Laura Westley talks — and sings — about going to war as a virgin
by KEVIN KNODELL
In the spring of 2003 Laura Westley went to war a virgin. The young Army officer had grown up in a strict conservative Christian household and had been a leader in evangelical organizations as a cadet at West Point. For most of her life, she’d been taught that sexual desire was sinful — and that she had to save herself for her husband, who would someday be the most important person in her life.
In Iraq, her world changed. The men she served with were often profane and vulgar. Morality wasn’t as black and white as she’d thought. She also found herself having strong — and deeply confusing — feelings for some of the soldiers she served with. She realized that she knew little about men or sex … or even life.
As frightening as it was at first, Westley says she ultimately found the experience liberating. She reinvented herself.
Today, Westley is a writer and veteran’s advocate. She’s written for The Washington Post, The Hill and Foreign Policy. And she chronicled her deployment in her self-published memoir War Virgin, which has since turned into a traveling musical theater production of the same name — with Wesley herself performing as the narrator.
War Is Boring talked to Westley about her experiences in Iraq, the expanding role of women in the military, mental health and the future of War Virgin.
WIB: What made you choose to join the military?
L.W.: I feel like that’s a loaded question. I definitely wanted to serve something beyond myself. I didn’t want to live an ordinary life. I couldn’t picture myself going off to a normal college and getting a job and having a family. That just never seemed to suit me, so there was definitely an aspect of wanting to serve something beyond myself.
I think it was also about wanting to get my father to love me more because I never felt unconditional love from him. I was basically raised to be his project and he really wanted to have a son and he never had a son and I was the first-born. The military was subconsciously the number-one thing that I could do to prove that I was a boy to him.
WIB: But as you very quickly found out at West Point, you were not a boy.
L.W.: (Laughs.) Exactly. I didn’t look like one. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t accepted as one. Being at West Point, it definitely felt like the right place to do something dramatically different, where there was a lot of honor associated with the kind of work that that entails with serving.
WIB: And not long after graduation, you found yourself at war.
L.W.: Yeah, so I graduated from West Point on June 2, 2001. I know that theoretically anybody who joins the military — like, war is theoretical. But when I was at West Point, all of our instructors, most of the instructors, came from the Desert Storm era. That was such a really short-lived engagement, and so being in an actual war setting was never on my radar and I really don’t think it was on the radar of a lot of my classmates.
So I graduated on June 2, 2001 and then three months later 9/11 happens. That just completely changed everything.
WIB: What made you decide to write War Virgin?
L.W.: There were a number of things. First of all, I find it hard to identify with a lot of war stories that are out there. Whether it’s from World War II, whether it’s from Vietnam, any kind of personal narrative that’s out there, any kind of memoir, even ones that were coming from Afghanistan in the early days, I just found that their experiences were completely different from my experience.
I know it’s also because I’m a woman, but I also feel like the actual combat experience that I had was reflective of a lot of people and these kinds of stories just aren’t out there. So I feel like in the literature there’s, like, a dearth of narratives that are reflective of a much larger population of the military.
I feel like the main stories that get published, whether it’s in a book form or whether it’s in film, they’re of these quintessential war heroes storming the hill with their troops and receiving valorous awards. That is reflective of such a tiny percentage of the military population and so I wanted to educate the public with a more relatable story.
I also wanted to provide something from a woman’s perspective because there’s so few stories out there — and I really hope that by publishing War Virgin, that more women will come forward and share their stories, too. Because each and every day, more women, the percentage of women in the military increases. And it’s history. It’s what’s happening. It’s history, it’s society — and women need to have their stories out there, too.
I also felt like I had a string of really absurd experiences, too, that are even absurd for a military service member. Most likely because I’m a woman and because I was really naïve and because I was a very religiously conservative virgin with a very repressed upbringing, and the way the military and the way being in Iraq itself completely changed who I am. I felt like that really needed to be told.
I’m curious if any other people have gone through that experience, as well. Not just women, but men, too. When they’re facing death, if they’re like, “Wait a minute, I’m not living the life that I’m really meant to live,” and if they go through that kind of existential change. I want to put it out there — and also as a way to connect with people.
WIB: What led you to use musical theater as avenue to tell your story?
L.W.: When I started writing my book, I found that when I relayed the stories to friends, I had them in stitches. I’m also a natural performer and singer, so four years ago I created a one-woman show as a way to entertain the general public with excerpts from my narrative.
Two years later, I was introduced to a theater director who thought War Virgin would translate well to a full-fledged stage play, so we started working together.
Performing the stories in this manner lends to a riveting and fun experience. I enjoy expressing myself through multiple outlets, whether it’s an in-depth memoir, serious op-ed or theatrical production. These different formats resonate with different people.
