“No One Wants to See a Woman Hurt”: Veteran-Writer Brooke King

Across the aisle from my hooch, Private Ricky Sullivan sat on his stoop in full battle rattle clinging tightly to a set of dogtags that weren’t his.

So begins Brooke King’s short story “Permanent,” published in 0-Dark-Thirty (Oct. 31, 2014). Brooke is a veteran-writer who served in Iraq in 2006. Upon returning home, she earned her M.F.A. in creative writing and is working on a memoir about her experience.headshotI met Brooke briefly at A.W.P. last month. She’s a young woman brimming with energy, juggling motherhood with writing, speaking out as a voice for veterans and, perhaps somewhat uniquely, for “those who write about war or conflict from a different perspective than just the occupier’s lens.” After reading more of her writing, I got a stronger sense of who she was: someone who pulls no punches and suffers no bullshit.

I was happy to get the chance to ask her some more questions about her experience in Iraq, her time after, and her writing.

1. Welcome, Brooke! Can you tell me a little bit about your background — where you’re from, your military service, and your life since?

Well, I grew up in San Diego, California. That’s right, a tried and true Cali girl. I had been accepted to a bunch of colleges right out of high school, but really couldn’t find my grounding at any of them, so I went to community college, but after almost flunking my first year, I decide that I just wasn’t ready for college.

So, like any lost college student, I joined the military instead of going backpacking through Europe. I know, I could’ve done the obvious and just hung around, but I really felt that I needed to go out and experience the world for a while, that college would be there when I got back.

raising that right hand 001I did it. I joined in a time of war, but I knew that women weren’t seeing combat and that I would come back. Boy was I wrong! I deployed to Iraq in the late August 2006, hitting boots on ground around the beginning of November. A week in, I was out the gate on convoy, staring at a blown up Humvee and recovering dead bodies. It was a very stressful time. It was at the height of tension, they had just caught Saddam Hussein, and firefights were an everyday occurrence. I saw combat, got shot at, blown up, pretty much everything short of losing limbs. So it was no surprise that when I came back from Iraq, I had PTSD.

At first, I was reluctant to talk about Iraq, but as the years went by, it got easier to digest what had happened to me, and soon, the wall that I had put up to hide all the guilt and shame came tumbling down and I went to the VA and sought help. I think a lot of the outreach on my part was because I had gotten to the point where I needed help or I was going to kill myself. I also think it was in part due to the fact that I was a mother. I had gotten pregnant in Iraq and left the service, but when I returned [to the U.S.], I shoved everything that had happened to me in Iraq into a hurt locker and suppressed it because I knew subconsciously that the pain would be there when I was ready to deal with it, and at the moment when I returned, being a mother was more important than being a vet with PTSD.

deployedIt’s been a long struggle dealing with what happened to me, but I think a lot of my success with dealing with it is due to the fact that I went back to school, got my Master in Fine Arts, and began writing about what happened in Iraq. Writing was a way to process the pain that didn’t result in self destruction.

—–

excerpt from “Permanent” by Brooke King (fiction):

From ten feet across the way, Sullivan’s hazel green eyes reflected the somber red light of the setting sun, transforming his irises to a soft shade of caramel brown. His auburn hair was smashed down flat from the weight of his helmet and matted together with sweat and dirt. The chinstrap of his helmet had left marks on his chin. His cheeks were covered with a thin layer of dirt, but a trickle of perspiration seemed to draw a line through it, leaving a translucent streak of sweat from his temples to his jawbone. With his right hand, he reached for his side pistol, an M9 Beretta – the magazine already loaded. His jaw muscles tensed, as he clenched down hard. I could hear his labored breathing, the raspy whistling inhales and hard huffing exhales of a man relinquishing himself to his own premeditated death.

—–

2. Have you always written?
I started at an early age. I always credit my writing ability to my dad. He loved to write in journals. He introduced me to Shakespeare at an early age. And, I remember being fascinated by literature and storytelling as a kid. So, I guess yeah, I have always written, even if its really crappy poem about flowers.

3. I understand that you are writing a memoir about your military experience. Can you tell me what it’s about?

The book begins with a courtroom scene and me on the witness stand, pregnant, testifying against my fiancee.

Then, the book flashes back to my unit and I waiting in Kuwait to push north to Iraq. The book is a very nonlinear fragmented account of what happened to me in Iraq, after Iraq, and the present. It shows the reality of war. I guess in a way I don’t hold back the punches. I put it all out there, letting the reader see through my eyes what happened to Iraq and its people, not just the soldiers that occupied it. I also think that it’s extremely important that we, as the privileged few that made it back from Iraq, consider those who did not make it back or those who are still there, the voices of the people that lived through the war and still continue to see the violence everyday when they wake up and go about their lives. I think my memoir addresses that issue and the powerlessness that the Iraqi people have as being the invaded.

