Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.
This week is a freebie, and since the Afghanistan withdrawal and the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 have been weighing on my mind, here are some nonfiction books about women in the military post 9/11.
I spent much of my military career bemoaning the fact that there were no books about a woman’s experience in the military on the USMC Commandant’s Reading List. After I left the military, I kept up on it professionally (I worked briefly at one of the MCCS Libraries and wanted to maintain my familiarity), and sent in recommendations for inclusion (the form made you give not only your recommendation but a book that you want replaced from the list). Last year they finally added a book about a woman’s experience and it is…not one I would have recommended. But I’m not surprised.
However, I am pleased that in the past five-six years, more and more women are publishing their stories about military experience. This is…pretty Marine Corps heavy, but I am guilty of a little bias here.
I have a feeling that since the stupid combat arms restrictions were lifted a couple years ago, we’re going to be seeing a hell of a lot more memoirs from women telling their stories (and also with the transgender ban being lifted, more much needed memoirs from trans women), hopefully more from women of color and queer women, and while the exceptional stories of merit and valor are always appreciated, I look forward to reading more ordinary memoirs that nonetheless explore the breadth and depth of military service beyond combat.
Maybe of these books focus on the early years of the post 9/11 time, and I wonder if either I haven’t heard of more recent ones, or if many women are really processing their experiences and realizing that there is a place (and a need!) for their voices to be heard amid the great cacophony of military memoirs.
For a recommendation on a TV show that incorporates a nuanced experience of a female servicemember (I had never felt seen before in media, particularly not in the numerous badass women in uniforms tailored to a male gaze instead of the uniforms regulations), I highly recommend One Day at a Time. It’s not about the military but it’s about the military, if that makes sense.
For a list of more recommendations, here’s Non-Fiction About Women in the Military. Much of it is from WWII, but there are more recent eras.
Blurbs are from Goodreads.
10+ Memoirs By Military Women Post 9/11
Unbecoming by Anuradha Bhagwati
After a lifetime of buckling to the demands of her strict Indian parents, Anuradha Bhagwati abandons grad school in the Ivy League to join the Marines—the fiercest, most violent, most masculine branch of the military—determined to prove herself there in ways she couldn’t before. Yet once training begins, Anuradha’s G.I. Jane fantasy is punctured. As a bisexual woman of color in the military, she faces underestimation at every stage, confronting misogyny, racism, sexual violence, and astonishing injustice perpetrated by those in power. Pushing herself beyond her limits, she also wrestles with what drove her to pursue such punishment in the first place. Friends, if you want to read just one book about women in the military, let this be your book. There are some serious trigger warnings, but fuck. This book hit me hard as a former Marine Corps officer.
Formation by Ryan Leigh Dostie
Raised by powerful women in a restrictive, sheltered Christian community in New England, Ryan Dostie never imagined herself on the front lines of a war halfway around the world. But then a conversation with an Army recruiter in her high-school cafeteria changes the course of her life. Hired as a linguist, she quickly has to find a space for herself in the testosterone-filled world of the Army barracks, and has been holding her own until the unthinkable happens: she is raped by a fellow soldier.
Struggling with PTSD and commanders who don’t trust her story, Dostie finds herself fighting through the isolation of trauma amid the challenges of an unexpected war. What follows is a riveting story of one woman’s extraordinary journey to prove her worth, physically and mentally, in a world where the odds are stacked against her. Reviews say how rough this book is, but how necessary to the discussion of women in the military and the dangers they face both at war and at home, particularly among their fellow soldiers.
Every Day is a Gift by Tammy Duckworth
The biracial daughter of an American father and a Thai-Chinese mother, Duckworth faced discrimination, poverty, and the horrors of war—all before the age of 16. As a child, she dodged bullets as her family fled war-torn Phnom Penh. As a teenager, she sold roses by the side of the road to save her family from hunger and homelessness in Hawaii. Through these experiences, she developed a fierce resilience that would prove invaluable in the years to come. Duckworth joined the Army, becoming one of a handful of female helicopter pilots at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She served eight months in Iraq before an insurgent’s RPG shot down her helicopter, an attack that took her legs—and nearly took her life. She then spent thirteen months recovering at Walter Reed, learning to walk again on prosthetic legs and planning her return to the cockpit. But Duckworth found a new mission after meeting her state’s senators, Barack Obama and Dick Durbin. After winning two terms as a U.S. Representative, she won election to the U.S. Senate in 2016. And she and her husband Bryan fulfilled another dream when she gave birth to two daughters, becoming the first sitting senator to give birth. I mean, how could I not include this?
