'Sex is key to a woman's experience in the US military'

'Sex is key to a woman's experience in the US military'
By Philip Sherwell in Washington
(Filed: 28/08/2005)

With her Buddhist and Celtic tattoos, a literature degree, drug-taking
teenage years and penchant for punk music, Kayla Williams was never going to
be your typical "grunt".

The former United States Army sergeant, who finished a five-year stint in
military intelligence in June, has applied to attend graduate school at
Georgetown University in Washington to further her Arabic studies after
being an army interpreter.

Kayla Williams: 'We had a job to do and we had to stay alive'
Yet between leaving the army and getting married last week to a fellow
soldier who suffered brain injuries in Iraq, Williams, 28, has also found
time to launch a book.

Chick-lit meets battlefield memoir in Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and
Female in the US Army, the title taken from a marching song.

Her prose is uncompromising. "Sex is the key to any woman soldier's
experiences in the American military," the first line reads. "No one likes
to acknowledge it, but there's a strange sexual allure to being a woman and
a soldier." Elsewhere she writes: "I love my M4 [light machine gun], the
smell of it, of cleaning fluid, of gunpowder: the smell of strength. Gun in
your hands, and you're in a special place. I've come to look forward to

Among the plethora of military memoirs and weblogs about frontline life,
Williams's book stands out as the first to be written from a woman's
perspective. "I wanted," she writes, "to capture the terror, the
mind-numbing tedium; and the joy and the honour."

Over coffee last week she told The Sunday Telegraph that she hopes that her
book, to be published in Britain in January, will be an alternative,
accurate, depiction of a woman's army life, an antidote to the media
glorification of Jessica Lynch and infamy of Lynndie England.

The attractive, young Lynch was turned into a poster girl after she was
captured and then rescued during the war. England is Lynch's ugly flipside,
the smirking face of the Abu Ghraib torture pictures who led an Iraqi
detainee around on a leash.

"The story of what it's like to be a male soldier gets told in every war,"
said Williams, who served with the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion,
attached to the 101 Airborne Division (Air Assault).

"This is the first war in which so many women have been so intensely
involved. Jessica Lynch is no more the reality for most of us than Lynndie

The book is written with the raw emotional intensity of immediacy. In
writing about her fractured childhood - her mother left her father when she
was three years old, and Williams admits taking heroin when she was 16 - she
does not shy away from the excesses of youth ("though I guess that rules out
a future in politics") any more than she does the extremes of terror and
tedium in Iraq.

Williams had to submit her manuscript to the army lest she revealed
classified information. All the names except hers have been changed, perhaps
because a prominent theme is sexual tension.

While women are barred from direct combat operations they are frontline
fixtures in other roles. They make up about 15 per cent of the US armed

In Iraq, some male comrades dismiss Williams as a "slut", others drunkenly
grope her. She describes a game in which soldiers throw stones at her
breasts and each other's genitals. For Williams, this does not necessarily
reflect badly on them. "By and large, soldiers have no shame and they are
open about that. They are more honest about what is in all of us. They don't
hide the fact that they make mistakes and have base desires.

"The guys would have been throwing stones at each other's genitals even if I
wasn't there. It might sound strange but by throwing them at my boobs, they
were including me. There is harassment in the army, but there are ways to
deal with it. I was empowered by the military, physically and mentally, and
I'm a stronger person for my time there."

The military will still find the book uncomfortable reading. She details the
incompetence of superior officers, the suicide of a female soldier and
reveals that she was not issued with armoured plates for her flak jacket.

Nor does Williams hide her involvement in the humiliation of an Iraqi
prisoner. She is told to mock a weeping, naked man in Arabic. "Do you think
you can please a woman with that thing?" she asks him. Her role went no
further and she confronted the interrogator about breaching the Geneva
Conventions, but still she feels guilty.

Williams studied literature at university in Ohio and applied to join the
Army in 2000. "I was looking for a challenge, to do something different, to
make sure I didn't end up in a rut and suddenly find I was 40 with a white
picket fence and 2.5 kids who hated me," she says.

Most of her unit, herself included, did not believe they went to war over
weapons of mass destruction. "But it was not our job to debate why we were
there," she says. "The politics fades to unimportance. We had a job to do
and we had to stay alive."

She does not believe that the US military should withdraw from Iraq. "That
would be pointless and all the lives that have been lost would be wasted. In
the long-run, I hope Iraq will be a better place and the region will be a
more stable one." She did not re-enlist, partly chafing at the restrictions
of military life and partly because of the "shabby" treatment of her
husband, Brian McGough.

They met when she was assigned to his unit but started going out only after
she returned to America in February 2004. He had already been sent home for
treatment and is recovering but still suffers debilitating headaches.

"Brian is lucky to be alive, but we've got no idea what the prognosis is for
the rest of his life," she says. The army's attitude to him "has been the
deepest disillusionment for me", she writes. Still, she feels guilty that
she will not be with her unit when it redeploys to Iraq. As a reservist, she
could yet be called back up.

The legacy of Iraq endures as she adjusts to life away from the war zone -
swerving in the car to avoid tin cans which in Iraq could be bombs; freaking
out at fireworks.

Perhaps her book was cathartic. "Soldiers usually come across as great
heroes or like the villains of Abu Ghraib," she says. "I wanted to show that
the lives of most soldiers are much more nuanced than that. If I manage
that, then I've achieved something."

Publishers wishing to reproduce photographs on this page should phone 44 (0)
207 538 7505 or e-mail syndication@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx