Home from the Military

A third of female veterans are women of color. Here are three of their stories. Also, listen to clips from their interviews.

By Michelle Chen Jul 01, 2008

Listen to interviews with women veterans of color who have returned home from the military.

Eli PaintedCrow on the hardship of coming home from Iraq

Kristina McCauley talks about joining Service Women’s Action Network

Eli PaintedCrow reflects on the connection between Iraqis and American Indians

Eli Painted Crow on American Indians and the war in Iraq

Maricela Guzman shares how the anti-war movement skips kids of color.

WHEN KRISTINA MCCAULEY LOOKS BACK on her time in boot camp, one scene sticks out: she’s standing in the sun as blood flows down her wrist, hoping no one will notice her among the rows of trainees chanting and brandishing bayonets.

Thinking back, she’s not sure why she grabbed her weapon the wrong way during that drill. But when she saw that the bayonet on her rifle had sliced cleanly across her hand, she knew calling for help would only invite her drill sergeants to make her life more miserable.

“I was just standing out there in the heat of the day and bleeding and trying to be quiet about it,” she recalled later in an interview. Soon, a female drill sergeant came over to berate her for her stupidity—as a lesson to the other trainees—and tossed a few bandages at her.

Today, McCauley, a half-Japanese lesbian, has a degree in international peace studies. She’s not your “typical” veteran. As a mixed-race girl with a boyish streak in a straight-laced suburb, McCauley signed up for the military hoping “to belong somewhere.” The service promised respect, power and a chance to test her physical and mental limits.

But putting on the greens didn’t bring the transformation she had sought. Instead, she discovered the Army’s veneer of uniformity masks deep fault lines of culture, class and sexuality. She eventually emerged from the military’s rigid hierarchy to embrace what she had tried to escape—by reconnecting with her Japanese heritage, coming out to her family and reorienting her political perspective.

“I made a conscious effort to educate myself more deeply,” she said. “I began to study race, sexuality and gender, with a hope to understand my own place in the world more clearly.”

McCauley’s quest resonates throughout the growing ranks of military women of color. Though their decision to enlist is often inspired by hopes of self-empowerment, they may quickly stumble on a landscape of familiar impediments where the rules of race and gender still dictate who fights, who wins and who suffers.

There are about 200,000 active-duty military women today, some 14 percent of the total force, according to federal data. About half of them are women of color. Women of color also now make up around a third of former service members. Of a little more than 1.7 million women veterans nationwide, about 19 percent are Black and 7 percent are Latina. Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and mixed-race women each comprise up to 2 percent or less. Proportionally, people of color comprise a greater share of female veterans than of male veterans.

Women of color, like others, are drawn into the armed forces by both needs and ideals. Some are spurred by patriotism or a desire for adventure; others just want a stable job or money for college. Whatever their economic or social motives, the recruitment rhetoric pushed to youth across the country markets the military as a way out of their current circumstances and on toward where they need to go.
But the soldier’s path leads many women of color back to where they started—to the turbulence and entrenched discrimination besetting their home communities. And for some, the journey veers unexpectedly toward a new political consciousness.

Maricela Guzman, a Latina Navy veteran who now works as a counter-recruitment activist in California, urges youth of color to look past the sales pitch of economic opportunity.

“You’re going to this environment thinking you’re going to make all this money,” she warned, “but you’re going back to a system that is going to keep you down.”

For many young people, spending a 21st birthday in boot camp would be a sobering experience. But Eli PaintedCrow had grown up early; passing a birthday in the Army was one way to ensure her children would spend theirs under better circumstances.

She joined the Army to get off welfare and support her young sons. She also sought a kind of camaraderie she never had growing up in the barrios of San Jose, estranged from her ancestral community, the indigenous Yaqui Nation.

“It really did make me feel like I belonged somewhere and that I could be good at something,” she said.

