal).

It also hasn’t always been good. Before Desert Storm, it seemed like no one thought much about making something soldiers liked. We had twelve meals to a box, and some of them were pretty awful. The frankfurters were known as the “four fingers of death,” and Omelet with Ham and Escalloped Potatoes had me scratching my head and wondering “What were people thinking?”

Desert Storm forced the military to rethink the MREs. I don’t think they thought originally much beyond soldiers having the meals for a week when a company went to the field. In Desert Storm, all of us had an MRE for lunch every day. But there were also places where we had it three meals a day. When I was at Log Base Alpha, the food at the mess hall was so bad that MREs were better. :>

We also were pretty creative with it. There was always a box of unwanted items like cheese or fruit, so we could mix what we wanted it. I always added cheese to everything if I could. I even was able to get hold of some nacho cheese potato chip dip and added that. One of the guys found some MRE bread, so some previously awful pork patty and beef patty hockey pucks became pretty decent sandwiches once rehydrated and heated.

After Desert Storm, the military started revising the MREs. They replaced all of them, and over time have added vegetarian meals and even ethnic ones. You can see here some of the changes over time. Scroll to the bottom to see the changes to the ones I had.

Everyone always fought over the Spaghetti with Meatballs. If the pizza one is good, everyone will fight over that.

Since we are talking pizza, what’s your favorite? Mine is Mac and cheese. Yum!

And if you haven’t seen it, I posted some Frequently Asked Questions about my military service, which includes the medals and ribbons.


Moving, Military Style

Moving in the military is always messy and stressful. So much so that the military classifies it as one of the top stressors.

But that’s when the soldier had a family — a spouse, children. But for the single soldiers who lived in the barracks, we always had problems with the sergeants, who seemed to think all we had was two duffel bags.

Not the TV set, video player, computer, books …

Lots of books.

Fort Lewis kicked us out of our barracks on main post, to move to the old World War II “temporary” barracks on North Fort. That was six miles away.

Initially, all the men were moving, but the women’s barracks wasn’t ready. We hit a holiday weekend, and the women were told “Move now!” A hurricane hit Washington State that weekend. So I’m throwing stuff in the back of my Geo Metro, which was a roller skate of a car, as I get pelted by high winds and rain.

Drive up this winding, six mile road as the rain battered at my little car. Got to the new barracks, hauled out my stuff, made a mad dash inside, dropped the stuff off, and back for another trip.

The problem part of the move was my computer desk. It wasn’t a monster like the ones you can get today, but it had a hutch, so it wasn’t going to be fitting on my roller skate car.   My squad leader had promised to come by with his truck, but he was a no show (boo! Boo!).

It was getting dark out, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do about this desk. I was the last one in these barracks, and I was stuck. Then one of the other platoon sergeants stopped by to check the barracks, and he had a truck. Yay!

It was probably good that I was the last one there. We discovered that the orderly room had left behind the company guidon. The first sergeant would not have been happy if he discovered it Tuesday morning.

After that move, I couldn’t find anything for ages because of Army expectations versus moving expectations.

Unpacking is messy. The Army expected us to be inspection ready immediately.

Yup. Those two things didn’t work together. But somehow, it made sense to the military.

Beds, Military Style

When you live in the barracks, you’re kind of stuck with what you have. I’ve heard the military has tried to improve things, but there is a tendency to think of soldiers as children.

The beds, for example.

We were assigned beds that were originally in life bunk beds. We’d probably be still using them as bunk beds but there was a urban legend that an accident had caused Fort Lewis to outlaw them. According to the legend, over a four day weekend, a top bunk had crashed down on the bottom one, killing both the soldiers. No one found out until Tuesday morning.

But the bed was a twin bed, for an adult. In hind sight, that’s a tough fit for any adult. It’s more of something you give to kids. I’d always wake up and find an arm or a leg hanging off the bed, or smashed up against the wall, probably because of the sense there wasn’t really enough room.

I can’t imagine how some of the guys managed! We had some really big guys.

What about the sheets?

The bed clothes were furnished by the army — two cheap, thin, flat  sheets; two wool blankets; and a pillow.

Once a week, we stripped the bed to air out the mattress. Someone came around and picked up the sheets and replaced them with a pile of fresh ones. Sometimes they would be clean but stained.

We did have to use what the military issued us. However, we could add to it, so some of the women would add bedspreads. I got one of those mink blankets from a local flea market. It wasn’t real mink, but soft and thick. You’ve probably seen them hanging in stores and roadside stands. They usually have big pictures of animals on them like a buck. Mine was light purple, with a tiger.

I usually slept on top of the military blankets so I wouldn’t mess up the bed, and under the mink blanket. It was hard getting it made to where people were happy.

Is it true the bed had to be tight enough to bounce a quarter off of?

