Interview with Helen Benedict
As a woman in the military, you’re fighting two battles, academic and author Helen Benedict explained to me. You’re fighting the enemy and you’re also engaged in a daily fight to gain the same respect and treatment as your male comrades.
The experience of female soldiers – specifically American women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – is the focus of Helen’s play The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which is being brought to the London stage by PMJ Productions, with funding from a successful Kickstarter campaign.
The play stems from extensive research, including interviews with women from all levels of the military and from a range of different backgrounds.
When Helen began asking female soldiers and veterans about what war was like for them, she found that many women had had little opportunity to tell their stories.
But the dozens of women she spoke to across the States had plenty of stories to tell, and as she travelled and listened, the accounts of sexual harassment, the struggle to gain respect, and a sense of disillusionment with the war effort formed into a bleak pattern.
Out of these interviews Helen produced a novel called Sand Queen, as well as a non-fiction account The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq.
The play is based on the latter, and the stories of seven of the women are told in their own words.
Director Prav Menon-Johansson workshopped the play in London in 2013, and the feedback was positive: the audience strongly felt that this was a story that needed to be heard more widely.
But back then, she was also told by an audience member that this must be an American military problem: sexual harassment and misogyny couldn’t possibly be so rife in the British armed forces.
Then in March last year a second inquest into the suicide of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement found that an alleged rape by fellow soldiers and subsequent vicious bullying contributed to her death.
The coroner urged the Ministry of Defence to review their welfare policies for vulnerable service personnel.
Human rights organisation Liberty, which provided legal representation to Anne-Marie’s family, said the coroner had recognised ‘terrible failings’ in the handling of her case.
Liberty’s ‘Military Justice’ campaign demands protection of the human rights of men and women serving in the British Armed forces and makes proposals for a fair and independent military justice system.
PMJ Productions is supporting the Military Justice campaign, and on the 14th May a post-show event will include a talk from Liberty solicitor Emma Norton.
As rehearsals begin for the play’s run at the Cockpit Theatre in May, proposals for a Service Complaints Ombudsman are going through the final stages of parliamentary approval as part of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill.
It’s no longer possible for us to claim that these issues are confined to the American military.
The play will shed light on the challenges that female soldiers face around the world, and bring the little-heard war stories of women to a wider audience.
The Lonely Soldier Monologues is at The Cockpit Theatre from Wednesday 6th to Sunday 31st May 2015. You can find more information and book tickets on the website.
A discussion on women in conflict, with a panel including Helen Benedict and other leading academics, is taking place at the London School of Economics (LSE) on the 28th April. Entry is free.
Helen is on Twitter: @helenbenedict