Looking back on my military career, I most regret…

By Kayla Williams

I wrote Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army while still serving in the Army, right after getting home from Iraq; it hit shelves just months after I left active duty. Everything was fresh in my mind – but it was also raw and unprocessed. Rather than empathy and understanding, at that time I was still filled with a lot of anger and frustration. Overall, I do not regret the book – it very accurately captures who I was and how I felt in those moments. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any regrets.

As a woman soldier on a deployment to Iraq, during major combat operations I didn’t think my gender mattered much. When we took small arms fire, no men flung themselves in front of me to save me – they just did their jobs. When I went on combat foot patrols with the infantry in Baghdad, the only thing the men in that unit cared about was that I spoke Arabic and they needed me to communicate with the local population. The only way my presence as a woman mattered was that it seemed to make the local people, especially the women, more comfortable and willing to approach us. During downtime with other units, there were a few sexualized jokes, but nothing that I found surprising or distressing after three years in the Army (and college before that – it did not come as any sort of shock to me that young men think and talk about sex quite a bit).

After major combat operations were over, however, things changed. I ended up at a remote combat outpost where I was the only woman around first seven or eight and then 20 or 30 men. We were about halfway through our deployment, so we’d gone for a long time with no break, but couldn’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. The sixth through eighth months were the worst, after that we could see a way out and things calmed down again. During that dark time, though, there was an overall breakdown in discipline. One guy refused to shave for a few weeks, a violation of Army regulations. Another cried and punched himself in the face all night one night. Within that larger context, I experienced a particularly egregious example of what I considered sexual harassment (although technically it meets the criteria for unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault): a fellow soldier pulled out his penis and tried to put my hand on it.

In the aftermath, I encountered responses from fellow soldiers that I should not “ruin his career” just because I “couldn’t take it.” Some asked, “What did you expect to happen when you joined a man’s Army?” This was not my chain of command, which I thought would have been receptive had I chosen to report the incident – it was the attitude I had encountered ever since joining the military from my male peers whenever discussing inappropriate sexual behavior by other male troops.

That bad act and the responses that followed dramatically altered my behavior and attitude. Prior to that incident, I thought I was “one of the guys.” For example, in periods of extreme boredom, they threw pebbles at each other’s groins; when they started throwing them at my breasts I felt accepted rather than harassed.

After the incident, I stopped joining in the jokes. I became colder, more aloof, and started insisting that I be treated with more professionalism and respect (it helped that I also got promoted soon after). I blamed myself for the incident, fearing I’d inadvertently given off signals that made him think his advances would be welcome.  I became convinced that in that particular setting – where we never got nights or weekends off to go home and relax with friends or loved ones, never got a break from the tension or each other – I couldn’t be myself. There was too much risk. I decided, that if I were friendly or outgoing, it could be misinterpreted as an invitation to more than just friendship.

Around this time, I also became much more judgmental of other women.

A man in my unit had a breakdown from the stress and had to be evacuated, and other men said, “Bob couldn’t take it.” A woman had to be flown to Germany to have a medical exam related to a change in her breast health, and men said, “This is why none of you belong here.” A man had to be medically evacuated after shooting himself in the leg in an accidental discharge, and the reaction was, “Jim is an idiot.” A woman got sent home after accidentally getting pregnant, and the response was, “This is why women don’t belong in combat.” In that setting, early in the war and serving with many men who had never served with military women before, I realized that I did not represent Kayla: I represented all women soldiers.

This responsibility weighed heavily on me. I developed a desire to be able to pass the male physical fitness test so men couldn’t claim I wasn’t strong enough to be there. I became focused on proving my worth and demonstrating that I was an asset to the mission, not merely for my own personal self respect but out of the desire to prove that women belonged in the combat zone, could accomplish the mission, deserved equal treatment and opportunities.

At the same time, when I met women who clearly had not internalized this desire, I began to resent and look down on them. I was angry that they made the rest of us look bad, upset that I had to pay a price when they had an ethical lapse, professional failure, or showed weakness. I felt no sense of “sisterhood” with the women I served with if they were not living up to the high standards I had begun to hold myself to, just irritation and disappointment.

Looking back on my military career, this is what I am most ashamed of. Despite enlisting a little later (I joined the Army at 22), for whatever reason I had not developed the emotional maturity or leadership skills to respond appropriately. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to seize those opportunities as a way to help those women grow and mature professionally rather than just despising them.

Although that opportunity is lost, I am trying to do what I can to make up for it now. I take part in BPW’s Joining Forces Mentoring Plus and engage in informal peer mentoring. I am also openly and honestly admitting my past failings in speeches and writings, urging others to learn from my mistakes and do better than I did. While we must continue to address the structural inequalities and entrenched sexism that set the stage for some of the problems I encountered, it is also important that women work on how we respond to those circumstances, both individually and together.

About Kayla Williams

kaylaKayla Williams is a Truman National Security Project Fellow and the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army and the recently-released Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.