As a fresh Navy recruit a few weeks into basic training, Maricela Guzman shouldn’t have been surprised to find herself facedown on the floor, frantically doing push-ups. She had not followed proper procedure for addressing a commander in his office—knocking before entering and asking permission to speak. Accordingly, he told her to “drop” as punishment. 

But while the penalty was routine, the circumstances were not: she had come to tell him she had been raped.

Before she could say anything, though, she had to repeat the drill to her commander’s satisfaction. “I think it was 20 minutes later after I was able to do it right,” she said. “And I was so numb afterwards that I couldn’t even say anything.”

In the late 1990s, Guzman, a child of Mexican immigrants, was getting back to her education at a Los Angeles community college after leaving high school to work, when a young Black man approached her and told her enthusiastically about the Navy. Guzman researched the military’s education benefits and grilled the recruiter on what the service would be like. In the end, she signed up, confident she wasn’t making her decision blindly.

But she never saw him coming.

One night at boot camp, on watch duty, she recalled, “I passed a dark corner, somebody grabbed me, and I was raped.” Though she only caught a glimpse of her attacker in the darkness, she said, “It had to be one of the drill sergeants. Just the type of uniform that he had.”

After being thwarted in her attempt to come forward within a few days of the incident, Guzman fell silent. Her commanders eventually noticed she was acting withdrawn, but to them, it just showed that she needed more discipline. So they intensified her work routines and upbraided her even more harshly before her peers.

“They thought that that was the best thing for them to do—to break me down,” she said.

Guzman tried to cope on her own by immersing herself in her job as an information systems technician. Working nonstop, she garnered various service awards and became, on paper, a model soldier.

“The only way I could think of surviving,” she said, “was to make myself tired enough where I couldn’t think about things.”

One of the military’s open secrets is the prevalence of sexual coercion. Screenings of female veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities indicate that about one in five has experienced sexual assault. Meanwhile, advocates believe just a tiny fraction of survivors come forward as they wrestle under a culture of enforced conformity.

Racial rifts add another social dimension to military sexual abuse.
Demographic data is scarce, but the Pentagon’s 2006 survey of workplace and gender relations among active-duty military indicates people of color generally experienced sexual harassment at somewhat higher rates than whites.

In recent years, the Pentagon has sought to address the issue through awareness training and prevention programs and by enhancing services for victims. The VA has stepped up treatment programs for assault and harassment survivors.

Yet the intimidation is hard to shatter. Though survivors can technically make a “restricted” report, without command or law enforcement being notified, advocates argue that confidentiality means little for a woman who must live and work alongside her assailant and the assailant’s friends. Aside from the threat of retaliation, in a volatile combat situation, commanders may be reluctant to disrupt operations by investigating or removing personnel. Another deterrent may be the investigation process itself, as victims feel put on the defensive by criminal investigators’ scrutinizing and lengthy interrogations.

Last fiscal year, according to the Pentagon, the military completed nearly 2,000 criminal investigations based on sexual assault reports, resulting in punitive commander action for about 1,172 people. For hundreds of other alleged offenders, commanders did not take action for various reasons, including “insufficient evidence,” “unfounded” allegations, “victim recanted” or obstacles in the legal process. Some cases were routed to the civilian legal system; sometimes, the accused was listed as “unidentified.”

In 2002, Guzman left the Navy and crashed into reality.

“I’d thought I was superwoman at one time,” she said, “where I could do everything and do amazing work.” But in the civilian world, depression and anxiety made it impossible to hold down a job or pursue her college goals.
Her marriage—to another Navy member whom she had clung to as “somebody who was safe enough”—soon disintegrated. Unable to support herself, she moved back home with her family after living apart from them for years. Her emotional descent bottomed out in the summer of 2004 when hoping to finally bury her trauma, she crammed her body with sleeping pills.

“I thought I was crazy, and I didn’t connect that [to the rape],” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on with me.”

The problem that Guzman could not yet name was part of an epidemic that has ensnared tens of thousands of veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with combat but frequently emerges in the aftermath of sexual abuse, as well. Relatively little research has focused on military women’s unique PTSD risks. VA researchers working with women veterans in Texas, however, found that survivors of military sexual assault were nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD than a comparison group without assault histories, yet they received fewer healthcare services.

