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Slippery Characters

Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

By Laura Browder

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Slippery Characters

328 pp., 6.14 x 9.21, 13 illus.,, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4859-3
    Published: June 2000
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6060-1
    Published: June 2000

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Author Q&A

Copyright(c) 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.

Laura Browder, author of When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans, shares her experience documenting women combat veterans.

Note: An accompanying photography exhibit of the same name will be traveling to the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, Hollins University (Roanoke, Virginia, February 18 to April 17, 2010); The Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington, Virginia, May 1 to September 5, 2010); and the National Museum of the Marine Corps (Triangle, Virginia, July 10 to October 9, 2011).

Q: How did you and the book's photographer, Sascha Pflaeging, come up with the idea for this project?

A:My book Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America had just come out when Sascha and I started this project. One of the threads that runs through that book is the issue of women in combat, a hot one since Revolutionary War times, when politicians pointed to women's inability to defend their country in times of war as evidence that they did not deserve the benefits of full citizenship. We all know that that issue has continued to be controversial: in 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment was finally defeated in large part because of popular fears that women would have to be assigned to combat positions if it passed.

Women are still barred from many combat roles. Yet here we were in the middle of two wars in which women were serving in unprecedented numbers, and in positions of great danger -- as convoy gunners, explosives -- sniffing dog handlers, military police. Sascha and I were discussing the issue of women in the war, and we decided to collaborate on a story for which we would interview and photograph women combat veterans.

Q: How have women typically been portrayed in war photography and images? How do these portraits present a new image of women in war?

A:War photography has traditionally focused on men as heroes and aggressors, and on women and children as victims. Contrast what are perhaps the two most iconic war photographs for Americans, the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima versus the Vietnamese girl running down the road covered with napalm. We thought that photographs of women who are mothers and wounded soldiers could have the power to unsettle our fixed ideas about Americans at war, and their narratives could add dimension to the often flawed or fragmentary representations of women soldiers in popular culture: as novelties, but not as real soldiers.

Q: Who are the women featured in the book? How did you choose which women to interview, and do you include stories of women from all branches of the armed forces?

A:It was very important to us that we include a diverse range of women in the book -- not only women from every branch of the military, commissioned officers and enlisted women, but women who ranged in age from teenagers to grandmothers, and women who reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of the armed services. If we had ever thought of the military as a monolithic institution, that belief was dispelled as soon as we sat down for our first batch of interviews.

Q: What struck you most about these women as a group?

A:When I started this project, I expected that the women I interviewed would see themselves as marginal within the military -- because that's how female soldiers are generally portrayed in the media. Nothing could have been further from the truth: being in the military was absolutely central to their identities. I was amazed at their ability to survive and keep going in circumstances that were very difficult -- and often by their ability to balance roles that many of us think of as being very different -- as mothers and as warriors. They didn't complain about things that seemed incredibly challenging, and they had an amazing sense of camaraderie with other members of their units. I was very much struck by how the military exists as a kind of parallel universe within the United States (and of course, in installations all over the world): it has its own culture, its own rules, and is mainly invisible to civilians.

Q: What types of reasons did these women give for deciding to join the military? Did any of these reasons surprise you?

A:There were women who had dreamed of being soldiers since they were little girls, and women who joined after 9/11, for patriotic reasons. Carla Campbell, an Army captain who grew up in Grenada, joined because she was so impressed by the Americans who invaded her island when she was six. Many women I talked to enlisted for very pragmatic reasons, whether the military presented the best alternative to flipping burgers, or, for the reservists and guardsmen especially, a way to get college money. For mothers, especially single mothers and those whose kids had major health problems, the military offered health insurance and security. Maybe the most surprising to me was the story of Victoria Hager, an airman in the Coast Guard, who joined at her mother's suggestion.

Q: One of the main themes of the book is motherhood. How did the mothers describe their experiences being away from their families while serving in the military?

