Books

In ‘Wolf Season,’ women bear the scars of war

The Kansas City Star

We tend to measure the steep cost of war by casualty counts, by the 4,400 members of the U.S. military who have died in Iraq or the more than 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan.

They are sobering numbers, lives lost or altered. But the ravages don’t end there.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as a fifth of the approximately 2 million veterans who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress. Divorce rates are elevated. So, sadly, are suicide rates, especially for female veterans: 2 1/2 times higher than that of women who aren’t veterans, according to a study released last month by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s a grim consequence of modern war that Columbia University professor and writer Helen Benedict illuminates in her new novel, “Wolf Season.” Set in upstate New York in the wake of a devastating hurricane, it revolves around three women — a traumatized Iraq war veteran, an Iraqi refugee widowed by the war and the abused wife of a U.S. Marine deployed to Afghanistan — and their children.

book cover

Rin Drummond, the vet, is an embittered “pit bull of a woman” who keeps a loaded gun in every room of her home and three wild, inscrutable wolves on her heavily wooded property.

Beth Wycombe, a former high school beauty, works a couple of nondescript jobs while struggling with a surly fifth-grade son and a gathering sense of dread about her husband’s return from Afghanistan on leave.

Naema Jassim, an Iraqi pediatrician and carryover character from Benedict’s previous novel, “Sand Queen,” lost her father and 13-year-old brother in the war and saw her young son maimed in the same car bomb blast that killed her husband. He’d been operating as an interpreter for U.S. forces.

All bear the burdens of war brought home, their lives and struggles intersecting during and after the hurricane. Benedict drew from interviews she had conducted with dozens of female veterans over a three-year period for a revealing nonfiction book, “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” released in 2009. A groundbreaking examination of the abuse of thousands of women in the U.S. military, it inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War” and prompted a class-action suit against former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.

“When I originally went into this, I wasn’t thinking about fiction. I just wanted to tell the story, expose the injustice to which women soldiers were being subjected,” Benedict says.

“But as I interviewed the women and I got to know them better — and this wasn’t only true of women; I interviewed men, too — I noticed that sometimes they would hit a wall where they just couldn’t tell me anymore.

“They would fall silent. They’d have panic attacks. Some of them would start to shake. Some would start to crack jokes, deflect my questions. Certain memories were so awful, so traumatic, that they couldn’t bear to revisit them.

“I realized that when they fell silent, it was in those silences that the real story of how they really were affected and really felt lay. And that private, silent territory is the territory of fiction.”

Helen Benedict photo by Emma O’Connor
Helen Benedict Emma O’Connor

The toll on American soldiers and their families was only part of the story Benedict sought to tell. She also was interested in the costs of war a world away: the mounting civilian casualties in the countries where the fighting is being waged, where families are decimated and millions have been displaced. She sought out the experiences and perspective of Iraqi refugees, most of whom had served as interpreters for the U.S. military or journalists.

“Not being Iraqi or having spent time in Iraq, I had to take quite a big leap to inhabit Naema, and I really needed their help,” Benedict says. “They were amazingly generous. They loved the whole project, the idea of helping me, because it’s so rare for an American to write from the Iraqi point of view.”

Benedict, 64, who lives near Columbia in New York City, recently discussed “Wolf Season,” her literary attention to women in the military and, as she writes, “how very long the reach of war turns out to be.” Excerpts are edited for length.

Q: Where did you search out soldiers to interview for your books? Did you travel to the Middle East?

A: They were all here (in the U.S.); they were all veterans for a very important reason. When you’re active duty, you’re beholden to a gag rule that you sign when you enlist in which you promise not to betray any military secrets and not to talk about a whole lot of things to non-military people. Once you’re separated from the military, then you are free to say whatever you want. 

They also needed to have had some time away (from active duty) for it all to sink in, to think about their experiences and get some distance. Especially the ones who had been traumatized in some way, either by war or sexual assault or both.

Q: How open were they to speaking with you?

A: One thing that was really striking is how eager the women were to talk, for different reasons. They all felt ignored. They all felt disrespected as soldiers, not taken seriously. They’d seen action. They’d been shot at. Some of them had been wounded. But no one was really recognizing it, let alone praising them for their service or thanking them.

Some of them had been raped, and almost all had been sexually harassed pretty relentlessly. And discriminated against. They wanted to talk because they were angry about that.

One other thing that was very striking is that they all wanted me to use their real names for “The Lonely Soldier” because it was their way of fighting back.

Q: What about the Iraqis you interviewed?

A: None of them wanted me to tell their specific stories because they felt (they’d be) in too much danger. One of the things that’s so interesting about Iraqi refugees compared with those from other countries is there’s very little community bonding, or at least there wasn’t around 2010.

Because Saddam, like all dictators, divided the people against each other. You didn’t know if other Iraqi refugees had been Saddam’s henchmen and would turn you in. They didn’t trust each other, and they were afraid. But they were very happy to help me anonymously for a made-up character.