During an inspection, yes, but I never passed that. I simply couldn’t get it that tight. I’m not sure if it was just me, or if there was a point where I felt like it wasn’t worth the effort. Probably a little of both!

Desert Storm: Arrival in Saudi Arabia

I guess I imagined the enemy shooting at us as our plane flew into Saudi Arabia. It’s like that in the movies, and when McLean Stevenson wanted to leave MASH, the character was killed just like that. Being a writer is not a good thing when you’re going to war. There’s too many things you can make up and scare yourself.

We landed at 10:00 at night at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base. The first thing that hit me when I got to the exit of the plane was how hot it was outside. The air crew had reported it as being eighty degrees. Being from Los Angeles, you’d think I’d been fine with this, but I’d been stationed in Washington State too long. It was hot.

The second thing to hit me was the smell. It was like there was a decaying garbage dump somewhere nearby. The night was very black, and aside from the blast of the jet engines, it was quiet out.

This was different than when you fly home or go on vacation. You know where you’re going. You know what’s happening. We got off that plane and were directed down this street-like area between buildings, and it was now what? No one told us anything. The unofficial army motto of “Hurry up and wait.”

Eventually the jet engine died, and we were left in the cloaked silence of the night. In that silence, there was a strange sense of being disconnected. Like being underwater, and your tether is cut. You don’t know where up or down is, or have any reference points. Even the unit that had accompanied us seemed to have vanished, like they weren’t even there.

The first sergeant formed us up and told us to drop all our gear. Water bottles were passed around. They didn’t have much, so we all shared. Ice cold and delicious. Once it was gone, I wished I’d had more.

Finally about eight buses arrived. These were like the tour buses I see around Washington, DC, only more luxurious. I got my first look at an Arab when the driver came out. He wore a white thobe, which is kind of a long tunic that goes all the way to the ankles. The material was probably cotton and very lightweight. I could imagine that being comfortable in the heat of the day, and very practical. He also wore a keffiyeh, which is the red and white checkered head covering you’ve probably seen in the news. I’m guessing it’s protection against the sun, just like our Boonie hats were. His shoes were simple sandals. It didn’t escape us that one of the men showed us the bottom of his sandals.

One of the strangest things I saw though was what one of the men did. The buses were not going anywhere, waiting on whatever, so he strung a hamock under the bus and took a nap. This was in front of drivers of very large trucks. You don’t put any body part under a vehicle. Bad things happen. A soldier a few years later would have a radio run over, and a general would have his BlackBerry run over. Body parts, not so good.

After a long time of waiting, we were allowed to board, and the bus was just amazing. The seats were covered with velvet, or a velvet-like material, and the windows had drapes. Generous room. There was enough space for us to spread out, one to a seat. By then I was so tired that all I could think of was sleep. Yet, as I spawled out on this comfortable seat, I was aware of every bump that bus went over, every shifting line of light, and of the snores of the female soldier in the seat in front of me. It was like I was so tired that my body couldn’t get the energy to sleep.

We drove and drove and drove. I heard voices drifting in and out, talking about that we were lost. By the time we got to wherever we were going, the lot of us were zombies. A military truck pulled up behind us, bearing the load of duffel bags. We had to haul them off and figure out which was which. The arms worked, the legs worked, the brain did not work. We sorted the duffel bags, and I was glad that my platoon had marked all these with a colored ribbon so we could tell the difference between the other platoons.

Once we identified our duffel bags — and thankfully — I had all mine, then we sacked out of the ground under this rooflike structure. The ground was saturated with motoroil, so I spread my poncho liner out over it so I wasn’t lying in it, but as I tried to sleep, that’s all I could smell. It was weird because I was in a stage of sleep where I was dozing but aware of what was going on around me.

At some point, a commotion ensued. It was the officers, with urgent voices. One of the soldiers in the other platoons had left his rifle on the bus, and now the bus was gone. The squad leader was in trouble because he hadn’t verified that everyone had their weapons. The lieutenant in charge of that platoon was going after the buses to find the missing rifle.

Then, somehow, the night ended, and the sky lightened, and our squad leaders got us up. We were still zombies. One of the other women and I gathered up shower stuff and made the migration in search of showers and latrines.

In daylight, we discovered this was at a waterfront. It was apparently a staging area to bring in soldiers who were arriving, and then move them to their final destination. Translation: No one cleaned it up. The latrines were really bad and stank. We debated if the gas masks would help (no, my squad leader assured us. They don’t help against bad smells). One of the female sergeants left a water bottle outside the latrine so we could wash up.

The showers — or actually, the male showers — were in worse condition than the latrines. The guys just skipped the latrines and went in the showers. Trash was everywhere: 2 liter water bottles, razors, abandoned washcloths, empty shampoo bottles. The women’s showers were much cleaner and in better shape. Sad to say, though, I was on a police detail (pick up trash), and we all wished we had sterilized gloves once we went through the men’s showers.

