USC instructor’s film “Soldier Girl” shows women’s struggle for acceptance in military
Cindy Williams didn’t tell anyone about her years in the military after she returned to civilian life in 2003, including how she was gang-raped by fellow soldiers.
“I didn’t tell anyone for almost 20 years until I came home from Kuwait. I just really couldn’t deal anymore with anything and I was suicidal,” Williams says in a documentary about women in the military. “I watched my life fall apart. I lost my job. I lost my children. I lost my home. I lost my sense of who I was. I lost my identity.”
Williams and 30 other South Carolina female veterans share their military experiences in “Soldier Girl,” a documentary by Cathy Brookshire, a University of South Carolina instructor in speech communication and rhetoric.
“The public makes assumptions of life in the military based on simplistic notions of what a military life consists of, particularly for women in the service. They have no idea of what it’s like out there,” said Brookshire, whose passion for the female soldier’s story was ignited in part by a NPR segment on the military she listened to that didn’t include a single woman.
Kashunie Edwards’ experience wasn’t behind a desk. It was in the field for the U.S. Army 1991-95.
“Here I am about to take mother away from her child and not to even think about it because it is survival at that point,” Edwards said. “You still don’t get the equality of it all as a female in the military but we are fighting just as hard as the men.”
The 30-minute film provides a look at the lives of women who served in every branch of the military from the Coast Guard to the Marines from World War II to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was first screened at USC’s Women and Gender Studies Conference this past spring.
Working with film editor Lee Ann Kornegay, cameraman James Henderson and biology student Tori Brown, Brookshire and Dr. Hunter Gardner, a USC classics professor and project co-director, interviewed veterans around the state during the spring and summer last year.
The women joined the military for educational opportunities, steady and equal pay or the lure of travel. Some of the women, having grown up in military families, felt it was something they should do.
None of those reasons applied to Mary Jane Matthews, a Marine in World War II. Her reason was more personal.
“My boyfriend was killed on the Arizona on Dec. 7, and that was it,” Matthews said. “He was one of the few Marines on the Arizona. I immediately signed up, but it hadn’t been organized yet, so I had to wait for them to get it organized.”
As the roles of women in the military changed from traditional office positions to field duty, the regard for women changed. Sexual harassment was commonplace.
“There was no one to go to file a complaint of harassment,” said Susan Jarvie, an academic adviser in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing who served in the Air Force 1976-79 and 1980-82. “You just had to put up with it because that was the price of being on the flight line and you had to find a way to fight them back.”
The women described the hardship of having to leave children for a tour of duty and the impact of battlefield horrors.
Rebekah Haverilla, an explosive ordinance disposal specialist in the Army 2004-08, receives counseling for her experiences.
“This guy had blown himself up outside a barbershop and this was my first suicide bombing,” Haverilla said. “Guys were like, ‘Here, chew this gum to help take some of the smell out of your nose and mouth.’ At that point he is in pieces. My coping mechanisms were a nonreality. It was like a video game of sorts.”
Haverilla and others in the film emphasize the importance of greater recognition of female soldiers and their needs for health care and other support services.
“We all know what we are doing out there,” said Jennifer Morse, a loadmaster in the Army. “We signed up for it. Just support us.”
“Soldier Girl” is part of larger project called “Always Coming Home: South Carolina Women Veterans” that includes the editing and publishing of an anthology of poetry by Dr. Charlene Spearen, an associate director of the university’s South Carolina Poetry Initiative.
Brookshire said USC’s Moving Image Research Collections is digitizing and archiving the interviews collected for the documentary to make them more accessible to the public and researchers.
The Center for Digital Humanities is building an interactive website for the project and the South Carolina Initiative on Veterans and Military Mental Health is using the archives to help train graduate students to work with veterans in distress.
“Every single female veteran felt what they had done in the service had great meaning and importance. Almost all, despite everything, said it was a transformative experience that left them stronger,” Brookshire said. “They told us that fears don’t conquer them; they conquer fears. These are amazing, courageous women who never gave up and never gave in.”
Brookshire said plans call for the film to be screened at festivals throughout South Carolina. A slightly shorter version will air on S.C. ETV’s “Southern Lens” program over the Veterans Day weekend.