On showing up:
One common refrain in many of the talks and panel discussions that resonated with me had to do with "showing up.” Kevin Merida, managing editor of The Washington Post, said when he was researching and reporting for his biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas he sent out letters requesting interviews that almost invariably were denied. But when he showed up in person, people would talk to him.
Paul Hendrickson, the bestselling author of “Sons of Mississippi,” talked about just showing up unannounced in small towns of Mississippi to retrace the steps of the seven Mississippi sheriffs shown in a decades-old photograph preparing to block the integration of the University of Mississippi. And in Skip Hollandsworth’s very funny talk about his Texas Monthly story that led to the critically-acclaimed film, “Bernie,” he talked about just showing up to the East Texas town of Carthage, where he soon found out that people wanted to open up to him about the assistant funeral home director and accused murderer for whom they had so much affection. It’s a good lesson: Whether you’re writing a 25-inch daily newspaper story or a 300-page nonfiction book, there’s no substitute for shoe leather.
On Saturday morning, Helen Benedict spoke at the Mayborn conference about women in the military and, particularly, the problem of sexual assault.
Benedict, author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, decided early in the war in Iraq to interview returning war veterans. As she talked to women soldiers, Benedict discovered that as early as 2005, more women already had served, been wounded and killed in Iraq than in all American wars combined since World War II.
She felt a huge change was taking place that wasn’t being reported by the mainstream media. She wanted to know what it was like for a woman to go to war. What she learned was that sexual assaults and rapes were a big problem. One woman told Benedict that in the military women were perceived by many of their cohorts as either a bitch, a whore or a dyke.
As word went out, Benedict said she started hearing from more and more women who’d served in the military – of different ages, services, ranks and backgrounds. She narrowed down her search to five women. She completely immersed herself into their lives.
Out of this came endless stories about sexual assault. These women had experienced trauma at the hands of the people whom they were supposed to trust the most. They’d been taught to see the military as their new family. The methods used to transform a civilian into a soldier were not unlike the methods used by cults. Betrayed by the very people they’d been trained to trust, these women felt like they’d experienced incest by their brothers and sisters.
The culture of being a soldier is a macho one. It’s about being strong and tough. So a sexual assault invites criticism. These women were soldiers – why didn’t they defend themselves? They must have been drunk, people said. Or they must have invited it somehow.
“It is dangerous to report a rape in the military,” Benedict said. You can be ostracized, criticized or worse. There are cases where women have been attacked or even murdered.
Because women have to work so hard to be taken seriously in the military, they’re constantly working to prove themselves and be taken seriously. So when another woman reports a sexual assault, they may feel conflicted. They don’t want to be perceived as victims.
Benedict wrote a story, which led to a book and then a documentary, called “The Invisible War.” Over the past seven years, she’s heard from hundreds of women who served in the military.
These women, who have spoken up about sexual assault or who have been whistle-blowers, have shown tremendous courage, Benedict said. They should not be perceived merely as victims. It’s important for the media to explain how hard it is to speak up about sexual assault – especially within the military.
When you enlist in the military you sign away many of your rights, Benedict said. She urged writers to help explain victims of sexual assault in the military. They are not victims, she said, they are not powerless or pathetic