I Felt More Welcome in Combat Than I Did on Base

A poor command climate can make women feel unsupported and alone.

Photo of a female U.S. soldier surrounded by other soldiers in desert-camo uniforms with their faces painted, holding rifles
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP / Getty

In 2012, I was deployed to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to serve alongside Green Berets and infantry soldiers. As a member of an all-female cultural-support team, I was trained to interact with Afghan women and children, something that is culturally inappropriate for men to do. At the border, we encountered mortar attacks, improvised explosive devices, and firefights. Even though this time was tense, we worked well with our colleagues in U.S. Special Forces, in part because prior to our arrival, the detachment commander had set the conditions for our success. He told his men that he expected everyone to behave as professionals, to treat us as they would any other members of the team. He would not tolerate any form of discrimination, harassment, or assault. Thanks to his leadership, and each man’s respect, I didn’t feel marginalized.

I didn’t feel the same on a relatively secure operating base in Iraq.

The military today relies on a growing number of female soldiers, and leadership understands that it must make changes for the women among the ranks. Some may seem small: The Army, for example, is relaxing a few of its guidelines on hairstyles and allowing new mothers to wear nursing T-shirts under their coats. Other potential changes tackle big, thorny problems: Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is sponsoring a bill that would remove military commanders from their role in prosecuting sexual-assault claims. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also signaled that he is committed to combatting sexual assault in the military. All of these developments are certainly welcome and should go a long way toward making female soldiers feel more at ease. But the military needs even broader cultural change. Many male soldiers still believe that women do not belong in the military, and they objectify and marginalize those who join.

As my team leader did in Afghanistan, the military needs to set expectations about behavior clearly and early. It must take a zero-tolerance stance against gender discrimination and sexual harassment and assault. And leaders must be open to hearing and addressing concerns from women—no matter their nature. If the environment doesn’t change, women in the military will continue to underreport their problems, fearing retaliation, shaming, ostracism, and damage to their professional career.

A poor command climate can make women feel unsupported and alone. Even the small issues start to add up, contributing to a sense of isolation. Before my deployment to Contingency Operating Base Basrah, in Iraq, in 2009, a photo of me and one of another young female soldier displayed on a wall at my battalion’s headquarters were stolen. My peers assumed that someone liked the way we looked. One of the male leaders told me that I should be flattered. I wasn’t. The incident made me feel apprehensive, but I was busy, so I let it go. My battalion commander had picked me, with nearly no notice, to run a large supply warehouse—think a Walmart stocked with tools of war valued at more than $10 million.

At 23, I was a motivated junior officer, eager to please, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the job. Our team had to manage operations 24/7 with only 18 soldiers—less than half the typical personnel. As a new lieutenant right out of West Point, I had no experience nor the training to manage a supply warehouse. Instead, I had to rely on the expertise of the professionals around me.

One soldier who worked at a different warehouse at a large air base was helpful. He answered whenever I called or emailed, reviewed reports with me, and explained how the supply-accountability reporting system worked. His advice made our operations successful.

Then one day I got an email from him:

This is off the subject and off line but I tell my Battle Buddy how hot you sound over the phone, do you have a picture I can match up to your voice :-)

I was appalled by the sergeant’s audacity but wasn’t sure what to do. I sent the email to my fiancé (now husband), who was deployed to northern Iraq at the time. “You need to file a report,” he said. My fiancé was adamant. “This guy probably has a history of preying on women.”

But I was concerned about the repercussions of reporting, fearful of possible retaliation or damage to my reputation, even though I had done nothing wrong. I asked members of my chain of command for their opinion. My male company commander and a fellow male platoon leader told me to ignore the email. My female first sergeant advised me to write back, explaining why I was offended. No one suggested that I file a report.

I decided to send an email:

I appreciate the help you’ve given me recently; however, this email crossed the line. I consider your comments inappropriate and unprofessional. This is not behavior I’d expect from a senior NCO. If you need to email me further, please do so in a professional manner.

Soon enough, I received a response:

I do apologize!!! I did not mean anything derogative towards you, after I sent the email I realized I may have used some wrong words. I am a happily married father and I plan to keep it at a professional level. Hope you accept my apology.

He was true to his word and never wrote me anything unprofessional again. I was grateful to put the issue behind us, even though I was annoyed that I’d had to deal with it in the first place. But he slowly stopped answering my phone calls, making management of our warehouse more difficult.

