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Author Kirsten Holmstedt sheds light on women in combat

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement to lift the combat ban for women serving in the military came as no surprise to author Kirsten Holmstedt. The Iraq War started while she was working on her MFA in creative writing at UNCW in 2003. She heard about women serving in the line of fire and decided to collect their stories first-hand. 

Holmstedt profiles women who served in combat and what happens when they return from war.  She’s published two books, Band of Sisters and The Girls Come Marching Home.WHQR’s Sara Wood spoke to her on phone from her home in Mystic, Connecticut about her work and how lifting the combat ban will change the military. 

SARA WOOD: You wrote about women in combat before we heard the announcement to lift the combat ban.  And I’m wondering – does it seem like the rest of the country is more surprised by this announcement than the service members who are affected by it?

KIRSTEN HOLMSTEDT: I do think the country was caught off-guard. When I was on the book tour for Band of Sisters,  I would talk about what women were doing in combat and I would hear the jaws hit the ground. I mean, they gasped at what women were doing: being  out on convoys under attack, dropping bombs, being shot down in their helicopters. It was unconscionable  to them but this has been going on for 10 years. I am surprised at the lack of awareness throughout our country of what women are doing and, frankly, a little disappointed that they’re not more aware of what women are doing.

SARA WOOD: In the process of writing the books,  what were you most surprised by or how did your own perceptions of women’s roles in the military shift?

KIRSTEN HOLMSTEDT: I was kind of hoping you’d ask this question because I was just reviewing the books and the women who I featured. What impressed me the most  about the women is how resilient they are. Women were shot down and they were shot at.  They were wounded and they asked not to go home when they were wounded.  They just stayed in the field. I think there is this misconception that when women are wounded, that they’re going to ask to go home.

That wasn’t the case with the women I interviewed.  They wanted to stay there and continue to fight and to be with their unit. And what surprised me also is the way they’ve adapted once they’ve come home. I’ve been able to watch them over the years after they came home. So many of them are doing great, which is awesome for me to hear.  When I interviewed them after “The Girls Come Marching Home,” they had just come home and a lot of them were struggling. I thought to myself, “Oh no, these women are in for a long road.” But they’ve really gotten it together.

SARA WOOD: I’m speaking with author Kirsten Holmstedt, who wrote Band of Sisters and The Girls Come Marching Home.  The books profile women in combat during the Iraq War and how they fared after coming home. Did you have any challenges in finding the stories?

KIRSTEN HOLMSTEDT: I did have one pilot who I called on the West Coast and asked her if she would be interested in being in a book. The person I’m talking about is Amy McGrath. She was in a fighter pilot squadron.  She had a really hard time fitting in as a woman and the last thing she wanted to do was stand out because she was in a book.  So she gave it a week or two consideration, then came back to me and said, “I want to be in the book because when I was growing up, I didn’t have any female mentor fighter pilots. I would like to be a mentor to younger women who are growing up. “

SARA WOOD: What do you think lifting the combat ban will change for women in the military?

KIRSTEN HOLMSTEDT: I think it’s so liberating for women. It gives them an opportunity to move up the chain of command. I think that’s huge because it’s kind of like saying you can be dental hygienist but not a dentist. Or you can be physician’s assistant but not a physician.  You can go so far.  And this just breaks that ceiling and gives them the power to go higher.  For those women to know that they can climb the chain of command is exciting for them, I think.

SARA WOOD: Thank you very much for talking to me today about your work.