One benefit is that traditional theater-goers who may not know much about the military have an opportunity to experience it in a way that really speaks to them. And it gets military members and veterans, who may not be inclined to go to theater, to go.
WIB: Sex and sexuality are obviously a thread that runs through the book and the show, and even the title War Virgin is a wink and nod toward sex. Why was that such an emphasis for you in telling this story?
L.W.: I think it’s because it’s been such a large emphasis in my life. I think it’s because initially my father — it’s just the way it’s been — my father completely obsessed about my sexual purity and warned me that I would lose the “sparkle in my eye” if I lost my virginity.
That message only continued to be promoted at West Point within their evangelical Christian community. I became really involved in Bible studies. I was a church leader. I was the president of the choir.
And it felt like in Bible studies, that instead of us focusing on global issues like famine, poverty, genocide, our primary focus was on sexual purity. It was just like a continuation, so external sources made sexual repression such a big theme in my life.
Then it continued on in the Army. Because once you go into the Army, I discovered, yes, there’s still a conservative culture in there, but there’s also this really bro culture with a lot of dirty jokes and being a goody-two-shoes Christian girl wasn’t going to fly, especially with having to go to war with my fellow officers and soldiers.
Ironically, we get to Kuwait before going into Iraq, and my commander was completely obsessed with enforcing general order number one. So again, another external force brings in this ridiculous obsession with enforcing sexual repression. That only made the environment even more sexually charged.
For me, I was completely taken back. When I left to go to war, I had no idea that sex and sexual tension and sexual relations would every even come into play.
I was completely flabbergasted, but it because such a predominant thing in my unit because of the commander’s leadership and because of what he emphasized — and then even among my war buddies. I didn’t understand that there could be such strong feelings between someone who promises to take a bullet for you and has your life in their hand. That kind of loyalty can really confuse the feeling that you have for someone.
Also just the repressed culture of the Middle East and the way women are treated there. We’re supposedly liberating them and I felt like the whole experience of being there was liberating me. Again, more external factors that just tied this theme together of sexual repression and liberation.
WIB: I’m going to ask a question that’s probably going to sound like more of a challenge than it’s meant to. A lot of what we just talked about with sexual dynamics is an argument that’s frequently used as a case for why women shouldn’t be on the battlefield, at Ranger School or in combat-arms units. Do you think that the sexual tension and the confusion you’re talking about pose a problem?
L.W.: I completely understand the question and I don’t take it as a challenge. I’m glad you asked it. I think that, while there is the potential for sexual attraction in a combat setting — which could be dangerous — I don’t think that the answer to that is to eliminate the entire female species from serving in the military. That’s just not the right answer.
I think that … we can be aware of it and, just like anything in the military, train and prepare for it and be cognizant of it and then have the tools to deal with it in that situation. Then I think we are more equipped to deal with it and not let it become a distraction. Or if it does happen, at least people are aware of it.
So that’s another huge goal of War Virgin … you know that I’m going to put it out there, [that] I’m going to teach people that this is an actual issue that happens in war. A lot more often than people care to admit. So if I put it out there and I can start a dialogue, then we can have a discussion. People can be prepared for these experiences.
I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other people. For them to get into a dangerous war situation and then to be like, “Wow, what are these feelings? What is this sexually-charged environment all about?”
I don’t think the answer is to eliminate women. I think the answer is to have a really open dialogue about it and learn how to deal with it.
WIB: Jumping off of that — when you see women graduating from Ranger School right now and see all these career fields opening up, how does that make you feel as a woman veteran?
L.W.: I went to both of those Ranger School graduations. The women that graduated are West Point graduates, so the West Point women, we’re an alumni organization, we went to support them. I think it’s incredible. It was like a big celebration. I equated it to like a man being on the moon. For it being such a significant accomplishment and I am thrilled that these women have done what used to be considered the impossible.
Which it actually wasn’t, because I know of women that are in the initial graduating classes of West Point that would of been capable of graduating Ranger School, they just weren’t [allowed] to. So I’m glad that they have shattered the notion that women can’t perform to that level — because they certainly can. I think it’s really important to have absolutely no barriers for women to be able to serve in whatever careers they want to have. I fully support it.
That doesn’t mean every single woman is going to want to be a Ranger in the same [way] that not every single man is going to want to be in infantry and not every single man is going to want to be a Ranger. As long as there are no barriers, then letting women accomplish whatever feats that they want to in their careers — I think you have to have that.
WIB: Speaking of West Point, I read somewhere that War Virgin is going to be performed at West Point. Is that true?
WIB: Have you talked to the people at West Point? What’s the reception there like? Is there any sort of nervousness?
