Fierce and Feminine

Article by Tanya Biank, Army Spouse and Author of ‘Army Wives’

The first time I spoke with Sgt. Amy Stokley her voice sounded like a Humvee rumbling over gravel.

“Do you have a cold?” I asked.

“No ma’am, I’ve been yelling all day” and she had to repeat herself several times.

Sgt. Stokley was a drill instructor at Parris Island. And while having the lungs of a lion is a prerequisite for morphing teenaged mortals into Marines, it torpedoed my chances for oral communication. It turned out to be one of a number of challenges, some quirky, some serious, that I encountered in telling the story of women warriors in “Undaunted,” a book about America’s servicewomen whose courage transcends the battlefield.

While the book is about four women, many of their experiences illuminate the lives of a broad range of women in uniform.

I’ve long admired the commitment of our nation’s servicewomen. My sister is an Army colonel and I have female friends who have served or are currently serving. I knew professional success in the military often comes at a personal price, for men and women. But women face their own set of challenges that they often deal with privately, out of public view issues such as balancing marriage and motherhood with the military mission, blurred gender roles, the impact of discriminatory labels in the workplace, and finding the right balance between femininity and military bearing.

That’s part of the story I wanted to tell. But telling their stories on a deadline was like building a sandcastle one grain at a time with one eye on the rising tide. Deployments, surgeries, and overbooked schedules often left the women little time for a writer with endless questions.


GETTING TO KNOW THEM

Sgt. Stokley, who was always with her recruits, worked 140-hour weeks. Her down time consisted of a few hours of sleep each night. Gen. Angela Salinas, the Marine Corps’ first female Hispanic general, had a booked calendar and traveled every month.

2nd Lt. Bergan Flannigan, who was recovering at Walter Reed after losing her leg in Afghanistan to an IED, faced a number of setbacks from infections that required surgeries and heavy medication. And Maj. Candice O’Brien was on the other side of the world in Afghanistan pulling 18-hour days.

Flexibility became my watchword. Duty comes first in the military and I became used to rescheduled interviews and unanswered e-mails. A month after landing my book contract, I found out I was pregnant. The year ahead would also involve two PCS moves for my family from Fort Stewart to Carlisle Barracks, Pa., and then to Fort Eustis.

TanyamilitaryIt was high adventure, and like all writers, I had a deadline. Mine was at the beginning of the New Year. Memories had to be probed and prodded, big issues explored and much ground covered from Hawaii to the Mediterranean.

As my belly grew, so did my anxiety. Could I really birth a book and a baby? I kept my insecurities to myself. In the end, the four incredible servicewomen I profiled taught me, through their own example, to never, never give up and to strive to do and be your very best even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Most of all, I learned that being a strong woman is not a masculine trait. My baby daughter, Violet, taught me something, as well. It really is possible to type 100,000 words with one hand.

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