New Bern, NC – INTRO - Two years ago Wilmington author Kirsten Holmstedt profiled the lives of female service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, examining the roles they played in the military roles that brought them under fire, no matter what the stated policy of the United States is about women in combat. She's just released a follow-up which looks at what happens to those women as they, like their male counterparts, endure multiple deployments in America's ongoing wars. George Olsen has more.
My ten-words-or-so synopsis of Kirsten Holmstedt's first book "Band of Sisters" released in 2007 was "stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things in circumstances of war." It wasn't a pro-military book but it was hard to read it and not hear the jingle for the Army recruitment campaign "be all you can be" running through your head. Her new book "The Girls Come Marching Home" tells the stories of women after multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while it's not an anti-military book, the result is much grittier.
Reads from page 6 thru 7
The author reading from the book's opening chapter "Light in the Darkness." The woman whose story Holmstedt told left the Army after receiving a conditional discharge. She was diagnosed with PTSD and fought problems with alcohol and drugs, then enlisted with the Marines to complete her original military obligation. Holmstedt says the last time she saw her she still had problems with drinking and now she's in Afghanistan.
"When I started writing this book, I expected the physical trauma and the post-traumatic stress disorder and the traumatic brain injury, but I didn't expect the emotional problems that they were having. The response to the military that they loved so much and served for 20 years, I was really surprised by that. I think the majority of service members are suffering because they're going over so many times. I think the "girls" is a reflection of that."
The women profiled in "The Girls Come Marching Home" are all proud of their military service but many either left the service or remained in it with some type of wound feelings of betrayal over their treatment while in uniform, physical and mental difficulties, or feeling ill-used by the process designed to foment their healing. Holmstedt reads from her account of Army Master Sergeant C.J. Robison and her efforts through the VA to get treatment for hearing loss as a result of IED detonations while in Iraq.
Reads from page 43
"I just can't imagine what C.J. and other soldiers are going through. What concerns me is we're talking about, I can't remember exactly, but she's about a 40-year-old Master Sergeant imagine a 20-year-old Lance Corporal trying to go through, wade thru this process, and C.J. had people to help her. She had her mom and co-workers, but if you're a young 20 year old Lance Corporal and don't have anyone helping you, you're on your own. It's another battle. It's another battle. We should be rolling out the red carpet for them and making it so easy, and I know the VA and everyone's working on that, but these are heroes coming home and it's not fair they're having to fight more battles when they get home."
One of the more interesting themes running through the book is that, despite the hardships of war, despite feeling abused by the system, despite the physical hit all these service members take, they're ready to go back and do it again because the people who most understand them are the people they've served with in the arena.
"Going to war is it really shapes you and changes you and the soldiers and the Marines that you're with over there they understand that. When you're moody and you're mad and you're angry, they get it. With a family member, with the kids, the parents, you might have to explain what's going on. They don't have to explain that to their buddies."
Holmstedt will tell you without a doubt difficulties in coming home aren't reserved for any one gender, but with America still more used to the notion of men being in the fight and the prominent role women play in the family, the women might find their re-introduction to their regular lives stateside a little more abrupt.
"What women are feeling is very similar to the men. How they deal with it if you're a mom the guys, they go down to the local Joe's Pub or something and have a couple of drinks to sooth them. The women, she comes home and say her mom was taking care of the kids while she was in Iraq, her mom says "here you go" and there's no Joe's Pub for her. She's right back into the role of mom."
And sometimes that transition back to mom is difficult. In the case of Master Sgt. Robison, she was experiencing so much pain from injuries received while in Iraq that there were periods where her daughter would perform most-if-not-all of the household chores that Robison had once done. The mental stresses of repeated deployments add up as well. But Holmstedt says a trait that women share may allow them to spring back quicker than their male counterparts might.
"Women are in the fight and they're coming home with the same wounds and scars emotional and mental that the men have for many years. I think the one thing women have going for them is they like to talk, and talking is healing, and I think you'll find more women going to counseling then men, and hopefully this book will validate what women are going through and get them into counseling if they're not there already."
Wilmington resident Kirsten Holmstedt is the author of "The Girls Come Marching Home," published by Stackpole Books. I'm George Olsen.