Is the military supposed to be a tough job for men only? Erynn Rowan Laurie served in the Navy, and came out of it disabled from stress. (Photo by Dave Raith).
PORTLAND – Erynn Rowan Laurie thought she knew exactly what she was getting into when she enlisted in a field that for centuries had been a male-only bastion: the armed services.
“I come from a longstanding military family myself,” she said. “My dad was military, all my uncles were military, my grandfathers were military. It goes back a long time in my family. My brother is still in the military.”
Despite that, her years in the military were far more eye-opening than Laurie could ever have expected. Even though she was raised in a military family, she had no idea just how challenging – and, as it turns out, traumatic – her years in the Navy would turn out to be.
“It’s such a different experience for women than for men,” she said. “There’s no much that goes on that the civilian world doesn’t know.”
Today, Laurie is retired from the field and is a disabled Navy veteran. Her disability is post-traumatic stress disorder, exacerbated by years of sexual harassment.
During a presentation on “Military Women, PTSD and Sexual Trauma: Personal Experiences,” Laurie noted that she served during the final Cold War years in Hawaii, San Diego, and Washington state.
“While I was in service, I experienced a great deal of harassment and was assaulted,” she said. “Extra numbers of women are subjected to assault while in the service. I honestly do not know a single woman in the service who has not been harassed. There is a continuum. Harassment is any kind of sexual behavior that is unwanted if you’re on the receiving end. Some people have a very low tolerance threshhold and can be traumatized by what other people think is minor.”
Part of the reason women are so frequently subjected to this kind of behavior in the military, she said, is that cultural attitudes within the armed services are hostile toward women to begin with.
“They believe there are only three reasons women go into the military,” she said. “You’re a whore, you’re a lesbian, and you’re looking for a husband.”
Most of the men she served with, she said, thought women wanted to sleep with every male in sight.
“You’re there to screw whoever happens by,” she said. “We’re there for the men’s morale. We’re there to entertain them.”
She recalls being the only woman in an office run by men, and constantly seeing the walls plastered with photos of naked women that had been removed from porn magazines.
“I personally don’t object to naked women, but some people do,” she said. “I was the only woman in the office.”
If a woman in the military complained about sexual harassment, she was viewed as a troublemaker.
“There are expectations that go along with women who are breaking gender stereotypes,” she said. “I’m not the fem type, I never have been. “
Part of the problem, she said, is that the military operates on strict discipline. She recalled being in the hospital, and when she got released, her physician requested she be assigned to light duty. Instead she was assigned to work outdoors, scraping paint.
“When they give you an order, you have to do what they tell you do to,” she said. “You can bitch and moan all you want, but they ignore you. They don’t like intelligence in the military. They told me ‘If we wanted you to have a brain, we’d assign you one.’ I was sick a lot from stress.”
The military also strives to turn recruits into tough fighting machines, she said. Sensitivity to others becomes a barrier to that.
“The military is put together to train people to go out and kill other people,” she said. “There is a desensitization that goes with it. You become less sensitive to the people around you.”
As bad as it can be for women, Laurie said, men are not immune to harassment in the military, either.
“This stuff happens to men, too, and doesn’t get talked about,” she said.
Laurie now lives in Puget Sound near Seattle, and is an author, poet and admitted “devotee of bad movies.” After a long struggle with the Veterans Administration, she got the disability coverage she had applied for due to PTSD.
“I was one of the first women in the military who was granted post-traumatic stress disorder (benefits) for non-combat-induced stress,” she said. “The thing about dealing with the VA is trauma is trauma when you’re filing a claim about what affects you. You can be compensated for that.”
Laurie thinks she knows how to improve this situation for everyone interested in a career in the military.
“Tear down the entire military system,” she said, “and start over again.”
If that sounds radical, she nevertheless insists it’s the only way to alter a harassing culture deeply inbedded within the armed services.
“It is changing,” she said. “It is changing very slowly. The military is a very conservative culture, so it changes with the speed of a moving glacier.”

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