The Fourth of July is a time for celebration and reflection; however, it can be easy to get lost in the BBQ’s, swimming pools, and festive attire. Miyoko Hikiji reminds us that this day is about something bigger — she has spent an entire year fighting on behalf of our nation’s security! Let’s take a moment this Independence Day to honor her service and recognize all who have fought for freedom.
In 2003, Hikiji was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and served an impressive total of a year. During that time she acted as truck driver, unit correspondent and administrative sergeant – her task list included 70 days worth of supply convoy, security and raid missions in the northwest quadrant alone! With such dedication to duty it is no wonder why Operation Iraqi Freedom achieved its goals.
During her deployment, Miyoko leveraged her journalism degree from the University of Iowa to pen a company newsletter, articles for a hometown newspaper, updates for the unit’s family support group in Iowa and contributions to the squadron’s newsletter. After coming back from Iraq she wrote an extensive account of that experience as part of Gold Star Museum on Camp Dodge Archives at the State Headquarters of both Army and Air National Guard in Iowa.
We were privileged to have a conversation with this remarkable woman about her time in Iraq, the military and why she chose to share her story through writing All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq. She set out on an ambitious mission of both providing insight into what life is like for women serving their country and establishing that they are irreplaceable members of our forces.
After joining the army to fund your college education, what inspired you to 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 earn extra 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.
When you first realized that you were being sent to Iraq, what emotions and thoughts ran through your mind?
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.
In what ways did writing enable you to process and understand 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.
Have you ever felt like you had to push yourself beyond limits, simply because your physical characteristics don’t match the “stereotypical” image of a 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 obstacles do female soldiers in Iraq face on a daily basis? Are they consistently subjected to harassment or discrimination?
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.
Was the romantic relationship with another soldier in your life an emotionally taxing experience?
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 the notion of standing up for your nation signify to you?
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 exciting plans do you have for the future?
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).