With Honor and Integrity ed by Máel Embser-Herbert & Bree Fram
Featuring twenty-six essays from current service members or veterans, these eye-opening accounts show us what it is like to serve in the military as a transgender person. From a religious affairs specialist in the Army National Guard, to a petty officer first class in the Navy, to a veteran of the Marine Corps who became “the real me” at age forty-nine, these accounts are personal, engaging, and refreshingly honest. Contributors share their experiences from before and during President Trump’s ban–what barriers they face at work, why they do or don’t choose to serve openly, and how their colleagues have treated them. Fram, a lieutenant colonel who is serving openly as a transgender woman in the US Space Force, and has advocated for open service policies, shares her experience in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement of the ban on Twitter. Another I haven’t read, and includes the perspectives of trans men and nonbinary people in addition to women. Kristin Beck, former SEAL and trans woman, wrote a memoir (with a ghostwriter) I did not include because reviews say how poorly written and edited it is (plus the blurb has deadnaming and the book was published in 2013). However, her experience is valid despite the decided possibility that the book itself has not aged well, and her book is titled Warrior Princess if you want to check it out.
Fidelis by Teresa Fazio
In 1998 Teresa Fazio signed up for the Marine Corps’ ROTC program to pay her way through MIT. After the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, leading to the War on Terror, she graduated with a physics degree into a very different world, owing the Marines four years of active duty. At twenty-three years old and five foot one, Fazio was the youngest and smallest officer in her battalion; the combined effect of her short hair, glasses, and baggy camo was less Hurt Locker than Harry Potter Goes to War. She cut an incongruous figure commanding more experienced troops in an active war zone, where vulnerability was not only taboo but potentially lethal. Haven’t read it (despite receiving an ARC), but it sounds really interesting, and also she came out of the same commissioning source I did (well, I did not go to MIT but I did come from the Boston NROTC Consortium, which includes MIT). I probably went to school with people who had been midshipmen alongside her—we weren’t separated by very many years.
All I Could Be by Miyoko Hikiji
This inaugural account, during the onset of the Global War on Terrorism, by a female National Guard soldier provides evidence of the vitality of female fighters. It pays tribute to the two soldiers in her unit that lost their lives, and shows how love can be more vital in the desert than in water. This story exposes the comradeship, intimacy, cowardice and humor of soldiers living in physical and emotional grit. On my TBR, and about an Asian-American woman serving in the National Guard with a transportation company. I’m actually really excited to read this, because transportation and logistics is not sexy (in the way special forces and infantry are swooned over), but so faced so many ambushes and attacks and I don’t think I’ve seen very many memoirs about it?
Shoot Like a Girl by Mary Jennings Hegar
After being commissioned into the U.S. Air Force, Hegar was selected for pilot training by the Air National Guard, finished at the top of her class, then served three tours in Afghanistan flying combat search and rescue missions, culminating in a harrowing rescue attempt that would earn her the Purple Heart as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. But it was on American soil that Hegar would embark on her greatest challenge— to eliminate the military’s Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which kept female armed service members from officially serving in combat roles despite their long-standing record of doing so with honor. It’s excellent and highly recommended (by me), and while it does heavily rely on the exceptional female mentality, Jennings Hegar demonstrates some insight on that mindset and how women (and men) are trained to think about women in the military. Vertical integration, my friends, is a right bastard.
Jet Girl by Caroline Johnson
Caroline Johnson was an unlikely aviation candidate. A tall blonde debutante from Colorado, she could have just as easily gone into fashion or filmmaking, and yet she went on to become an F/A-18 Super Hornet Weapons System Officer. She was one of the first women to fly a combat mission over Iraq since 2011, and she was the first woman to drop bombs on ISIS. Another I haven’t read, and the blurb feels more rah-rah girlpower and military might than an insightful critique on misogyny and the US military system, but I am to be pleasantly surprised. There are so few female jet pilots, and the environment is incredibly toxic.
I’m Still standing by Shoshana Johnson
Specialist Shoshana Johnson, a member of the 507th Maintenance Company, was captured during an ambush in the early days of the Iraq war and held prisoner until she and her fellow Soldiers were rescued by the Marines. Johnson’s story, which was largely ignored at the time because Jessica Lynch became the media darling, is a gritty recounting of her capture, her wounds, and the challenges she faced when she came home. Post Traumatic Stress, treatment and the negative attitude from those who blamed her and her fellow soldiers for being captured in the first place. There is so much to the Jessica Lynch story that has been revealed over the years, including the fate of the other soldiers captured and imprisoned early in the Iraq War and then their lives after active duty. On my TBR.