We had several cooks assigned to our company, and they set up a portable kitchen and heated up T-Rations. T-Rations are fully cooked meals in a sealed tray. Heat up water, immerse the tray until the food is hot, and then serve. We had coffee cake, which was very dry, and eggs, which were very strange. Somehow they lose a lot in the translation when they’re not fresh. Flies were racing in to get any abandoned food.

After that, more waiting, and we all took our GameBoys to pass the time. One by one, soldiers began disappearing as they were trucked out to our destination. Finally they came and got me, and now I could have my first look at Saudi Arabia!

Desert Storm: Logistics and the Build Up

Everything to do with supplies and carrying equipment and troops is called logistics in the military.  If you don’t have the supplies, soldiers can have problems with basic things like not get enough food.  That was one of the reasons the First Battle at Manassas during the Civil War was such a surprise to everyone.  That railroad at that location was logistics, in this case, bringing more troops in.

Because the military moved so fast to start getting soldiers over to the Persian Gulf, we were reading in the newspaper about shortages of toilet paper, toothpaste, and other personal hygiene items.  So our supply sergeant ordered everything and tried to anticipate what we would need.

My company was what was called a “Medium Truck,” which gives a very different impression than the reality.  We had M915 tractor trailers — yes, a tractor trailer is a medium truck.  There’s an even bigger truck with tires that are taller than me!  As the supplies came in, we either packed them into boxes mounted on pallets, or packed them in corrugated steel shipping containers called conexes.  The conexes could be mounted on the back of a truck flatbed or lifted by a crane and put on a ship.  They also could be locked.  Anything worth stealing went in those.

I remember that one of the trucks pulled up outside out company area, in the gravel parking lot.  The lot always had muddy holes in it and was on the 10 year waiting list for repair.

We had the shipping boxes out and were throwing things in.  I had a clipboard and lots and lots and lots of copies of packing lists.  This was in the days before computers, and even copy machines were a bit on the early side.  I sat on the ground and hand wrote the contents of each box on six copies.  One copy went inside the box, and one was put outside the box, one went to the supply sergeant, and I don’t remember any more where the rest went.

We were like zombies at that point, almost mindlessly going through the packing.  It was a foregone conclusion we were going, though we still didn’t have a date.  It wasn’t like if you get really stressed out at work, because at the end of the day, you can leave.  Deployment was all around us, and we never could quite get away from it. We were all racing to get done without the end actually in site.  I remember in one of Tamara Pierce’s books, Daja’s Book, the main character is using her magic to put out a massive forest fire.  All she can see is what’s in front of her, and it’s go, go, go!  Then the fire is gone rather abruptly, and it’s like “Now what?”

We got the trucks packed up, and then they were driven off to the Seattle port to be shipped out.  Suddenly we had nothing to do but wait.

This an interesting article on the build up, which discusses some of the logistics.  It also mentions the 7th Transportation Group, which would be eventually assigned to after we arrived in the country.

The Magic of Rain

We just had several days of rain and thunderstorms in Washington, DC.  The humidity gets so high during the summer that the rain just bursts in a thunderstorm like it’s releasing all this pressure.

It’s also the opposite of where I grew up, which was in Los Angeles.  If you’ve never been there, Los Angeles doesn’t get much rain.  In fact, I gave my father a hard time when he drove up to where I was stationed in Washington State because he couldn’t figure out why his windshield wipers were smearing.  He’d had so little experience with rain that he didn’t realize they’d dry rotted!

The rain in Washington, DC, comes first with clouds that roll in, gray deepening to almost black.  They might be like that all day, but there’s a point somewhere late in the day that the humidity seems like it’s reached a peak.

At that point, the winds start kicking up, always ahead of the storm.  The leafy green trees sway back and forth.  Screech!  Thin branches scratch the windows.

And, as the storm starts to advance, it gets darker outside.  Sometimes the middle of the day can look like evening.

The first drops of rain splatter the windows.  But the asphalt outside isn’t wet yet, and the cars don’t have on their windshield wipers (or lights, for that matter.  We have a lot of drivers who will drive in heavy rainstorms without lights).

I look away for a while, then look back and it’s raining so hard that the drops are hitting the ground and bouncing up. My area is all hilly, so the rain runs in streams down the sidewalks.  Washington, DC, is a city of stone, so there’s not many places for all this water to go, except to flood.

Soon after the rain starts, thunder rumbles across the sky like someone hurling around one of those metal trash cans.   Sometimes there’s a bright flash of light from the lightning, but most often, the show is somewhere else.

Then the clouds march off, and the sun peaks out.  An hour later, it’s like it didn’t even rain.