So there I was, at the Richmond International Airport, getting ready to head down to Alabama for what felt like 187th time. I hand my military ID and my boarding pass to the TSA agent responsible for checking those sorts of things. I wasn’t flying in any sort of military capacity, but showing my military ID is a force of habit as I’m asked to show it more times than I’m asked to show my driver’s license and flashing it at the airport has resulted in a handful of nice comments and a few waived luggage fees and I’m a creature of habit who likes saving $25.
The TSA guy, a noted loon, looks at my ID, looks up at me and then looks back at my ID again, smirks a little and asks me about “all that paperwork.” I smile incoherently, not really understanding what the fuck dude-man is implying, and then he says something like, “Yeah, all that paperwork will be waiting for you when you get back, you know?” I smile and nod, mostly ignoring him as I scan the security lines and plot my security checkpoint maneuvers. He hands me back my ID and boarding pass and I walk away confused momentarily before realizing just what he was inferring and assuming about me and my military service. And then it hit me: based on my status as a military member and my status as a female, he assumed that surely my job MUST me paperwork-based since little ladies like me couldn’t possibly handle anything outside the safety and comfort of an office, where the largest threat waged against us is that of the paper cut.
And so then I got pissed. I got pissed at myself for not realizing sooner what he implying. I got pissed because I didn’t have some snark-tastic comeback at the ready to throw in his face. I got pissed that this dude, WHO DOESN’T KNOW ME, would assume my role in the military is that of a paper pusher, simply because I’ve got lady bits. I was pissed because the announcement that women will soon be filling combat roles JUST HAPPENED and it pissed me off because I know about the incredible things female military members are doing both here at home and in combat zones, things that are far and away from the safety and sanctity of an office. I know about women in uniform working on female engagement teams that aim to make connections and build trust with the women of Afghanistan. I know and have interviewed one of the most decorated female Soldiers in the U.S. Army, who actions as a gunner on a day in 2006 saved the lives of her fellow Soldiers. Women do more than push papers and every single one of is a Soldier first, whether we work as a medic, a truck driver, an admin specialist, or a gunner. We all crawl through the mud in basic training and we all learn basic Soldiering skills.
As for me? I write stories, which, okay, does sometimes involve paper, but in writing those stories I get to see some really cool shit. I’ve fired a howitzer, flown around in Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, hung with infantry Soldiers during intense training exercises and rappelled down a few walls. My primary mission isn’t pushing papers. It’s doing shit.
As I sat scowling at my gate waiting to board and raising eyebrows at the horde of people pushing every closer to the gate even though they were probably assigned to zones 7, 8 and 46, I started thinking about other strange, stupid and occasionally offensive things presumably well-meaning citizens have said to me as I’ve gone about my business as a woman in the military:
- Back in 2008, I attended a breakfast held to educate a handful of Virginia state delegates and senators on the Virginia National Guard, and after I had spoken briefly about the benefits of tuition assistance an elected official looked at me sideways and asked, in all seriousness, if they let “pretty little girls” like me go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I still count it as a major accomplishment that I didn’t fly across the table and smack some sense into the man who clearly had lost his grip on reality.
- I’ve been asked on countless occasions, usually at gas stations or restaurants, if I’ve “just gotten back” or if I’m “heading over soon.” I understand that these people are trying to be nice and that yes, in the decade since the war began in Iraq, we’ve been sending our military members on deployments pretty frequently, but sometimes we’re just doing our jobs. Yes, there are those of us who are in constant state of just returning or just leaving, but there are a whole bunch of us who are just doing the jobs we’re assigned to do here at home and the reality is most of us haven’t just returned from a combat zone last Tuesday and most of us aren’t preparing to say farewell to our families in the next 24 hours.
- The day after last year’s presidential election, I stopped by a gas station to grab breakfast and some tea and a guy walked up to me, shook my hand and said he was sorry that America had failed me and that he was ashamed of what our country had become. I didn’t tell him I voted for President Obama, mostly because I didn’t want to start a riot at my local Wawa.
- My fellow Soldiers can also be pretty awful from time to time. I keep my politics to myself at work because work is for work, not for political ferocity and yet it never fails during times of high politicking, especially around election time, that some fellow Soldier will rattle off about how the “commie liberals” are ruining America, erroneously assuming that military service is automatically coexistent with conservative and republican leanings, which never fails to annoy the shit out of me, because really, I would never rattle off my political beliefs in the workplace, so why the fuck are they? Also, it doesn’t matter what dude sits in the Oval Office – if you’re in the military, he’s your boss. Simple as that. And it’s bad form to go around trash talking your boss.
- I try not to travel in uniform, but when I do, someone almost always asks me where I’m heading and they almost always seem disappointed when I say “Virginia,” instead of some far away combat zone. The thing is, sometimes Soldiers fly in uniform for non-deployment-related reasons. And sometimes we fly in uniform solely in the hope that we’ll be upgraded to first class.
All the crazy comments aside, I will say that my favorite thing is when someone sees me in uniform and throws me a simple greeting, along with my rank, a sure indicator that they’ve served as well. I’ll never, ever complain if you stop me to say thanks for my service, even if I never know how to respond. I’ll never hesitate to shake the hand of someone who has a brother, mother or friend “over there right now” or a son, cousin or niece “planning to join as soon as she can.” I don’t mind chatting with the clerk at Wawa for 6 minutes about her daughter’s plans to join the Army and I’ll gladly listen to the Vietnam vet at Target for 10 minutes while he shares his stories and compares the ages he made rank with mine. I’ll even smile at kids who stare, bug-eyed, from shopping carts at me in my uniform, seeming to wonder what sort of space alien I must me. I honestly enjoy nearly every interaction I have with people, except the ones that are rife with assumptions.