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
she puts it, “The hardest part of deployment came from within the
gates, from our own people.”
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.
was more concrete things, like her boots.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
Nicaragua to Wisconsin
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
also tells crowds of the day-to-day sexual harassment that was itself
an unending war. The response? Overwhelmingly positive.
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.”
course not all military personnel are embracing Pickett.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.”