COLUMBIA, S.C.–Cindy Williams didn’t tell anyone about her years in the military after she returned to civilian life in 2003, including how she was gang-raped by fellow soldiers.
Williams and 30 other South Carolina female veterans have broken their silence about their experiences in the military, from the recruitment office to the battlefield, in “Soldier Girl,” a documentary by University of South Carolina (USC) speech, communication and rhetoric instructor Cathy Brookshire.
The 30-minute film provides a rare glimpse into the lives of female soldiers who served in every branch of the U.S. military from World War II to Afghanistan.
“The public makes assumptions of life in the military based on simplistic notions of what a military life consists of, particularly for women in the service. They have no idea of what it’s like out there,” said Brookshire whose passion for the female soldier’s story was ignited in part by an NPR piece that didn’t include a single woman in its story on the military.
Kashunie Edwards’ experience wasn’t behind a desk. It was in the field for the U.S. Army from 1991 – 1995.
“Here I am about to take (a) mother away from her child, and not to even think about it because it is survival at that point,” Edwards said in the film. “Women were in the war. We weren’t necessarily in the tents patching people up doing the nurses jobs. It is a weird feeling. You still don’t get the equality of it all as a female in the military, but we are fighting just as hard as the men.”
Working with film editor Lee Ann Kornegay, biology student Tori Brown, cameraman James Henderson, director of Media Services for the USC’s art department, and Dr. Hunter Gardner, a USC classics professor and project co-director, Brookshire interviewed veterans throughout the state during the spring and summer of 2010.
Many said they joined the military for the educational opportunities, steady and equal pay or the lure of travel. Some, having grown up in military families, felt an obligation to do so.
None of those reasons applied to Mary Jane Matthews, a marine during World War II. Her reason was more personal.
“My boyfriend was killed on the Arizona on Dec. 7, and that was it,” Matthews said. “He was one of the few Marines on the Arizona. I immediately signed up, but it hadn’t been organized yet, so I had to wait for them to get it organized.
Wearing red as a Marine in 1960s was a strong memory for Myra Reichert.
“We learned to properly put on our Marine Corps red lipstick,” Reichert said. “No other color was allowed.”
As the roles of women in the military changed from traditional office positions to field duty, sexual harassment became widespread, the women said.
“When I joined the Marine Corps, you were either one of two things. You were either a lesbian or you were a whore,” said Mary Rock, an African American who served from 1973 – 1993. “I was neither, and for black women, we weren’t supposed to be attractive and intelligent too. Those two were not supposed to go together.”
Susan Jarvie, an academic advisor in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1976 – 1979 and 1980 – 1982, described the lack of safeguards for women.
“There were no social actions to protect you. There was no one to go to file a complaint of harassment,” said Jarvie. “You just had to put up with it because that was the price of being on the flight line, and you had to find a way to fight them back.”
For some, like Williams, the harassment went far beyond verbal or physical. It was rape.
“I was gang-raped, and it is very hard for me to sit here and tell you this,” Williams told Brookshire. “I didn’t tell anyone for almost 20 years until I came home from Kuwait. I just really couldn’t deal anymore with anything, and I was suicidal. I watched my life fall apart. I lost my job. I lost my children. I lost my home. I lost my sense of who I was. I lost my identity.”
In poignant detail, female soldiers described the hardship of leaving their children and the horrors encountered on the battlefield.
Rebekah Haverilla, an explosive ordinance disposal specialist in the Army from 2004 – 2008, receives counseling to reconcile her memories and experiences.
“This guy had blown himself up outside a barber shop, and this was my first suicide bombing,” Haverilla said. “‘Guys were like, ‘here, chew this gum to help take some of the smell out of your nose and mouth.’ At that point he is in pieces. My coping mechanisms were a non-reality. It was like a video game of sorts.”
“Soldier Girl” is part of “Always Coming Home: South Carolina Women Veterans,” a project that also documents the experiences of women in the military through poetry by Dr. Charlene Spearen, an associate director of USC’s South Carolina Poetry Initiative.
The interviews are being digitized and archived by USC’s Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) and Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) and the South Carolina Initiative on Veterans and Military Mental Health (SCIVMH).
SCIVMH is using the archives to help train graduate students to work with veterans in distress.
Brookshire said plans call for the film to be screened at festivals throughout South Carolina. A 26 minute version of “Soldier Girl” will air on SC-ETV’s Southern Lens program for Veterans Day Weekend.