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Female veterans say it’s their time to write the memory of war

Jenny Pacanowski carries her puppy out after leads a writing workshop for combat women with her organization, Female Veterans Empowered to Transition in Bethlehem, Pa. (Mark Makela/For The Washington Post)

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — When Jenny Pacanowski took the floor, she stood tall, looked straight into the crowd and told her story just like this: When she — a former combat medic in Iraq — goes to veterans’ events, she gets “that crossover handshake.”

“You know the one, right?” she said. “When some guy reaches right over me to shake hands with a nearby guy. ‘Thank you for your service,’ they say to the man next to me!”

“Even though I’m the Iraq War veteran,” she said, her voice rising almost like a preacher’s. “I’m the one who drove a military ambulance through the Sunni Triangle.”

She grew so frustrated that she had “Combat Veteran” tattooed on her right forearm. “I shoulda got it tattooed on my forehead,” she told a group of female veterans gathered in a creaky farmhouse in this old steel mill town.

Pacanowski, a poet and writing coach, is part of a growing national movement to bring the unvarnished experiences of women who have served into mainstream popular culture. As a result, more female veterans are attending memoir-writing retreats, learning new storytelling skills at workshops for stand-up comedy, screenwriting and improv, and performing in poetry slams and plays.

Pacanowski’s workshop takes place about once a month, with several women huddled with notebooks and laptops near a crackling fire while her puppy naps atop blankets. Books filled with Vietnam War-era poetry are strewn across a table.

Wars are remembered with monuments and memorials, but also through the words of the people who fought them. Yet the most famous books, films and television shows about war are about men. Think “Platoon” and “Band of Brothers” and reading-list classics such as “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Things They Carried.”

Women have served in every American conflict dating back to the Revolution. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, female units first known as “Team Lioness” and later called Female Engagement Teams were able to search and gather intelligence from women in areas where it was largely taboo for unrelated members of the opposite sex to touch.

Under pressure to acknowledge that female service members were often already in combat, the Pentagon officially opened all jobs to women in 2015. Women are now the fastest-growing group in the military, and there are nearly 2 million female veterans in the country.

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Yet when Americans think about war, they still typically think of men, said Peter Molin, a retired Army infantry officer who deployed to Afghanistan and now teaches writing at Rutgers University.

“It’s definitely an entrenched male tradition in the country’s popular mind. And it’s just wrong because it hides their outstanding contributions,” Molin said.

Women who are writing about the military are upending the “conventional and outdated idea” that our society should “send our boys to war to make them a man,” he said.

“When we see women in the military serving so strongly, it becomes about, well, shouldn’t we be going to war to prove our competence and bravery and love of country — not just manhood?” Molin said.

Female veterans have also written about what Molin called the “absurdity and often toxic male world of the American military.”

The military is like a “massive frat party. With weapons,” Kayla Williams, a former sergeant and Arabic linguist, writes in her critically acclaimed book “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.”

“Hey, Kayla! Show us your boobs!” she recounts in one passage. “I was on a mountain near the Syrian border. At this time, I may well have been the most forward-deployed female soldier in Iraq.”

The male soldiers offered her money, and some “smart-ass threw in some M&M’s.”

Williams, who is now director of the Center for Women Veterans at Veterans Affairs, said more women should be “writing themselves back into history,” penning works that focus not only on trauma, but also on triumph — ways they fought bravely or saved fellow soldiers.

“How can anyone know we even existed when our history is hidden?” said Williams, whose second memoir, “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War,” is about her family’s transition to healing.

In the past, when women in the military have been included in popular films, they were portrayed in highly sexualized characters, such as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan “with her heaving chest,” from “M.A.S.H.,” set during the Korean War, said Jerri Bell, a retired naval officer and managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, a literary journal for veterans.

Bell is teaching a memoir-writing workshop for female veterans at a VA hospital in the District.

She and co-author Tracy Crow, a retired Marine Corps officer, unearthed thousands of letters and journals for their 2017 book, “It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan,” about the experiences of women in the military.

Army truck driver Lyn Watson has been attending Pacanowski’s writing workshops every month for more than two years.

“In this little space, we finally get to be heard,” she said, sipping tea at a wooden table. “And I think that it’s only going to spread outside these walls.”

Pacanowski tries to create a supportive atmosphere for the women who attend her sessions. Posters on the farmhouse walls read: “Free Write . . . without editing or punctuation” and “To write, we must be courageous.”

She often tells her participants: “This is a place of fierce kindness, compassion, nonjudgment. You have the freedom to be vulnerable.”

She also offers lots of dark-chocolate squares.

Tammy Barlet, who served eight years as an operations specialist with the Coast Guard, said Pacanowski’s writing workshops have helped her get out of bed and “be with my tribe — my women veterans.”

Less than a year after she started attending the workshops, Barlet was invited to a program called “Veterans Voices.” From a stage in New York, she read aloud a piece she had written about how disorienting it was for her to return home after years patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Her family came to the reading, weeping in the audience as she spoke.

“I went through the channels at my local VA, a psychiatrist prescribed some medication, but I felt I needed more than some pills,” she read, mentioning the depression she went through when she couldn’t get pregnant after coming home, when she couldn’t seem to shake the pain of the suicides of some of her shipmates.

She connected with a VA social worker, who encouraged her to leave a bad marriage and use her VA benefits to earn a bachelor’s degree, which she received last year. She’s now getting her master’s in public health. She hopes to run for Congress one day.

“My mom often expresses to me how she feels she has her ‘old Tammy’ back,” she read to the audience. “The woman who is ambitious, adventurous, strong and smart. I’ve reclaimed myself as a person, woman, sister, daughter, friend and a female veteran.”