The first time I heard a woman describe her time in Iraq in glowing terms, I was taken aback. Marine Colonel Jenny Holbert told me that being in charge of public affairs for the second battle of Fallujah was “probably one of the biggest events of my life, other than birthing two children.” Colonel Holbert’s enthusiasm for deployment was only one of many surprises I encountered over the course of conducting forty-six interviews with women soldiers, sailors, and marines across the eastern seaboard.
Photographer Sascha Pflaeging and I conceived of our collaboration as a way of hearing the stories and showing the faces of some of the first large cohort of women—over 180,000 as of this writing—who had served in the American military in combat zones. In September, we will debut an exhibition of forty large-scale (30″ × 40″) color photographic prints, each paired with a narrative panel in the portrait subject’s own words, at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. A selection of those portraits and narratives will appear in the Fall issue of VQR.
With the assistance of audio editor Jesse Dukes, we are able to make those stories even more compelling by allowing web visitors to hear the sound of these women’s voices—to let them speak for themselves. This ongoing series, with new narratives and portraits appearing here over the next two months, provides a unique opportunity. Though male soldiers have long been the subjects of documentary photographs and oral history interviews, it is rare that women have had a chance to relate their experience of combat. If we listen to them, these women—these mothers and wives, these soldiers and veterans—will unsettle our fixed ideas about Americans at war and add dimension to the often flawed or fragmentary pop culture depictions of women in the military: as novelties, but not as real soldiers.
Sergeant Jocelyn Proano, USMC
“The mommy mentality left me as soon as we got on that bus. All of a sudden the Marine hit me and I’m like, all right we’ve got combat training. I’m thinking we’re going to go up there, and we’re going to start shooting.”
Deployed to Al Asad Airbase February 2005-February 2006 where she worked on the flight line servicing aircraft.
I spoke with Jocelyn Proano last October at the home of Master Gunnery Sergeant Constance Heinz in Jacksonville, N.C.
Corporal Maria Holman Weeg, USMC
“I started getting morning sickness, and I thought that was just combat stress, and a lot of girls that I talked to said they didn’t get their period while they were in combat, so of course, it was pretty sad, my husband had to tell me that I was pregnant.”
Deployed to Fallujah, November 2006-January 2007
Maria Holman Weeg and I spoke last October at the home of Master Gunnery Sergeant Constance Heinz in Jacksonville, N.C.
Sergeant Rebecca Paigh Bumgarner, Army National Guard (ret.)
“The first segeant tried to take over and I said, ‘I’m in control of this convoy.’ And that’s the way it was. After that all the guys were like, ‘I’ll follow you anywhere.’”
Deployed to Balad January 2005-January 2006
I talked with Paigh Bumgarner at her apartment in Richmond, VA last December.
Specialist Elizabeth Sartain, US Army
“I’m angry. I didn’t have this PTSD before I came in, or before deployment, and it’s a career-ender for me. I’m extremely angry and bitter that I was ostracized, made fun of. I don’t think it’s ever going to change. I mean they try to be a more caring Army, but it’s not going to change.”
Deployed to Kuwait January 2007-July 2007 where she supervised a Mortuary Affairs unit.
I met with Elizabeth Sartain at the Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, VA this past March.
First Lieutenant Beth Rohler, U.S. Army
“Deployment for me was an amazing experience. It was peaceful. If it weren’t for families back home and things like that, shoot, if I could be deployed my entire army career, I would, because it really gives you a sense of meaning.”
Deployed October 2005-October 2006 Al Asad Airbase
I talked with Beth Rohler at the Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, VA this past December.
Staff Sergeant Connica McFadden, U.S. Army
“The first time when I came back, my daughter didn’t recognize me or my husband, and it was so hard. And she wouldn’t come to me. She just was looking at us like, ‘who is these people?’.”
Connica McFadden and I talked at the Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee in November 2007.
Staff Sergeant Sol Michelle Nolte, USMC
"When I got home, my parents were here. They came over and welcomed me and all my friends. I had maybe 20 people waiting for me when I got back and it was exciting, but I just wanted to be alone."
I met with Sol Michelle Nolte last October at the home of Master Gunnery Sergeant Constance Heinz in Jacksonville, N.C.
Staff Sergeant Debra Fulk, U.S. Army
"I always look at the people that are gonna come behind me, the other females, my grandchildren. Yes, you have to have a voice. You have to stand up for what you believe in. You have to pursue. You have to persist. You can’t give up because then if I stop then does that make it okay to do the others that come behind me like that."
She deployed to Balad Airbase from July 2006-2007.
I talked with Debra Fulk this past April at the 80th Institutional Training Division of the U.S. Army Reserve in Richmond.