Remembering the forgotten

By Michelle Chen May 25, 2009

For all the somber speeches and ceremonies, an untold number of people impacted by war remain all but forgotten on Memorial Day. In the Nation, Helen Benedict takes a look at the hidden war of women soldiers (excerpted from her recent book), pointing out that Iraq has brought more women into battle, and to their deaths, than all US wars since World War II combined. Yet a silent war rages in an epidemic of sexual assault, which seldom leads to formal punishment and probably goes vastly underreported due to fear or coercion. She notes a harrowing trend: "More female troops have died in Iraq of non-hostile causes than have been killed in battle, and several of those deaths have either been labeled suicides or been left unexplained by the military." The mysterious death toll includes Pfc. LaVena Johnson, a Black female army soldier from Missouri whose death in Iraq was deemed a suicide, despite evidence that she was brutally raped and murdered. Although the Pentagon has initiated reforms to address sexual assault and provide resources for treatment and legal redress, data is lacking on who these women are and how many are denied justice. Similarly, little is known about the overlap or racial and gender oppression in the military, though Colorlines has previously reported on the unique challenges that women soldiers of color face. Compared to white male veterans, a greater share of female veterans are people of color. The pattern perhaps reflects the promises pushed by recruiters: social and economic empowerment in communities where structural sexism and racism leave many young women with few real opportunities. Race also intersects with the problems that plague veterans returning to their communities. More than half of homeless veterans are Black or Latino, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder has racial dimensions as well. The National Center for PTSD reports on research on "race-related" traumas among Vietnam War veterans of color:

Race-related events included being shot at by fellow Americans when mistaken for the enemy; being harassed and physically injured because one was perceived as resembling or symbolizing the enemy; or being reminded of family members, relatives, or friends when seeing a Vietnamese who was alive, wounded, or killed…. Asian American Pacific Islanders fighting a war in Asia may be at greater risk for developing PTSD symptoms or other psychiatric distress due to exposure to negative race-related events.

And among other soldiers,

Clinical case studies of African American and American Indian veterans described psychological tension and ambivalence because the African American and American Indian participants associated the condition of the Vietnamese with that of their own people.

These glimpses into the psychology of war reveal hard truths about who is honored today in America. Our war survivors may be forever haunted by memories of the countless war dead, whose color or nationality ensure they will never be memorialized as heroes or victims. Image: "Juan Casiano at the grave of his fiancée, Captain Maria Ines Ortiz, in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried." ("Service," by Platon, The New Yorker, 9/08)