L.W.: Not that I’m aware of. My 15-year reunion is at that time, so I’m performing my show. It’s an unofficial event. It’s not like it’s an official West Point-sponsored event. The Thayer Hotel that’s at West Point, they’re giving me a ballroom to be able to perform my show. It’s open to the general public. I have let people at West Point know about it, but there’s been nothing official.
I haven’t received any kind of concerns or negative feedback. I’ve only just received a lot of accolades. There are definitely some people that have said, “Wow, you’re really bold for doing something like this.”
But I look at it as a celebration, because my message isn’t to, like, tear down West Point — it’s just I make fun of everything, of the absurdities of everything. Whether it’s growing up in a crazy church, or having to burn your shit in the war. There’s a lot of crazy things and West Point has those same kind of absurd experiences, so it’s really a way to bring us together and give us an opportunity to reminisce and laugh.
And if there are any naysayers — I’ll find out when I’m there, I guess.
WIB: The cover image of your book, and one of the more iconic costumes of your show is based on a photo of you in Iraq with your shirt off and stripped to your bra. What’s the story behind that photo?
L.W.: That photo was taken right before I came home. I was thrilled to be alive and felt victorious at surviving a war. It’s kind of like when soccer player Mia Hamm threw her shirt off after winning the World Cup in 1999. I was ready to start a new life back home — and not be a goody-two-shoes virgin anymore.
WIB: What advice would you give to any young women or men thinking about joining the military today?
L.W.: I think it’s important that regardless of what the military tells you as far as how you should look and how you should behave and how you should act — well first of all, before embarking, if it is really contradictory to your character and the way you express yourself, don’t join the military. Only join the military if you’re going to be able to fit a mold.
Now, I’m trying to help the military. I want to open a dialogue where the military doesn’t force and impose such a strict mold on people, where people feel like they have to be extremely repressed and tough and macho. I hope that the military can modify the way it pressures people to look and act.
With that being said, if it still is the way it was today, I want people to really carefully consider whether or not you’re going to be capable of conforming to certain standards.
I want them to understand that if they do, it can have serious psychological impacts, where you can be in therapy for the rest of your life. But if you still choose to embark on a journey in the military, it is really important to have outlets where you can really be yourself.
Whether that’s in your community, or in your family, or find something artistic to do. Find something where you still have an outlet to be really creative and really expressive, because I think that’s going to be key to remembering who you truly are, if the military doesn’t accept that.
WIB: That actually is a good jumping-off point for something else I wanted to ask about. Could you talk a little bit about your mental-health advocacy?
L.W.: Sure. I like to be very candid about the mental-health struggles that I’ve had. I was taken aback by them because when I got back from Iraq in 2003, I still had three years left on my military service obligation. I didn’t recognize any struggles, but I knew that I was different and it really came to a head when I became a civilian.
I like to speak very candidly about what I went through as far as depression, anxiety, PTSD — and I did have a suicide attempt in the beginning of 2014. I just want to be very candid about what I experience and the measures that I have taken in order to feel a lot better and to be a happy and productive member of society.
It’s not easy. I think every day I have to make certain choices in order to be a happier person. I also work with mental-health therapists. I just finished writing a chapter that’s going to go in an academic and narrative textbook …
I’ve contributed this chapter that talks about all the measures that I take — like alternative health measures — in order to feel better. Whether that’s yoga, acupuncture, different kinds of exercise. I want to be really candid and I want to put a face to that struggle because it’s not necessarily … well, I know it’s really hard for veterans to talk about it.
There is a lot more dialogue and there is a lot more awareness, but I just want to put a face to what that struggle’s like and to encourage people to get help and to not be embarrassed to get help.
I also want to teach mental-health providers what to look out for. Because I think there’s so many mental-health providers that are really interested in helping veterans and a lot of times it’s a burden on veterans to have to explain their unique military experiences to these mental-health providers. … I’m hoping that my War Virgin narrative gives them insight so they can better understand their patients.
WIB: You recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to expand the War Virgin show and travel to more cities. What’s the future of the show?
L.W.: I have a Go Fund Me. War Virgin is self-published and this tour is self-published. Thankfully I have a show-director who’s also been acting like an associate producer, helping me do all the work to coordinate it. I have put all of my own money into everything. So that involves renting theaters, advertising, travel expenses. Because it’s not just me performing. I have six other actors in the show and then I have my show-director. It’s been all my own money.
Basically the tour that I created for this fall is what I’m able to contribute out of my own pocket, but on a regular basis I’m always asked, “When are you coming to this city, when are you coming to that city?”
I am willing to go anywhere. I want to travel, I want to expand this, but in order to do so I’m definitely going to need to attract producers and tour-people that know more of what they’re doing. So I started this Go Fund Me in order to get people to contribute and to [cover] the costs to be able to take War Virgin wherever it will go.
I’ll even go to the Middle East. I’ll go overseas and perform there.