Pick up the shell casing from your first confirmed kill. One of six 7.62 caliber bullets that you fired into a fifteen year old boy’s chest. He was shooting an AK 47 at you. You shouldn’t have the shell casings. You shouldn’t have the gloves. Women weren’t supposed to see combat. Pack it all into the duffle….Pack the hate and the anger. Pack the fear. Pack the shame and disenchantment for a job done too well. Pack the back to back months spent going out on convoy without a day off. Pack your combat lifesaver bag, your hajji killing license, and the rest of your dignity. Pack them all next to the Army Core Values and the bulls–t promise your government made to protect innocent civilians. – From “My Redeployment Packing Checklist”

I also delve quite extensively into what it’s like to be a woman, a veteran, and a mother. And as the book progresses, I hope that the reader walks along with me in the journey as I attempt to understand myself now as it relates to what happened at war. Whether or not I get there is up to the reader, and I think leaving the story in the hands of the reader and really letting them figure it out on their own is what’s kind of cool about the memoir because honestly, as I neared the end of the memoir, I didn’t know myself if I could answer the question of “Who is Brooke now?” so leaving that question in the hands of the reader kind of is a freeing element of the memoir. I let the reader figure it out for themselves.

4. Do you think writing about war experience presents any unique challenges to the already-challenging prospect of writing a memoir?

I don’t think writing a memoir about war is any less challenging than writing a memoir about something else in life, like having cancer or losing a child. But of course, there are times when I have to step back from the material because it hits a nerve, but I feel like if there the subject that you’re writing about in a memoir doesn’t beat against your head like an axe and move you emotionally, you’re writing the wrong memoir because, to borrow from Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

There were times, as well, where I had to go to a different location just to write some of the more intensely personal things, like the court martial and present-day events because I felt like being at home was a sort of emotional distraction from what I was trying to understand and tap into and so I took a writer’s residency just so I could divorce myself from home life in order to write the more painful things about being at home and being a mother.

5. The past year has seen some increased awareness in veterans’ writing. Do you think women veterans have seen the benefits of this awareness as well? If not, why do you think that is?

And if you could make a “required reading list” of women veterans’ writing, what would you put on it? (I’m interested in fiction as well as nonfiction, because I am woefully ignorant of women veterans who are writing fiction.)

I actually think that though there has been a lot of veteran writing awareness, the female voice is still subdued by the dominate white male voice of war. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s hard to look at a woman, writer or not, and realize that she is writing about something that up until very recently was only experienced by men on a massive violent scale. I do know there were women in combat, but in a medical field, not combat situation. Those women from WWII and Vietnam saw a lot of what war does to a person, they see what a man can do to another man, but to have a women be in a situation where she is experiencing what we as human beings do to each other, how hate manifests from misunderstanding and fear; the public have a hard time swallowing that experience. No one wants to see a woman hurt or injured or even in a position where that could potentially happen, so to have women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with stories, something to say that goes against the grain of what society is led to believe, they don’t want to believe it or they shuffle it off as something that couldn’t possibly have happened. And I can tell you from first hand experience that every time I tell someone that I saw combat in Iraq, they look at me funny as if they doubt me, as if I’m lying because there is an inherited fear that women shouldn’t be put in harm’s way, but that just isn’t the truth of war anymore. The war is a 360 battle zone, and women are fighting alongside men in the some of the harshest conditions and keeping up!

I think if I had to compile a reading list of female veteran writers, it would entail a lot of Iraqi female writers, as well as those who write about war or conflict from a different perspective than just the occupier’s lens, and it might be more than just the traditional fiction non fiction.

I would have poetry in there as well. So, here goes:
Language for a New Century By Tina Chang, Nathalie Hundal, and Ravi Shankar
Somewhere in a Desert by Dominique Sigaud

index
A Map of Home by Randa Jarar
The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail:

How magnificent the war is!

How eager

and efficient!

Early in the morning

it wakes up the sirens

and dispatches ambulances

to various places

swings corpses through the air

rolls stretchers to the wounded

summons rain

from the eyes of mothers….

Some vet writers that I am just taken aback by are:
Kayla Williams’s two memoirs Love My Rifle More Than You & Plenty of Time When We Get Home
Lauren Halloran who write and blogs about her military experiences
Teresa Fazio,who has an amazing essay called No one Left Behind
Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting by Beverly Deepe Keever
Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine by Tracy Crow

6. If you could give one message to civilians — one thing you think they should know about service members — what would you most like them to know?

That there is no line between those who served and those who didn’t; that “we” are like you, “we” are you and that understanding from both sides starts when society stops labeling sides. We all live on the same planet, but what happens to us doesn’t define who we are, it only builds onto who we are already. Soldier, vets, civilians; we experience life differently and the more open we are to what has happened, the better we can understand it and learn from it.

7. And what else should I know about? 🙂

That this is an awesome platform and thing that you are doing that helps bridge that gap between civilian and soldier, bringing that divide a little closer each time. Thank you for creating such a wonderful place for this to occur.

Thank you, Brooke!! That is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog.

I really appreciate your taking the time. I cannot wait to read your memoir — keep us all posted!!

—–
Brooke King’s work is featured in Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand and Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present. You can read (and listen to) a fantastic short piece she wrote (“My Redeployment Packing Checklist”) on KPBS here.

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