Q: You spent three years listening to stories of horror from military veterans and Iraqi refugees. Did it take a toll on you?

A: Yeah, it’s very upsetting to listen to people who’ve been so hurt. For about a year, I dreamt about war every night.

Of course, it’s nothing compared with what they went through. I was always very aware of that.

At the same time, I’ve also been moved by the individual courage and honesty and generosity that I met in talking with the veterans and Iraqis I came to know. It restored my faith in human nature. People are very resilient even in the face of the most terrible horrors.”

Q: You carried Naema over from “Sand Queen” to “Wolf Season.” Why?

A: I had this idea that I would like to do a series of related books, a trilogy or perhaps only two. I was inspired by (English author) Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy about World War I. I wanted to do something like that with the Iraq War.

As the war evolved … I realized that in no way had Naema’s story ended. I wanted to keep her as a character. In “Sand Queen,” it all takes place in Iraq. By “Wolf Season,” she’s a refugee and a whole lot has happened in between. That reflects what’s happened to a fifth of the entire country in Iraq that has been displaced by the war. I wanted to follow that.

Q: You’ve noted that quite a few veterans like to keep wolves. Why? And how did you discover that?

A: I got the idea of Rin living deep in the woods with wolves from a real person, a real veteran I interviewed on the phone. I never met her, but it ignited my imagination and so I did all this research on wolves. Because if she was going to be looking after them, I needed to know what she had to do. I spent some time in a wolf preserve, watching them for many, many hours.

As I was researching, I kept seeing these ads for programs for veterans and wolves. Veterans were selling wolves or buying them or looking to work with them. And I found out that there are PTSD therapy programs where veterans help rehabilitate wolves that have been wounded in the wild.

I think veterans are sometimes drawn to wolves, too, because they feel so threatened and wolves seem protective. And maybe some are drawn to their wildness and their fierceness. It feels warrior-like to them.

Q: You continue to shine a light on sexual harassment and assault in the military. It’s an issue for Rin. Has the military done a better job of addressing the issue since you wrote “The Lonely Soldier”?

A: I’ve just been researching this, catching up on it. I’m giving a TEDx talk on this very subject in Lithuania. The military did instigate a lot of reforms. It looks like maybe the reporting of rape in the military has gone up a bit, but conviction rates have been declining.

And it has been discovered just recently that a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is 12 times more likely to be punished than the man who commits one. So the reforms aren’t working very well.

The biggest problem is that the military refuses to take these cases out of (its own) chain of command. In some other countries, like Canada, if somebody in the military is accused of sexually assaulting someone else, the case goes to a civilian court. It’s a classic fox-in-the-henhouse thing.

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

An excerpt

Iraq war veteran Louis Martin has driven to the home of a reclusive fellow vet, Rin Drummond, he knows only by fearful reputation. Martin is looking for a 10-year-old boy thought to have roamed near the woman’s property and encountered the wolves she allegedly harbors there.

“For a long moment, Rin and Louis are at an impasse: she on the porch, rifle aimed with sniper precision at the center of his forehead, dogs yowling; he in his car, heels dug into the floor, back pressed against the seat, hands wrapped tight and sweating around the steering wheel.

“He stares at her weapon, adrenaline burning along his veins. Nobody has aimed a rifle at him for years, let alone from this close. A familiar screaming starts up in his head, a screaming he had hoped never to hear again.

“Wishing he had his own M16 so he could shoot the damn dogs quiet, he breathes long and slowly, in and out, his eyes fixed on the rifle. He forces a count of twenty.

One … Two … Her aim pushes between his eyebrows; a hot, bullet-shaped circle.

Three … Four … He will not hit the ground. Will not crack.

Five … Six … The barks slam into his eardrums.

Seven … Eight …

“He reaches twenty. Adds another ten for good measure. Checks himself, eyes still riveted to Rin’s rifle as if they alone could stop a bullet. Only when he has successfully wrestled the screaming back into its lockbox and slid the iron bolt home does he allow himself to roll down his window.

“Torso clammy, fingers clammier, he leans out, the M16 aimed like a blowtorch at his head. ‘Ma’am, lower your weapon, please!’ 

From Chapter 4 of “Wolf Season” by Helen Benedict, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

Join the discussion

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Wolf Season” by Helen Benedict at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, in the offices of Warriors Ascent, a veterans support and healing organization headquartered in Suite 304 of the historic Livestock Exchange Building, 1600 Genessee St.

Benedict will join the discussion via Skype. If you would like to attend, email Stover at kaitestover@kclibrary.org.

Benedict also will join UMKC assistant professor and fellow writer Whitney Terrell in a discussion of Women and War at the library’s Plaza Branch at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14. Terrell’s most recent novel, “The Good Lieutenant,” revolves around a female Army officer in Iraq.

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