Rule Number Two by Dr Heidi Squier Kraft
A psychologist in the US Navy, Kraft learned how to listen to the most traumatic stories a war zone has to offer. One of the toughest lessons of her deployment was articulated by the TV show M*A*S*H, ‘There are two rules of war. Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can’t change rule number one’. So often stories are about front-line service members, but without the support of CSS personnel (including medical staff), the military would literally be unable to function. Another on my TBR, and it’s supposed to be a good one (but heavy as hell).
Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
In 2010, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command created Cultural Support Teams, a pilot program to put women on the battlefield alongside Green Berets and Army Rangers on sensitive missions in Afghanistan. The idea was that women could access places and people that had remained out of reach, and could build relationships—woman to woman—in ways that male soldiers in a conservative, traditional country could not. Though officially banned from combat, female soldiers could be “attached” to different teams, and for the first time, women throughout the Army heard the call to try out for this special ops program. A super popular book because it involves SPECIAL FORCES and people love that, and while I haven’t read it I’ve heard good things.
Iraq and Back by Kim Olson
In April 2003, soon after Operation Iraqi Freedom had been declared a success, President Bush sent retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner to Iraq to rebuild the country. As Garner’s executive officer, the author of this book was part of the senior leadership circle charged with three tasks. They were to reconstruct Iraq’s infrastructure, provide humanitarian assistance, and lay the foundation for a democratic process to take hold. But not long after their arrival in the rubble and ruin of Iraq, the political, military, and economic wheels ground to a halt and theirs became a mission improbable. Oh hey, a book by a senior military officer who is a woman and who is also not writing about leadership lessons! Yay! On My TBR, although it was published in 2006 and I feel that it might be missing a lot of nuance due to a lack of distance that time grants, and also the fact that the war in Iraw was still going strong years after 2006.
Deep Dark Blue by Palo Tate
I want to be in the Air Force someday. These are the words Polo Tate engraves on her junior dog tags at age eleven. An unpopular dream for most young girls, but her hard work pays off and at age eighteen, Polo finds herself in Basic Training at the United States Air Force Academy. She does everything right, except fly under the radar. No one prepares her for what comes next. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her superior. Betrayal at the highest levels of authority. Harassment from her peers, who refuse to believe her story. I highly recommend this one, although it is tough to read (trigger warnings abound), because it highlights so many familiar stories within the military. The military reflects society in a microcosm, and like a microcosm elements become amplified and heightened: misogyny, rape culture and the powers of a patriarchal system.
Love My Rifle More than You by Kayla Williams
Kayla Williams is one of the 15 percent of the U.S. Army that is female, and she is a great storyteller. With a voice that is “funny, frank and full of gritty details” (New York Daily News), she tells of enlisting under Clinton; of learning Arabic; of the sense of duty that fractured her relationships; of being surrounded by bravery and bigotry, sexism and fear; of seeing 9/11 on Al-Jazeera; and of knowing she would be going to war. Published in 2005, this is an early account of what it was like in the early days of the forever wars as a young, enlisted whyte woman in the US Army. Like many of these memoirs, she speaks openly of the bitch/slut problem in the military, and I hope (again, haven’t read it yet, shame on me!) it addresses to some extent the vertical integration and internalized misogyny many female servicemembers adopt in order to survive and thrive. Happily, the internalized misogyny aspect seems to be getting lessening (in the Navy and Army and Air Force, not necessarily the Marines), and that is a really, really good thing, because fuck the exceptional female stereotype. About ten years later, she wrote and published another memoir: Plenty of Time When We Get Home.
Because this is getting really long, here is another a list of more books about women in the military!
These are contemporary nonfiction books about women’s military service, many written by veterans.
- It’s My Country Too ed by Jerri Bell (2017)
- Undaunted by Tanya Biank (2013)
- Fight Like a Girl by Kate Germano (2018)
- Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (2015)
- Camouflaged Sisters by Lila Holley (2015)
- Band of Sisters by Kristen Holmstedt (2007)
- Latinas in Aviation by Olga Esther Nevarez Custodio (2020)
- Beyond the Call by Eileen Rivers (2018)
- The Few, the Proud by Sara Sheldon (2007)