June 18, 2006
The War Within
By Joshua Kors
Ask Specialist Abbie Pickett what life in Iraq was really like, and with a gentle voice that mixes humor and horror, she tells some stories. A member of the Wisconsin National Guard, Pickett spent 15 months driving a 2,300-gallon refueling truck all over Iraq for the Army's Fourth Infantry Division.
“It was like a bomb on wheels,” she says. Driving the truck, she repeatedly took small-arms fire and says she was acutely aware what an accurate attack would mean. Eventually Pickett did find herself in the line of fire, on base in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad , when the building she was in took a mortar attack. Pickett tended to the wounded and drove them to the hospital in her Humvee. She still recalls how, after the attack, she was drenched in other men's blood.
Officially it's the Baqubah attack and other combat experiences that have left the 23-year-old former nursery school teacher with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But as Pickett opens up about her war experiences, a second Iraq emerges — the Iraq inside the U.S. barracks, where female soldiers were the targets.
Quickly it becomes clear Pickett faced a lot more than combat. Though rarely acknowledged, even by female soldiers, it was this continual harassment by male members of her company, she says, that left the most lasting scars.
As she puts it, “The hardest part of deployment came from within the gates, from our own people.”
Feet, Food, Faith
Combat Support Engineering Company 229 held 159 soldiers — 140 male, 19 female. All the female soldiers had to live with the harassment, says Pickett, but it wasn't the continuous, barbed comments of other soldiers that got to her, or the sexual cartoons she saw someone in the company had drawn of her.
It was more concrete things, like her boots.
“In the course of combat, I got holes in my boots,” she says. “They weren't the right size to begin with. I asked for new boots for three months, and they wouldn't do it. It seems like a small thing, but when you're walking around for nine months with boots that don't fit, it makes a big difference. I took out the insoles to give myself more room. But it was no use. My feet bled and calloused over.”
“And the thing was,” she says, “I knew they had the boots the whole time. Finally there was a friend of mine who used to do supply. We served together in Nicaragua, with the National Guard. He went in when the real supply sergeant was on leave and snagged me a pair of boots.”
Food became a conflict too. The Army's Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, come in two varieties: with meat and without. Pickett is a vegetarian, so naturally for dinner, she'd ask the server for the vegetarian MRE.
“He wouldn't give them to me. He had them, of course. But he'd say, ‘What makes you so special?'” Sometimes friends would step in for her and leave a vegetarian MRE on her bed. Pickett is still appreciative for those gestures. But the absurdity of the repeated meal-time stand-offs still rankles her. Her company was already fighting one war, against the insurgents. This second war within the ranks was just unnecessary and, she says, should not have been tolerated.
But it was. And Pickett adds that she wouldn't have made it through without the support of other female soldiers on guard in Iraq with her, like Specialist Heather Homewood. “Heather knew all the crap they put me through,” says Pickett. “She'd been through a lot of sexual harassment too, so she took me under her wing. She validated what I was going through.”
Pickett says she needed that strength when she clashed with her superiors about her religion. Pickett's Christian faith became a real core of stability for her amidst the chaos in Iraq . She prayed, attended church regularly, and quickly developed a reputation as the company's “religious chick.”
Pickett says her superior had that fact in mind when he scheduled the one time soldiers were allowed to call home during the one time they were allowed to visit church. And no, he told Pickett, she couldn't attend services and call home later.
“I was shocked,” she says. “You're going to make me choose between my mom and my god? We went to heads in front of everybody. And he berated me for questioning his leadership in front of inferior officers. But the way I see it, if you want to keep morale above the suicide level, you let people pray and talk to their family.”
Pickett pauses, sighs. With a twinge of sadness she says perhaps she should have known Iraq would be this way, especially after what happened to her in Nicaragua with the National Guard.
From Nicaragua to Wisconsin
When she was 19, Pickett and her National Guard unit were deployed to Nicaragua for a humanitarian mission. There she won an award for her work, constructing elementary schools in the Third World country. Nicaragua was Pickett's first taste of the joys and horrors of military life. She still speaks with wonder about walking in the deserted towns, sharing food with the shoeless children who seemed to come out of nowhere.