At night, I would return to my tent to write about my frustrations in my journal. A month after the harassing email, and three months after my photo was stolen, I went to the nightstand where I kept my journal beneath a portable DVD player and DVDs. The journal was gone. I panicked. I ripped my section of the tent apart but found nothing. Without a lock, I had no way of securing my personal space, so anyone could come and go.

This theft may seem silly or like a prank, but to me it felt menacing. I was trying to project a confident exterior, but I was actually struggling with imposter syndrome, and I missed my family. In my journal, I was trying to work through those feelings. I wrote about our floundering warehouse. Running 24/7 operations with minimal staff was wearing on my platoon, and we had started making mistakes. I felt like a failure, like I was letting my soldiers down.

I told my two tent-mates about my missing journal, and they eventually told our superiors. My battalion and company commanders asked whether I wanted to start a formal investigation, but I was fearful of whoever stole my journal. Would the person hurt me? I worried about my reputation if people found out about a potential investigation and about what I had written in the journal. Would an investigation expose me as a worried and weak leader?

I also wondered whether leadership would take my claim seriously. I had been told to feel flattered after my photo was stolen and was never advised to report the inappropriate email. Those experiences gave me little reason to think they’d treat my missing journal with any urgency.

I declined an investigation. Instead, I asked to be moved to a new unit as soon as leadership could find a replacement for me. While I waited, I tried to sort through my feelings. I felt very much on my own, and in that isolation, I couldn’t process the theft. Sometimes, I tried to downplay what had happened. Other times, I was fearful and hypervigilant. I didn’t think the email had anything to do with the journal, but I wasn’t sure about the photo. To be safe, I avoided being alone with male soldiers. I tried to convince myself that these small instances were nothing more than a nuisance, certainly nothing that required an investigation. No one had touched me, so I was physically safe, wasn’t I?

But I couldn’t help wondering whether the smiling face in front of me belonged to the soldier who’d taken my photo or journal. I was concerned that the person would eventually corner me when I least expected it. As time passed, I made fewer trips to the shower tent and had trouble sleeping. Occasionally, I would go to my office for a nap because it was the only place with a lock. I had nightmares and started worrying that someone might steal my underwear or bras.

The day I finally moved to a different camp, I checked the tent to make sure I’d remembered everything. I froze when I opened the tent’s flap door. My missing journal had been placed on my now-empty bunk. I looked around, but the tent and hallway were empty. Why had the person decided to give it back now? Were they watching me? Moving to the new camp didn’t make me feel any safer. I was still nervous that whoever had taken my journal could find me. I slept with my rifle, avoided unnecessary interactions, and kept busy with work or at the gym.

After my deployment, I thought often about how I had felt unsupported and isolated on base. I wondered if I had overreacted, or if my concern was justified. I was aware of the common claim that women just can’t take a joke. To cope, I tried therapy. Then, in 2011, I volunteered for the cultural-support program. I wanted to prove to myself that I could thrive in combat, that women belonged. And among our first team of Green Berets and their attached infantry squad in Afghanistan, I did prove this (our second team was more difficult).

Once, while driving an unarmored all-terrain vehicle toward an open range where several of the Green Berets and infantry soldiers were training local police, a mortar round exploded fewer than 100 yards away from me. More rounds hit nearby, sending shrapnel into the air. I hit the gas and drove erratically, and I made it to the armored vehicles where the men were hiding from the mortar fire. After the earth settled, our radios came to life. My team leader’s voice squawked behind static: “What kind of driving do you call that, CST1? You were like a bat out of hell!” I knew his joke was gallows humor, a way to make the horror of combat feel less acute. We all laughed, in a welcome release of tension.

Women are fully capable of being razzed. We understand that joking is part of the military’s culture. But someone telling me I sound sexy on the phone is simply not a joke. Actions that marginalize or objectify women are what make us feel uncomfortable, what tear down our confidence in our peers and commanders.

Although I am now out of the military, I mentor two female cadets. They share with me their frustrations about working alongside men who make uncomfortable jokes and don’t truly believe that women belong in the military. Women soldiers still face gender discrimination and microaggressions that add up to a hostile workplace. All women recognize the burden that comes with having to decide which jokes, comments, and gestures they can and can’t let slide.

I felt more comfortable in the middle of a dangerous war zone than I did on base, because of a healthy command climate. I wish I had experienced that kind of leadership the whole time I was in the military.