A couple of weeks ago I came across a piece on Huffington Post by Lisa Van Wormer, titled “Exit Stage Left: Leaving the Military a Different Person”. This was the first time I had ever read a relatable story by and about a woman combat veteran. As many of you know, I served in the Army, but you don’t have to have been in the military to understand how it feels to finally read a story that could be about you. After visiting her website and finding two of her other pieces (“Roll Call” and “The Rucksack”), I contacted her to see if she would like to do an interview. The following is the result of our conversation.
I noticed that the bio on Lisa Van Wormer’s website said she had a degree in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peace Building. With that information in mind, I asked what made her decide to enter the Creative Writing and Publishing MFA program at the University of Baltimore? I was surprised when she told me that originally she had been pre-Law at Michigan State University before she enlisted in the military shortly after 9/11. She said all she’d ever wanted to do was help people, but she quickly realized that Law was more about memorization, rules, and procedures than anything else. While she uses her degree every day and had a government job after she got out of the Army, she decided to use her GI Bill education benefit to explore creative writing, something she has been interested in for as long as she can remember.
Lisa’s parents are the first readers of her writing.
She told me how her extremely patient parents have always supported her creative efforts, even serving as her captive audience throughout her childhood years when she would write and put together little books of her stories. That creativity has carried on into her adult life, and she said she has never been bored with the Creative Writing and Publishing program. She also loves reading Fantasy, but when it came down to what she wanted to write, she chose to write about her life and experiences because she sees memoir writing as simply telling the truth. Since she knows better than anyone else what her time in the Army was like, she decided to write what she knows.
Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and A Girl at War by Sara Nović are both war stories by women, but neither author is an Amercian Soldier.
However, there was another reason she chose to write about life in the Army. She said, with the exception of two books by women (neither of whom are American soldiers), women’s experiences of war aren’t being told. They’re just not there. To make matters worse, when women’s stories are told in the mainstream news outlets, those women are all lumped together under the subject of “women in the military” and the reporters focus on topics such as “women in combat” or “sexual assault in the military.” It’s as if their individual stories aren’t as important as the issues surrounding them. While male soldiers also get lumped together in news media, there is also a plethora of personal stories by and about men and their experiences with war. There are so many that someone unfamiliar with the American military might think that women don’t also wear the uniform.
“I read ‘American Sniper’, but I’m not him.”
Lisa had some thoughts on why that might be. She reminded me that only 1% of the American population serves in the military. Then she told me that, of that 1%, only 17% are women. Also, she thinks that perhaps societal gender norms and roles make it difficult for many people to be comfortable with the idea of women going to war. They might accept it, even if grudgingly, and they might be willing to discuss the issues, but to read or see the story of a woman in combat might be too much. She’s hoping that will change. It needs to change, and she’s doing everything she can to see that it does. Our stories need to be told, and they need to be shared. As Lisa said, “I read ‘American Sniper’, but I’m not him.”
She went on to tell me that she wants to see all kinds of stories about women in the military including why they enlist, why they choose to stay in or get out, and everything in between. Even if she doesn’t agree with some of those experiences, she still appreciates them because it means women’s stories are being told, and there are likely other women out there who read them and sees themselves in those stories. As I told her after I had read her stories, I felt as if my experiences in the Army were suddenly more valid. I also felt an instant connection with her as a woman who had had similar experiences. When you’re a minority of a minority, those connections can make all the difference. Another, but much more troubling statistic that Lisa shared with me is that women in the military are six times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t served. There is no doubt that many of those suicides are because we often feel alone and with no one to talk to about what we’re going through during and after a deployment.
When you’re a minority of a minority, those connections can make all the difference.
One way that many soldiers cope with being deployed is to read. Having used books to escape the realities of Iraq, I asked Lisa what books she turned to during her deployment. Without missing a beat, she said, “Harry Potter!” She then told me she wrote to Amazon about being deployed and that getting mail in Iraq took longer than it would if she were in the States, but she wanted to pre-order Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, despite knowing she wouldn’t get it until well after its release date. To her surprise, she received her copy of the new sixth Harry Potter book two days after it was released. Amazon shipped it early to make sure she got it when everyone else would.
Would you like to help get books into the hands of deployed soldiers? Go to BOOKSFORSOLDIERS.COM
Lisa M. Van Wormer writes about being a woman, a mother, and about her time in and after the Army to include her deployment experiences in Iraq. She has had memoir essays published as featured articles in the Baltimore Fishbowl, read some of them as a part of The Signal, a weekly news radio magazine on the local Baltimore NPR station (WYPR), and has been a featured presenter at multiple veteran focused events. She is currently working on a short book of personal essays and a full-length book about her deployment.