The Sunday Edition: Helen Benedict on Sand Queen

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (12/2/12)


More American women fought and died in Iraq than in any U.S. conflict since the Second World War. More than 200,000 women have served in Iraq and this week, the U.S. military announced it is easing some restrictions on women in combat, which will put more women in harm's way than ever before. But, according to Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq and Sand Queen, women soldiers are more threatened by the U.S. military men with whom they serve than they are by enemy forces. Her research reveals that one in three women in the U.S. military is harassed, sexually assaulted or raped and the perpetrator is almost always a male military colleague.

Benedict's interest in women's experiences in the military began began when she spoke with Iraq war veteran Mickiela Montoya. Montoya served as a "gunner" for 11 months in Iraq. She was shot at "every night." Montoya introduced Benedict to the sexist military culture. "When you're a girl in the military, the guys only let you be three things," Montoya told Benedict. "You're a bitch if you won't sleep with them, you're a whore if you've only got one boyfriend and you're a dyke if they don't like you, so you can't win."

It was this comment that inspired Benedict to research women in the military. And what she discovered horrified her. Montoya's story wasn't an isolated incident. "I did hear [what Montoya said] over and over again, in almost exactly the same language," Benedict told The Sunday Edition guest host Alison Smith. While some of the women Benedict interviewed had positive experiences in the military, "about one-third of them had actually been assaulted" and "almost every one of them, with the exception of about three, had been harassed pretty relentlessly during the time that they were serving."

Benedict's research became a book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, but she felt the story didn't end there. "While I was interviewing these women, the ones who were traumatized...would have moments when they just simply couldn't tell me something," Benedict said. "I came to think that it was within those silences that the real inner experience of war lay. That's where the real story was, and that's the territory of fiction." Benedict decided to use the facts she exposed in these interviews to write a fictional narrative that told the rest of the story, and this writing became Sand Queen.

For Benedict, the term "sand queen" perfectly encapsulates the military's attitude towards women. "'Sand queen' is a derogatory term, especially in the army," Benedict explained. A female soldier becomes a sand queen when she begins to receive lots of sexual attention from her fellow male soldiers, and "it goes to her head and she starts acting like a queen, and then allows herself to be used sexually and has no respect from her fellow soldiers at all."

Sexual assault, victim blaming, silence, trauma, secrets and shame are all part of contemporary military culture. Benedict hopes that by sharing these women's stories, the ugly side of serving in the military will finally be exposed. "There's a whole culture of denigrating women, of misogyny, of seeing them as sexual prey," she said. And yet, the public is largely unaware of what goes on.

"I wanted to remind us all that we're talking about human beings here. We shouldn't idealize or villianize soldiers here and we shouldn't do the same thing for Iraqis," she said. "We're talking about human beings who have individual experiences of every moment of war."

Into the Silence cover.jpgSand Queen
by Helen Benedict

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From the publisher:

"Nineteen-year-old Kate Brady joined the army to bring honor to her family and democracy to the Middle East. Instead, she finds herself in a forgotten corner of the Iraq desert in 2003, guarding a makeshift American prison. There, Kate meets Naema Jassim, an Iraqi medical student whose father and little brother have been detained in the camp."

Read more at Soho Press.