Stories produced by St. Peter's Journalism Students
By Carlos A. Gonzalez, Class of 2014 —
Many civilian Americans believe most U.S. soldiers stationed in a country at war are in the frontline, shooting, facing the chaos of war. However, United States Marine Corps (USMC) Sargent Sylvia Bear’s experience in Iraq proves otherwise.
Bear was one of the troops in Iraq that did not fight in the frontline, but was a mechanic for military equipment. Her job was to work with any heavy equipment, such as trucks, that would need to be fixed on a daily basis.
“In my second tour, there were females assigned to us because they would help out with support. Like truck drivers, logistics, and things of that nature,” said Blake Boles, a college student and veteran who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Boles explained that women are not usually allowed to be in the frontline of war, although in Camp Corregidor, “everyone was in the frontline,” he said. Boles was stationed in one of the most dangerous camps in Iraq.
Because Iraq is an Islam nation, unknown males in Iraq are not allowed in homes were females reside unless another male family member is present. This proved to be a complication during Boles time in the military. Boles said that during his time in Iraq, the military implemented the “lioness battalion,” in which female soldiers would join the infantry units to help alleviate the male soldiers’ presence in Islamic households.
While it was difficult for many female soldiers, Bear does miss her time there. “I liked it out there though. It was peaceful. I always want to go back. You realize you don’t need money. You realize all the things that we spend and what we do with our time. It’s quiet out there. You don’t hear nothing.”
Bear was stationed in Camp Al-Taqaddum, located west of Baghdad. According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation website, “Al Taqaddum Airbase is located in central Iraq approximately 74 kilometers west of Baghdad. The airfield is served by 2 runways…” Bear said when she deployed in March 2009, the tents were practically small villages that soldiers occupied. The “butterball” camp was Camp Al Asad, known for its fine American dining like Burger King and Pizza Hut, houses a car dealership, and hosts 17,000 troops.
Despite the lack of chaos in Camp Al-Taqaddum, Bear’s biggest challenge was getting along with people. She also said she was treated differently for being a woman in a mostly male camp.
The military has always had an unbalance ratio between the male and female soldiers. However, as of 2009 the number of female veterans was 8.1 million across the United States and Puerto Rico according to the website of the Department of Veterans Affairs .
“I think what they are worried about is the relationships in the frontline area, and complications within the unit because of romantic entanglements,” said Boles. Boles puts into perspective not only the lack of women’s role in military, but also a lack of homosexual involvement. He explains that it is not simply about gender or sexual orientation; it’s about further complications in the frontline, such as romance.
Mariana Reed, a college student and female veteran, has been in previous relationships with veterans, and currently dating one. From Boles’ experience, while some of his friends have had relationships that have been destroyed due to the military, there have also been others whose romance has thrived. Needless to say, romance can be a complicated and sensitive issue in the military.
“I could tell I was going to have problems,” said Bear. “An MOS (Military Occupational Specialty, or a Military Policeman) tried to keep me after hours, and it was dark outside. I would tell him ‘I have to go…” Bear described harassment problems she faced during her bootcamp time in Parris Island, SC, where she was stationed for 6 weeks, 2 weeks after her high school graduation. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, “about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men seen in Veterans Health Administration respond “yes” when screened for Military Sexual Trauma.”
Given the number of women and men in the military who face sexual trauma, military services help compensate what the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) calls “disabilities.” These disabilities include PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a common disorder for veterans who have fought in the frontline.
To be eligible for a compensation for disabilities, the VA states “You must have been separated under other than dishonorable conditions… and must currently suffer from a disabling condition to receive compensation.” The compensation amount varies depending on the extent of the disability. In addition, the compensation includes any disability, disorder, disease or injuries caused during military service, according to California’s Women Veterans website. Bear was not one to face such a state; however, sexism was a common practice among military men, particularly during her time in Parris Island.
As Bear’s tough attitude troubled fellow soldiers. She said her only friends were New Yorkers. She further explained how during her time in Camp Al-Taqaddum, she watched Gossip Girl, and the show was one reason she decided to move out of from her hometown in Oklahoma when she returned to the US.
“I watched the first show, and it showed the taxi cabs running in the city streets, a helicopter view of the skyline. And I said ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I know I want to go there,” said Bear describing her possible future that eventually became reality.
Once back in the US, Bear returned home to a job the Marine Corps assigned her in Quantico, VA to plan funerals for those who passed away in war. Once Bear finally made plans to move to the Big Apple, she found herself homeless and unemployed. She only knew that there was a station in Bay Ridge (Brooklyn, NY) and that she could start a new life there. Bear’s situation in Brooklyn is fairly common. Unemployment and transition to “civilian life” is a struggle that many veterans face, as the military only teaches specific jobs.
“I felt really alone, really lost. I went on unemployment for a few months after I left,” said Reed as she explains her transition to civilian life. Today, Reed is working in a shooting range doing what the marines taught her, and using her G.I. Bill to pay for her college tuition and helping her with housing. However, the road to normalcy was a difficult one for Reed. She had many complications trying to find a permanent home and a job that will pay her handsomely with the skills that she was taught. “Surveys have found that women veterans are more likely than men to find themselves with severe housing burdens, meaning that they must pay 50 percent or more of their monthly income towards housing,” according to the website of the Women Veterans of America . “Veterans make up a quarter of all homeless people,” and women veterans are “…four times more likely than the average person to become homeless.”
“I would sleep with a knife in truck stations,” said Bear as described her time homeless on her journey from Oklahoma to New York City. Once at Bay Ridge, she would sleep in her car outside of the Marine Corps building. She was embarrassed to tell her fellow marines about her situation. Eventually, Bear found a temporary home in the Marine Corps building in Bay Ridge. While she waits to secure a job that will pay her more, she attends the Art Institute in Tribeca as a Fashion Merchandising major.
“Some veterans may find that their military skills haven’t prepared them to secure the sort of job they want, and so they turn to education to continue training….college or other training programs aren’t always particularly suited to the needs of veterans,” says the WVA website, which resembles Bear and Reed’s situation. Bear believes that her strengths don’t lie in higher education, but she believes that a college degree is essential. However, she’s glad to be in New York where she found a place that suits her personality.
“This might not be Manhattan, but it’s the closest I’ll ever get,” said Bear.