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.