A:Many women described missing their children very much -- yet also being torn between their responsibilities to their kids and their ties to their unit members. A lot of mothers have experienced multiple deployments, like Army Staff Sergeant Laweeda Blash, who has four kids at home -- and who has had three year-long deployments to the Persian Gulf. She talked a great deal, as many women did, about having to readjust to her family life every time she returned -- because everyone had changed so much during her absence.

There were heartbreaking stories: Army Staff Sergeant Connica McFadden had to deploy with her husband when their baby was six months old and still breastfeeding. When they returned, their daughter didn't recognize them and cried when she was left alone with them. But there were also many women who talked about how their families did not understand their desire to deploy and the way that conflicted with motherhood -- as Marine Sergeant Jocelyn Proano told me, although she had dreaded being deployed because she wanted to stay at home with her one-year old daughter, her feelings changed once she got her orders: "The mommy mentality left me as soon as we got on that bus. All of a sudden, the Marine hit me and I'm like, all right we've got combat training. I'm thinking we're going to go up there, and we're going to start shooting."

Q: As a whole, how did these women feel their experience in the military was different because they were female?

A:Some talked about their service in Lioness or other all-female units, and others reflected on how they felt they were more compassionate than their male counterparts. Some talked about soldier-on-soldier rape or the need for better gynecological services on their bases -- and a few women were offended by the question, and said that their gender had nothing to do with their military service. Many of them talked about how they had to prove themselves as women in the military -- but they also talked about how the military gave them the opportunity to live the kind of independent, adventurous lives that they had always wanted.

Q: What were the women's reactions to coming home?

A:Coming home was tough for many women. They had been living very stressful lives in a combat zone, and suddenly they were back home, often in very changed circumstances. They had gone through life-altering experiences themselves, and they also discovered that their spouses and children had changed in their absence. One woman I interviewed had gotten divorced while she was in Iraq -- she had to Google directions to find the house her friends had rented for her while she was gone. Many women talked about how hard it was to talk about their experiences with friends and family members who hadn't deployed -- and some talked about how they felt they had cheated death and were struggling to appreciate their lives as much as they could, to live each moment to the fullest.

Q: In the book, you focus solely on these women's stories and take neither a pro- nor anti-war stance. Why did you feel this was important?

A:When we were planning the gallery show, it was our dream that we would be able to bring together peace activists and service members to view the same images and read the same stories. Our own views on the war seemed irrelevant for this purpose, a distraction at best. I think Army Staff Sergeant Jamie Rogers, whom I interviewed in Maine, said it best:

Some people do come up and say "Thank you," or "I appreciate your service." But many of them, if they come up to you, ask immediately about the war, if you support it, and then they give their opinion. A service member doesn't need to hear that. A service member can say, "Thank you. No problem," and go on. But not everybody wants to hear your opinion. Sometimes, just keep your mouth shut.

Q: Did you face any limitations in interviewing women still under active duty?

A:I had to get permission from the office of public affairs for each branch of the military in order to interview active-duty women -- and then a public affairs officer was supposed to be present during each interview (although this did not always happen). And there were questions that I could not ask: the military code of conduct stipulates that troops may not criticize the commander in chief. Service members are certainly not supposed to criticize the mission -- it would have been inappropriate for me to ask anyone her feelings about the war (though they often told me anyway.

Because I was interviewing active-duty military personnel, how a soldier felt about the war effort was not the only issue I could not raise. Although more than once a woman's girlfriend was present during the interview or joined us for lunch afterward, I could not bring up any "don't ask, don't tell" questions.

Q: How did the "When Janey Comes Marching Home" traveling photography exhibit come about, and where will it be on display?

A:When I mentioned the book idea to Ashley Kistler, then curator of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, she suggested we undertake a gallery exhibit there to go along with the book. The exhibition includes a series of approximately 45 large-scale color photographic portraits and oral histories of women combat veterans. It premiered at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in September 2008. We had two openings -- a special preview dinner for the women who were in the show and then one for the general public. It was incredible to see women arriving with their families to see their portraits and read their own words -- and it was amazing, the next night, to see groups of peace activists, uniformed service members, and art lovers all experiencing the show together.