Thursday, June 2, 2011

SSG Kimberly Ann Voelz

Another Memorial Day has come and gone. This is the holiday that partially influenced the start of this blog and every year it makes me think about those who have given their lives for our country and what that truly means. This year, I spent the day painting an entire apartment by myself, and if any good came out of that task it was the chance to listen to a day of NPR nonstop. 

Apparently, many people misunderstand the meaning for the holiday. It is intended as a day of remembrance to honor those who have died while serving in the Armed forces, not to be confused with Veteran's Day which honors all who have served, including those not killed in action. Mostly, people think of BBQ's, a day off of work, and the start of summer so maybe all meaning is lost on the majority. But for me, a war history junky, I can't help but think about all the wars that have claimed the lives of so many who have fought to protect the ideals of America. 

Leading up to this past Memorial Day, HBO had the documentary "Section 60" available on OnDemand. It is a quiet account of the area in Arlington National Cemetery where soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are laid to rest. It's hard to watch wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters hug gravestones and pet the Earth where their loved ones are buried. Everyone dies. But the pain of a military death always seems to come with the added sting that the death was too soon, no matter how valiant the sacrifice. I've been to Arlington and the experience was steeped in an overwhelming feeling of somber patriotism. With over 300,000 graves, all connected to some type of military service (there are strict guidelines in order to be buried there), the cost of war is evidenced greatly.

My WAC Poster
I was a freshman in high school when I went to DC with my family so it's been quite some time since I've visited the cemetery, but the memorial that stuck out to me the most was the Women in Military Service for America Memorial that had only just opened about 2 years before my visit. I bought a poster from the gift shop and in this post's edition of "Why I Love the Internet" I was able to find an image and discover that you can still buy it at the memorial! I had it up in my room for years (proof that I was a major history nerd) and it always gave me this huge sense of pride. Now I have a different sort of pride in this memory because there are so many life moments where I haven't been the "best feminist I can be" and this sort of assuages any guilt because at my core I've always been proud of my gender's accomplishments. But that's a personal aside that doesn't really apply to this topic, I suppose. Nonetheless, I loved this part of the experience because it reminded me that people like me have helped protect America and I am really proud of that. Unfortunately, this isn't always the story that is told to us and the women who have served in our armed forces are poorly remembered or their accomplishments and sacrifices are veiled with prejudice that can't be denied. 

The way events are remembered; who we remember; our recorded history, that is what matters. Isn't it? It is what we hand down to future generations. The idea that women should just be content to always be in the supporting role, or have no role; the idea that we are easily erased or just not included in the memory, that terrifies me. Shouldn't that bother everyone? Or am I crazy? Or fanatical? Or irrational? Or overly dramatic? Any/all of these? Tell me because I just can't believe that I'm off in wondering why we accept or allow our erased position in history. Shouldn't the way we organize our world include women? To not be a part of society in a way that shapes society seems like it shouldn't be an option. Doesn't it bother anyone else that women haven't made any(many) of the major decisions that lead to wars, slavery, advancement, government, etc. in days gone by? This isn't an argument saying that women would do anything better or even differently than men, it's just a fact that we haven't been allowed to do anything. Why can't we see that as a big deal? Isn't it the biggest deal? 
"I am an Army widower. I don't think there's very many of us," he says. "And when I receive a condolence letter from a high-ranking government official that says, 'Mrs. Voelz, we're sorry for the loss of your husband,' it just makes it seem like nobody knows we exist."  -Max Voelz for NPR StoryCorps
Max Voelz married Kim after they met in training for their military service. They were in the 703rd Explosive Ordinance Detachment which had them disarming bombs in Iraq. One night in 2003, Max sent Kim to disarm an explosive. She did not survive the mission.

Kim training for explosive disposal
Kim was the only woman in her highly trained unit and she was not there by accident. If you have seen The Hurt Locker, you are familiar with the work she did and can better understand how intense and dangerous it was. She served as an equal and was required to put her life on the line right along side her husband and the rest of the men who were serving. This is what makes Max's quote so disheartening. You would think that the memorial condolences that any spouse of a fallen soldier receives would not be something that is sent out in mass, thoughtless automation. But his experience proves this isn't the case. 