Guzman’s recovery process has been both helped and hindered by the VA system. She currently receives therapy through her local VA facility’s free treatment program for sexual trauma survivors. But last year, she said, the VA denied her claim for PTSD-related veterans benefits, apparently due to insufficient evidence that her assault was responsible for her mental health problems.

Guzman reads the rejection as an ironic sign that her emotional camouflage worked too well. “Because I had such a great record and was one of the top soldiers in the service,” she said, “that proved to them that this could not happen to me.”

While the claim system overall is over-stretched, crippled by mounting backlogs, advocates say the problem is especially devastating for sexual trauma survivors, as many claims are unfairly denied because VA staff lack the training to follow appropriate procedures for evaluating their complex cases.

The VA system folds into a minefield of challenges besieging veterans as they transition back to civilian life. For women coming home to marginalized communities, reintegration means confronting both personal trauma and structural inequality.

“You program individuals to go into the military, but you don’t deprogram them when they come out,” said Wendy McClinton, an Army veteran and executive vice president of New York–based Black Veterans for Social Justice. Without adequate support, “they don’t transition properly. They just walk away. And…if you don’t deal with it, then it will manifest itself later on.”

When PaintedCrow retired after Iraq, her body bore the scars of a uterine problem that had been left untreated, and her mind reeled with depression and anger. As she strained to regain stability, her younger son struggled with a brain injury suffered while he was in the military. But the VA claim process dragged on for so long, she said, she resorted to public assistance in the interim to support herself—returning to the same poverty that had pushed her to enlist a generation earlier.

In remote native communities, PaintedCrow said, veterans contend with broken social service systems, while VA programs in many areas ignore healing methods rooted in indigenous cultures, like traditional ceremonies and sweat lodges.

“You go, you serve, they honor you and you come back. And then nobody talks about what happened,” she said. “And the nearest VA is maybe a hundred miles away, so you’re not going to go…So yeah, you’re going to start drinking, you’re going to start acting out in other ways that are going to put you in prison.”

The women who are part of Black Veterans for Social Justice come home to face crises ranging from unemployment to psychological breakdown to homelessness. Some women have had to go months without medical care while wading through the claim process, McClinton said. Others are so disenchanted with the military that they simply refuse to access VA entitlements and services.

While transitional issues affect both male and female veterans, she noted, women are acutely vulnerable in many cases because they are the primary income earners and caregivers for their children. And in the current wave of veterans of the U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, mothers are returning to unprecedented challenges.

“Women are coming back from Iraq without limbs,” she said. “How do I hold the child that I left when I don’t have arms?”

Though the military system revolves around social control, it unfurls a spectrum of emotion among individual members. For women of color who serve, shades of pride, bitterness and ambivalence can merge into a deeper sense of identity. As the daughter of a white Irish-American father and a Japanese-American mother, McCauley often strained to fit into her mostly white, San Francisco–area suburb, Pleasant Hill.

“I was raised not really reflecting too much upon my own race, and in fact there was actually shame involved around being different,” she said. The pull toward assimilation has historical undercurrents in the Japanese-American community; during World War II, McCauley’s mother spent part of her childhood at a military internment camp in Arizona.

She and her brother grew up enduring taunts from other children, and as she approached her teens, her first crush on a girl made her feel even more like an outsider. By the time she reached college, she was looking to flee by joining the 82nd Airborne Division.

While money for school was an enticement, so was her drive to “do something that no other women did.”

A tomboy throughout her youth, she said, “I really wanted to prove that I was just as good and just as strong and just as capable as all the boys.”