But in Nicaragua, she says, she was also raped by a high-ranking officer. She told a female friend, also in the military. “The friend said, ‘Yeah, that stuff happens.'” Pickett decided not to file an official report. “Even then, I thought it was just one bad person in the military. It was like I had shields on my eyes.”
Years later, when she revealed what happened to her to the New York Times, military officials did approach her about prosecuting her attacker. Pickett declined. For one, she says, she knew the difficulty of prosecuting her attacker now, four years after the assault. But more to the point, she could tell, she says, by the way the officers approached her that they still didn't care about her wellbeing.
“It was a PR thing. We are in a recruiting crisis. And the military doesn't like to hang all our stuff out to dry in front of everybody.”
Pickett, however, is staying silent no longer. In fact she has taken to telling her story as somewhat of a mission. As a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Wisconsin Women's Foundation, she has now addressed well over 100 college groups, non-profits and women's organizations.
She tells each group of the bonds that developed with fellow soldiers during long nights guarding the base in Samara, the delight of getting crayons from family and friends in Wisconsin and passing them out to school kids in Tikrit, and how in gratitude, those kids saved the lives of several soldiers in her company, tipping them off to a coming ambush.
She also tells crowds of the day-to-day sexual harassment that was itself an unending war. The response? Overwhelmingly positive.
“When I tell my story, it's not uncommon for women to stay after and say to me, ‘That's me. I was sexually assaulted in the military too,'” she says. “I think it happens a lot to younger women in the military, and they don't report it.”
Of course not all military personnel are embracing Pickett.
In May 2005 administrators for the blog Rock the Vote officially welcomed her to discuss Iraq and women's military issues. While most bloggers on the non-partisan website welcomed Pickett, one anonymous poster who claimed to be a female member of Pickett's Engineering Company 229 slammed the support specialist.
“I am appalled at your references to my company,” wrote the anonymous blogger. “You were a soldier that was punished many times for not following orders, having sex with several male soldiers including married men. Had to be told to put a bra on when in front of male soldiers. Keep your lies away from MY company and the Army. You are not a proper spokesperson for females in the Army.”
Pickett laughs at those specific charges, noting that it was her religious chastity that drew much of the criticism she faced from fellow soldiers. “There were a lot of things that happened within the 229, and when it comes out, a lot of people have a hard time taking it straight on,” especially, she says, the officials who were affected when Pickett reported what was happening.
The military launched an investigation when the company returned home. As a result, Pickett says, one sergeant was forced to retire and two have been reassigned to a different unit.
Anyway, she says, the sniping is a side issue. What's most important to her is that she keep talking — and keeps addressing the harassment issue. As she was reminded recently, it's an issue not just in Iraq but in Wisconsin as well. Working in a medical unit in her home state, Pickett met a 19-year-old female soldier who confided in her that a staff sergeant had lured her into a local hotel room to take naked photos, all while claiming he was snapping the pics for a modeling agency.
“That atmosphere, it's dominant in the military,” Pickett says. “I think it's incredibly hard for people in the civilian world to understand because in the civilian world you can remove yourself from the situation. But in the military, you're there with them — in Iraq , 24 hours a day. The attackers are higher officers, and if you report it, you become the snitch or the bitch. It's so much harder.”
That's why Pickett is pushing for concrete changes in the military's approach to harassment: a no-tolerance policy, extending a hand to female soldiers, letting them know it's okay to come forward if harassment or assault does occur, and bringing in civilian psychiatrists to counsel them.
“Soldiers aren't going to say all they need to say to a military counselor, especially when their career rests on it. You see the counselor as a further threat,” Pickett says. “Honestly I think that's why so many female soldiers are coming back with PTSD. They're not speaking up because career-wise, they feel it's going to hurt them long-term.”
As the system is now, she says, harassment continues because nobody's holding the aggressors' feet to the fire. “People know they can get away with it. And they do.”