Women have had to fight hard to be allowed to fight. When the Women's Army Corps was formed during World War II, it was considered a last resort of sorts and many were discouraged from joining with threats that they would be labeled as lesbians or prostitutes. But women did sign up; over 150,000 served in the WAC throughout the war. Their efforts were lauded by General Eisenhower and almost lead to the drafting of women. There were female divisions in all branches of military service during WWII.  As the 20th century progressed, they were blended into the general troops although women are still not allowed to serve in many areas of active combat duty. As Kim's experience exemplifies however, this does not mean that they are not killed while serving. 

As much as I consider myself a patriot, and understand certain reasons for war, it's hard to fight for the right to do something that is so destructive. The idea of it seems a bit retro and counteractive. Ideally, war should be in the past, and women and men alike should have no need to partake in the violence it breeds. Reality requires a different perspective however, and as long as there is a call to serve, the opportunity should be available regardless of gender. While strides of inclusion have been made, sexism and misinformation are still a regular part of the female soldier's military experience.

I have a friend who is in the Navy and he plans on becoming a Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman. When I looked into this specified unit that supports the Navy SEALs, I noticed under the eligibility requirements the first thing that is listed is that the volunteer sailor must be male. So there you go. I view female physical strength and psychological capabilities as equal to those of males, and while I realize this belief sets me in the minority, it's still a bit jarring to see such a clear line drawn as to what we are allowed to attempt and not attempt. After the Osama Bin Laden take down, the hero-ness of the SEALs went through the roof. Just another example of women not being allowed to participate in honor heavy work. Knowing that women like Kim have sacrificed their lives for our country, doing work that was EXACTLY the same as the men they served with, I find this to be a slap in the face and limits our nation's defensive strength as a whole. And I know that many male soldiers who serve with women, certainly those who worked with SSG Voelz, would agree. If we want the best of the best protecting us, we shouldn't immediately discredit half of the population, right? But what do I really know? I'm just a civilian lady and I recognize that in this area I am on the outside looking in. 

Luckily, women on the inside are speaking out. Changing warfare tactics have meant that the rules preventing women from serving in active combat situations are actually harming them. Modern conflicts, like Iraq and Afghanistan, don't have clearly defined front lines and women who are serving in supporting units are increasingly caught in heavy fighting without the proper training to save themselves and fight the enemy. This has created a new discussion about changing the restrictions against women who serve and the need to give proper credit to those who are injured and killed in combat zones whether or not they are technically labeled as active duty combat troops. If the argument against allowing women to serve in dangerous areas is for their protection, it's clearly moot since so many are in harms way on a daily basis regardless of having a "soft" assignment. Not recognizing this fact out of some noble idea to protect chivalry really seems moronic and is actually costing women their lives. 

Changing any part of the military usually comes at a snails pace. I'm reading "To End All Wars" by Adam Hochschild* right now, which is about WWI, and hundreds of thousands of men were killed at the beginning of the fight because France, Germany, Austria, Britain, all of them, were unwilling to update their uniforms to adapt to the new, more brutal type of combat. Their traditional war attire, doused in bright colors, made their soldiers easy targets for snipers and far off machine guns because they stuck out against the gray mud that was the new battlefield. So I get it, military tradition trumps reason. But how many women will have to die unnecessarily before we stop "protecting" them?
Memorial in honor of Kim

Even if Kim had served in a military that was open and equal to all who serve, the loss of her life wouldn't be any less hard to understand or accept. At the time of her death, she was just a few credits away from officer candidate school and had re-enlisted with her husband. Her military future was bright and she wanted to fully serve her country. When flashes of gratitude sweep the American public every Memorial Day, even in the briefest moment, I hope her service, along with other women who have made the ultimate sacrifice, will someday be acknowledged the same way as their male counterparts. She certainly isn't any less deserving of our remembrance. 

*To End All Wars is a must read for anyone looking for a better understanding about World War I, how it started, all the factors and key players that made it so brutal, and how even the "Great War" could have been avoided. Hochschild records the feminist experience in Britain during the years leading up to the war and throughout which is a fresh take on a much talked about subject. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!