She remembers the thrill of landing her qualifying parachute jump at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and receiving a validating handshake from a fellow paratrooper who was male. But there was also the sting she later felt after a botched jump at her duty station in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. An equipment problem forced her to drop some of her gear in mid-air to ensure her chute would open, drawing the ire of a senior noncommissioned officer. He seemed bent on blaming her gender, she recalled, hurling a tirade about “all the reasons why women shouldn’t be in the military,” with comments like, “You’re not capable, you shouldn’t be here, you’re holding us back.” He pointedly relayed those sentiments via radio to her company commander.

The gender hierarchy tightened its grip when McCauley faced an unplanned pregnancy, with little help from her then-boyfriend, another Army member. Operating policy obligated her to disclose her pregnancy, and her chain of command sent her to the unit’s chaplain, though she was not religious. His stern lecture against having an abortion—pushing for adoption instead—left her feeling “angry and extremely isolated.”

“It made the situation even worse for me,” she said, “because I was 22 at the time and extremely confused and just really ashamed.” She arranged an abortion on her own and kept it a secret from her family for years.

In 1997, after three years of service during which she suffered a breakdown from job-related stress, McCauley resolved to not only break out of the military’s institutional repression but also sever the restraints she had long imposed on herself.

Since then, McCauley has traveled outward—nomadically roaming the country for a time in a Volkswagen—and deeper inside—embracing her sexual identity and seeking to own the mixed-race background she once banished.

As the community of military women of color expands, it draws together parallel political crosscurrents at home and abroad.

Margaret Stevens, a Black New Jersey native who served several years in the National Guard to help pay for college, acknowledged that Black women may see the military as an economic springboard. But in reality, she said, “the military reproduces the same socioeconomic inequalities that are in the civilian world.”

Last year, Guzman, PaintedCrow, McCauley and Stevens helped form the Service Women’s Action Network (also known as SWAN), an organizing project focused on active-duty and veteran women.

While not aligned with the mainstream antiwar movement, SWAN aims to raise awareness about military issues, particularly among young women of color. Partnering with the Women of Color Resource Center, a California-based grassroots group, SWAN has developed educational programs that highlight personal stories of military women’s struggles with discrimination, psychological trauma or benefits that fell short of what was promised.

In her outreach work with SWAN, McCauley tries to help women make more informed decisions about enlisting than she did. Still, she knows it’s ultimately their choice.

“If given another chance, I would do it all over again.” she said. Though the Army had negative aspects, “I see all my experiences as opportunities for growth and change. I’m the person I am today because of them.” 

Guzman does counter-recruitment work with the religious activist organization American Friends Service Committee to reach youth of color in Los Angeles neighborhoods like the one she grew up in. Talking publicly about her struggles in the military has helped her heal personally, she said, while encouraging youth to link violence and economic stratification in their communities with the inequalities girding the military system.

Yet voices like Guzman’s are seldom heard in the public dialogue on militarism. Despite the looming military presence in communities of color, she said, “You really don’t see the peace activists or the antiwar movement in South Central L.A.”

“As women veterans of color are coming back,” she said, “it’s very difficult for them to find a space to voice their experience, even within the antiwar movement.”

Fusing self-expression with activism has helped PaintedCrow salve her battle wounds. She is currently organizing Turtle Women Rising, a pro-peace gathering to be held in Washington, D.C., in October. Led by indigenous women, the event will center on prayer and traditional concepts of healing.

She distinguishes between peace initiatives and mainstream antiwar campaigns. In her view, conventional activists have fixated on criticizing the current administration’s policies and promoting a “for or against” mentality, rather than raising consciousness about underlying inequities that sow military violence.

PaintedCrow and other SWAN activists trace a different front line, stretching from embattled Iraqi villages to blighted American streets. “The problem lies in many places,” she said. “The problem lies in the racism that is still in our nation. The problem lies in the separation of issues.”

In indigenous communities, she noted, many youth enlist in hopes of rekindling their past warrior traditions. But, having witnessed both sides of the military’s human toll, she said, “I think it’s another illusion that they value, that being a warrior and a soldier are the same. A soldier takes orders. A warrior does things with heart.”

Michelle Chen is a writer in New York City.