“In the process of writing this book,” recall Tracy Crow and Jerri Bell in the preface to It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, “we discovered…that we had served our country without knowing our own history.” A Marine officer and career Naval officer, respectively, both have dedicated their post-service years to encouraging veterans to tell their stories; Crow, through books such as On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story and Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families from World War II to Present, and Bell through her work as an editor for 0-Dark-Thirty, the literary magazine of the Veterans Writing Project.
It seems only natural, then, that two writers with such a vested interest in veterans’ stories and the particular challenges faced by female service members would join forces for a project like It’s My Country Too. And their naturally good fit with the project is, happily, reflected in an anthology that reads from start to finish with all the smooth enjoyment, emotional range and character richness of historical writing by Doris Kearns Goodwin or Eric Foner.
‘We Were Very Proud to Do Whatever Was Necessary’
Beginning, with rather lovely symmetry, in April 1775 with the creation of an all-women’s militia, and ending in April 2016 with Ranger School graduate Capt. Kristen Griest, the first American woman assigned to an infantry position, the book is a who’s-who of gritty American women. Many are nurses, policy-changers, warriors, visionaries, and hellraisers. There are the over 400 women who served on both sides of the Civil War, disguised as men; New England novelist and Army contract nurse, Louisa May Alcott; a Confederate spy named Belle Boyd who was arrested six times and who mortally shot a Union soldier for talking to herself and her mother “in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive”; the woman who named her prosthetic leg “Cuthbert.” There’s Susan Ahn, daughter of the first Korean couple granted permission to emigrate to the United States, one of the first WAVES officers, and a gunnery instructor, who lived one hundred years, dying at home the day after giving a presentation to college students. There’s Beverly Kelley, the first woman to command a U.S. military vessel in the late 1970s; she requested a sea duty upon graduating Officer Candidate School, and when she was sent to a shore duty instead, she sent letters to policymakers in D.C. until the Coast Guard’s policy changed.
‘What the Hell Am I Doing Here?’
With their eye for the delight of individual characters, it’s no surprise that many of the women in It’s My Country Too, particularly the ones from earlier points in history, read as the larger-than-life, valiant figures that they are. Their charming, observant, often humorous letters and journal entries, peppered with antique diction, are a pleasure to read.
But Crow and Bell are committed to realism, even when it is harsh. Equally moving to me –perhaps more muted in dispatch but with no less resonance–are the stories of women who entered the military for quietly practical reasons, because they had no better options, or out of a desire for service that soon met the harsh reality of wartime or gender discrimination, and who found themselves with a less clear-cut understanding of their time in service. This tenor is felt in many of the womens’ recollections from Vietnam onward. Lee Wilson, for example, who worked in Army supply, chose orders to Vietnam over the Pentagon because she didn’t think she could afford the civilian clothes required for employment in D.C. Landing just north of Saigon on the first night of the Tet offensive, they found the base under attack. Lee is told, “When you get off the aircraft run for the bunkers.”
And I looked again at this poor guy next to me and said, ‘What’s a bunker?’ Because, our training in South Carolina for Vietnam was how to get in a hole in the ground, simulated fires going off. And when I jumped into a hole [there] it was covered with ice. So other than that it’s the amount of training we got for Vietnam…
There are the heartbreaking tales of caring for wounded soldiers, including a section by Army nurse Lynda Van Devanter that brought me to tears. Her section reminds me very vividly of sections of Lynn Kanter’s harrowing novel Her Own Vietnam, the audio book of which I am listening to now (to be discussed on this blog later this month in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War). (It’s a book I read a couple of years ago and which, by the way, I can credit with correcting a potential gaffe in my own novel: I learned from Her Own Vietnam that intravenous bottles were made of glass until after that war, and I was able to correct some line in my novel about the “pillowy bags of IV fluid” to glass bottles that clinked. Whew! Because you know someone would have written to me about it — possibly Lynn Kanter herself. )
But I digress, in an effort to steel myself before re-reading some of these terribly heartbreaking recollections from wartime. They are not easy to absorb. The fact that individuals lived through this, that we as a nation are still staggering and walking along, is sometimes amazing to me.
Van Devanter writes, of one particularly memorable soldier:
Three intravenous lines ran from bags of blood to his body, one in his jugular vein and one in each arm. The lower portion of his jaw, teeth exposed, dangled from what was left of his face. It dragged along the canvas litter and then swung in the air as he was moved from the gurney to the table.
