The Military Is Only a Mirror to Our American Culture (This one is for you, PFC Guillen)
I’ve thought about Vanessa Guillen’s death so often. Usually, I think about her at night, when the house is quiet and it’s just my thoughts and me.
Private First Class Guillen had wanted to serve in the military since the age of ten. It’s easy to picture her as a little girl, dreaming of the pride she would one day feel when wearing her military uniform. The confidence she felt when she was last promoted. I wonder if she planned to do the work for her next promotion to Sergeant. Maybe she wanted to finish her military contract and go to college with her veteran education entitlements.
I think of her walking to the arms room on that day, the same as many other days, and the fear she felt when working alone or walking alone.
I think of how yet another woman has lost her life to violence as a result of a man’s need for control and power.
And my heart breaks. It breaks for her pain and it breaks for her family.
Doing the military thing is hard on its own, but for many women, minority women especially, there is the added job of dealing with grown men who have never learned how to respect boundaries in the first place. The military, and America as a whole, could do a far better job in shaming the perpetrator and not the person who experiences the violations.
Woman Warrior Problems
For me, and for many women veterans…we could have been her. We walked in her boots. We experienced the harassment. And yet, Vanessa’s story has not only touched the military and veteran community, but I believe it has touched so many women in America as a whole.
We cannot allow Vanessa’s story to become lost in the history of 2020. We owe her change. Women warriors should not have to expect their sexual boundaries being crossed as one of the hazards of the job.
Vanessa had realized before her violent killing that some of her fellow soldiers looked at her as an object to be obtained and dominated, almost hunted. She had told her mother months before her death that she was being sexually harassed by a SGT at her work.
While I was in the service, I worked with a fellow female soldier who described the comments and stares from other male soldiers, as though they were talking about a piece of prime rib. She then shared how it made her feel “slimy,” and she was right, it does make you feel slimy — so slimy, you stop leaving your room to eat or for any reason other than to work. You feel powerless when you are constantly hunted and harassed.
How many women are unable to complete even their initial military contracts as a result of this treatment?
So many negative thoughts and feelings come with the loss of our individuality. And yes, women learn to give up some individuality in the military, but we did not sign up to become objects for hunting.
But we still become the hunted. And like many animals that are hunted and traumatized, we as women shut down. Our coping mechanisms often look like nothing on the outside. We stay silent and we suffer alone for years or even lifetimes. We often don’t realize until it is too late how that silence has hurt us and our relationships.
We stay silent and rationalize away why it is our own faults that our boundaries were crossed. We give up our self-respect so that we can be part of a profession we love, for a nation we love, and a military family we love.
We talk ourselves out of complaining. We lose our humanity, and become the objects we are seen as. Objects that are used as tools to give someone else a sense of power.
American Military Issues
Many courageous military women — and men — do report these inappropriate behaviors. I say “courageous” because the shame they will often experience later from their military family is heavy. For many, the shame is too much to carry. This is the reason Vanessa told her mother she would not report the soldier harassing her; she did not want other soldiers to look down on her for saying something.
We teach women to make sure men are comfortable around us. A woman does not allow her neckline to fall or her shoulder to show; she bends at the knee instead of at the hip. She is not too friendly (if she is too friendly, he will certainly think she wants to have sex with him), yet not too unfriendly (so that she will not be accused of believing herself superior). She must speak up, but not too loudly. She is given many rules by which to stay alive and well in America.
This toxic military culture embodies the culture of our America right now. In the military, the woman warrior is educated early on about the importance of always having another woman warrior with her at all times. She is taught how to ensure she doesn’t put herself out there in a vulnerable manner. She is told to always have a “battle buddy” (another female solider) with her no matter where she goes at night, someone who will help to ensure they both make it back to their bunks safely.
Toxic Military Culture: Toxic American Culture
We teach young women, in the military and out, how not to be hunted. And how not to feel someone else’s power slowly strip theirs away. When this doesn’t work, because ultimately it doesn’t, we then continue to blame the person already stripped of their power — the woman. Was she not with someone? What time did she go out? Did she talk with other men?
The narrative is changed from what he did wrong to what she did wrong. It works, and as a result, sexual harassment and assault will continue to be one of the biggest American military issues as well as one of our biggest problems in society as a whole. Let’s try, What did he do wrong, and why does he feel he can continue to get away with it?
A culture that sees women as objects cannot move forward; we will stay stuck and we will continue to pretend that we don’t have any answers to this toxic military culture. The whole time we’re oblivious to where the problems began, which is long before our young men and women join the military, or before they go off to college. The woman warrior problems are really a symptom of a greater sickness in society at large.
How can we expect the military to completely change an entire American culture? It can’t do that. The culture of our military does not exist in a vacuum. We need to implement better practices within the military, which will lead away from the current toxic military culture. But the real work is implementing compassion into our national culture. We need understood shared values: the most important being respect for our fellow human beings.
We need to teach children from a young age to respect the wishes and boundaries of their friends and peers. The real work comes in listening to each other.
Love and light,