Women warriors described their struggles
Saturday evening, December 7 at the New York Public Library four women veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gathered at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd and 5th Ave.) of the New York Public Library.
A part of the NYPL’s fall series of panels focusing on New York City veterans, and a service of the library’s NYC Veterans Oral History Project, the panel brought moderator Meg McLagan, an independent filmmaker and co-director of the film Lioness, (about women in ground combat in Iraq) together with veterans Nicole Goowdin, Teresa Fazo, Rebeckah Havrilla and RaeAnne Pae. (Bios of the panelists, provided by the NYPL, are here.)
McLagan interviewed the women, using a journalistic or anthropological style of questioning, turning from one panelist to another in succession to answer questions.
Taken in combination, the women’s responses to questions suggested that joining the military was now increasingly understood as one career option available; that military service is as “natural” for women as it is for men today.
However, there experience is quite obviously distinct from that of men, both while in the service and afterward.
All acknowledged that financial incentives were critically important in drawing the women into service. Goodwin, who comes from the Bronx, indicated that a difficult home situation at 19 made her search for a way out, and the Army seemed to be one route. Fazio joined ROTC in order to pay for a degree at MIT. Havrilla wanted a college degree without student debt, and was also driven by a deep sense of patriotism inherited from her family. Pae, who joined ROTC as a sophomore in 2001, echoed those ideas, but also indicated her desire to serve the country, to meet people and to benefit from the camaraderie that service can provide.
Pae had been a cheerleader in high school and as a petite woman also wanted to demonstrate that anyone can join ROTC. She recalled that her nickname in those days was “the pickle” because of her short stature and green uniform.
The women had a wide range of job responsibilities within the military. Havrilla was a bomb disposal specialist in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was also brought in to collect biometric data after explosions, and as a liaison to local women. As a result, she developed skills far outside her job description. Pae worked in Army intelligence, and was responsible for drones and the image data they collected. Fazio worked in electronic communications in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq for seven months in 2004. As an officer, she described herself as a “camp counselor with machine guns.” She loved the work. Goodwin had wanted to be a journalist originally, but was told she did not qualify and as a consequence went into supply. She found the work challenging and meaningful.
When the discussion turned to issues of military sexual trauma, two members of the panel indicated that they had been raped while in the service. Havrilla has been the most public of the four, testifying before Congress in an effort to change policy with regard to military command accountability in circumstances of sexual trauma. She joined a class action suit intended to force these changes, which was ultimately thrown out. She remains committed to seeing the institution change so that other women are not faced with rape as an “hazard of service,” as one judge indicated it was. All of the women on the panel wanted to emphasize that their particular experiences were not reflective, necessarily, of the realities faced by all women in the military.
All were profoundly changed by their service. Pae went in wanting to be an officer, and got more out of it than she could’ve imagined. Her family has been enormously supportive, and she met her husband while serving. Havrilla has had to work hard to release the “battle mind” of active service members, struggling to relax, and accept assistance when needed. Fazio learned how to exercise authority as an officer in the Marine Corps and how to teach. Because Marines are of all ages and competencies she now understands how to get an audience to listen, and then to execute. This has been of benefit as she moved into the role of a teaching assistant at New York University, but it also brings with it challenges, because, as she says, “undergrads don’t salute.”
Echoing what was said at the military families panel earlier in the week, these women remind us that military service brings with it burdens that are not necessarily visible, but also offers the opportunity for personal growth.
If you are interested in participating in the New York City Veterans Oral History Project run by the New York Public Library, please contact Alexandra Kelly at email@example.com or call 212-304-0971