Moving around the table to help him over a long period of time, Van Devanter accidentally kicks his clothes to the side and notices a photo of the young soldier and his prom date: “Gene and Katie, May 1968.”
I could see, in their faces, the love he felt for her, and she for him…I had to fight the tears…I pumped 120 units of blood into that young man, yet as fast as I pumped it in, he pumped it out…The boy had received so much bank blood that it would no longer clot. ..Slowly, Mack wrapped the boy’s head in layers of pressure dressings and sent him to post-op ICU to die.
Over the past couple of years I have read thousands of pages of war lit and memoir and I could still not read that one without crying.
Equally heart-rending are female service members’ descriptions of sexual assault, violence and betrayal at the hands of their male colleagues. “Women, in particular, became a target group for special hazing,” recalls Army veteran Carol Barkalow. “..[Some of] the men had formed a secret committee that would target one female cadet a month and harass her until she quit, or just make her miserable while she was trying to stick it out.” (An early interview with Navy veteran Christy Clothier, “Why You Have to Yell,” one of the first published on this blog in June 2014, tells of the same sort of experience, and Clothier’s long struggle to over come it.) Major Rhonda Cornum describes being physically assaulted by a fellow American soldier while she lay on a cot with two broken arms and a shot wound, after having survived a helicopter crash. “Well, how bizarre!” she recalls thinking, in a moment of vast understatement, as the soldier unzips her flight suit. “Surely he can do better! How can he possibly want to do this?” Many women, such as “Donna Doe,” describe the hollow, unerasable feeling of betrayal after having been sexually assaulted by men they considered brothers and close friends.
Reading such experiences in close succession– the sorrow of mourning men, the weight of empathy women bear for them, and yet the many times throughout history they have shown no gratitude for it and have in fact turned around and hurt women in return — well, it was not easy, but it was instructive. It’s not always laid out that clearly, but this book’s sheer scope makes the leap within a handful of pages. Given the current political climate and what seem like vast shifts of distrust between groups of people, felt more keenly than I can recall in my lifetime (between men and women, between white people and people of color, and on and on) I might have fallen into a small spiral of unhelpful thinking if it were not for the “usable past,” to quote Eric Foner, that Bell and Crow provide: That throughout history women have fought to fight, because something in our American experiment has been moving enough to make them do so. There is something here yet worth fighting for. And perhaps no one has proven that more bravely, from 1775 to 2017, than the women who moved mountains for the sheer opportunity.
Bell, Jerri, and Crow, Tracy. It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. University of Nebraska, 2017.
Buy It’s My Country Too here.
About the authors:
Jerri Bell served twenty years in the Navy. Her assignments included sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and shore duty as an assistant naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. She is a graduate of the M.A. In Writing Program at The Johns Hopkins University; her fiction has won prizes in the West Virginia Writers’ annual competition, and her nonfiction has been published in Southern Maryland ParentLine, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Maryland Humanities Council History Day blog. In Pleiades magazine, she describes why she developed a writing class for veteran women only. She is an instructor with the Veterans Writing Project. In 2016, she was interviewed here on the Mil Spouse Book Review (“Not Quitting Now, and Neither Should You”).
Tracy Crow is the author of the award-winning memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine and On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story. National Guard spouse and writer Amber Jensen reviewed the latter in march 2016 for the Mil Spouse Book Review (“Hold Tightly to Your Stories: Tracy Crow’s ‘On Point'”). She is a former Marine Corps officer (p.s.: “Marine” is always capitalized!), award-winning military journalist, author, editor, and assistant professor of creative writing. She has recently become the president of the Milspeak Foundation for the arts. She and her husband live on 10 acres in North Carolina with their four dogs.
Since the Mil Spouse Book Review started in 2014, a large part of its mission has been to improve channels of understanding between military spouses and female service members in the shared interest of navigating female-ness in a military culture, whatever expectations it places upon us. Sometimes these seem to be at odds, and sometimes not. However, in the hope that reading widely and listening to others can cultivate an understanding where one may have been stilted before, here is a list of interviews with, and writing by, female veterans, covered earlier on the Mil Spouse Book Review. (The following have special relevance to this review; a more exhaustive list is coming soon.):
An interview with Shannon Cain, editor of the anthology Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. May 6, 2014