If you’re anything like me, when the Fourth of July comes around you’re thinking more about BBQ’s, swimming and how to pull off a red and white ensemble, instead of what the fight for this nation really means. Miyoko Hikiji is a soldier who fought in Iraq for a year and is someone who thinks about protecting America on a daily basis.
Hikiji was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. For a little over a year, her duties included truck driver, unit correspondent and administrative sergeant. She spent over 70 days running supply convoy, security and raid missions throughout the northwest quadrant of Iraq.
During this time she put herjournalism degree from the University of Iowa to work by writing a company newsletter, articles for a hometown newspaper, updates for the unit’s family support group in Iowa and contributing to her support squadron’s newsletter. Upon her return from Iraq, Miyoko wrote her company’s deployment history for the archives at the Gold Star Museum on Camp Dodge, the Iowa Army and Air National Guard State Headquarters.
She also wrote an account of her time in Iraq in All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq.Her goal was to tell her story and also to show that women are an important and essential part of the military. We were lucky enough to chat with this amazing womanabout her experience in Iraq, the military and why she wanted to share her story.
You joined the army to help pay for college, but why did you re-enlist with the National Guard?
Active duty is training for war as a lifestyle. It’s intense—physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I survived it, one day at a time, for three full years. My enlistment contract was eight years long, three years active and five years inactive. While serving inactive duty, I could be called up for war and attached to any unit, even though I wouldn’t have performed any active duty during that time otherwise.
I felt that since I was still under obligation, I would be better prepared if I were assigned to a unit and trained with them part time. So I re-enlisted to change my remaining five years of inactive duty to five years of National Guard duty, which is typically one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, though it’s often a bit more. I also chose to volunteer for additional weekends and weeks during the summer in order to earnextra income for college expenses. I liked the military. It was a good life and a great foundation of experience to build the rest of my life upon.
What was your first thought when you knew you were deployed to Iraq?
First thought: It’s time to go to the big show. I was excited in a way. I’d trained for years and it was time to finally do my job. When I was first mobilized, I didn’t know where we were going or for how long. My unit was sent to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to complete our pre-deployment training and get our additional gear. We were there for weeks without a word on our final mission. There is a lot of mystery in the Army. We were informed we were flying to Kuwait with less than a week’s notice and didn’t know where in Iraq we were headed until we were in Kuwait.
It’s a tremendous operation to move that many soldiers and equipment. The saying is “hurry up and wait” and that’s exactly what we did. We did our part and waited until we were called forward. We don’t get to see the big picture. We see one mission at a time and are not always aware of how it works in conjunction with all the other missions being executed simultaneously. We have to trust our training, battle buddies and leaders.
How did writing help you with your experiences?
Writing helped because it’s my form of self expression. During the deployment, it allowed me to take a moment, usually late at night after a mission and often by flashlight, to capture a moment, rethink it, describe it and pour out my feelings about it. Writing helped me to decompress some of the stress and tension.
When I was back home and started working on my book, it allowed me to take that decompression one further step—to find my truth, my voice and to dig for the universal human emotions and experiences that every reader can connect with. It’s a war story, a soldier’s story, but we all experience frustration, disgust, hate and destruction as well as joy, surprise, love and creation. As unique as the setting was for my story, the themes are common. For other soldiers, especially those that I did not deploy with and will never meet, it’s a way to validate their experiences and connect with them.
Do you feel like you had to work extra hard because you don’t look like the “typical” soldier?
Yes, I think that’s a common experience for women to have to prove themselves when they join a unit or embark on a new mission. I had a leg up on the National Guard soldiers that had never served on active duty. That earned me a special level of respect because it requires a greater dedication to duty and the training is more rigorous. I approached the qualification tasks with a “gonna do it better than the guys” mentality and often times I did. Army standards, such as shooting down targets and completing a two mile run within a specific time, are very clear in the Army. When I passed, what man could really dispute my ability to do the job? I felt 10 feet tall, standing among them in my uniform.
There’s something special about that uniform emblazoned with the combat patch, the US Army tape. Though I was often singled out because I was a woman and attractive, there were many times I felt like a part of the brotherhood/sisterhood. And those moments, no matter how few, made me feel like I belonged to something so incredible, it was worth all the pain and the sweat.
What are the challenges of being a female soldier in Iraq? Is there constant harassment?
I really cannot speak for all female soldiers. Depending on our units, rank, job, the year we were deployed, leadership and forward operating base, there’s a wide range of experiences, both good and bad, for all soldiers, especially female. For me, it was the ultimate test. I used all my training, mental toughness, endurance and physical strength that year. In order to do the job, I had to forfeit a lot of privacy and dignity. I urinated on the road, in front of other soldiers and passing Iraqi civilians, during quick stops during convoy missions. At certain bases, where there weren’t female or any private facilities, I took baby wipe baths. I burned human waste from our outhouses.
I was very frustrated a lot. The intense heat, the fear of not knowing what might happen during a mission or who might be hurt, the lack of freedom and downtime got to all of us during the deployment. It’s hard for me to gauge the harassment since I lived that way for so long. My sense of “normal” is normal for the Army, but not normal for a woman in any other job. There was certainly a hostile environment and many times I felt my safety was in jeopardy while with soldiers that were supposed to be in the same Army I was. On the whole, my Iowa National Guard unit had stand up guys and great women. I was fortunate to be deployed with them.
You had a romantic relationship with another soldier. Was that stressful?
My romantic relationship was at times stressful because I worried about my boyfriend and wanted to be with him and protect him more often than I could be. But in all honesty, my relationship didn’t distract me from my mission. If he was headed north and I was headed south, once our wheels were outside the gate, I was focused on my role in my convoy and on my mission. That’s part of training—mission focus.
It was also a stress buster because it was a part of my life there that felt natural, encouraging, positive and loving. The times we were off-mission together we were happy doing laundry, reading, cleaning our gear, working out and eating meals together. Those moments were priceless and I did not take them for granted. They are memories I still cherish and they remind me still today that you don’t have to do something really big, like a cruise or a fancy night out on the town, to have romance or fun. You simply need to be joyfully and intimately connected in the moment.
What does it mean to you to fight for your country?
Fighting for my country means being willing to put on the uniform and answer the call. The Army could have asked me to do any number of jobs during the eight years I served. It wasn’t my choice. Whatever they asked of me, I did, even if it might cost me limb or life. It’s the embodiment of citizenship—an agreement with the flag and God—to give my all for the good of the cause. I’m proud of the small role I had, because it was everything I had to give.
What advice do you have for young women who are thinking of going into the Army or National Guard?
This is a tricky question. There are no guarantees or insurance of any particular experience in the military. However, there are a few ways to increase your chances of success:
Become as physically fit as you can through strength and cardio training. A lot of respect in the military originates from physical fitness. Learn the standards and make sure you’re well above just passing them.Research the branch you’re interested in and the jobs you’d consider doing. Form realistic expectations for the experience by having as much knowledge as you possibly can.Know yourself. This is probably the most important in negotiating pitfalls. What do you believe? What are your goals? What are your resources for support? Faith can be an important resource because family and friends will be far away and usually won’t understand your new lifestyle unless they have a military background. Do you have clear sexual boundaries that you’re prepared to defend under both peer pressure and physical advances? Though the military is addressing sexual assault in the military, it will take time for things to change.
What are you planning to do next?
I plan to write another book about the post-deployment phase of a soldier’s life, possibly fiction. I also plan to continue to “serve” by representing my community through my American Legion Post 663 and other groups that advocate for veteran issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and military sexual trauma (MST).