The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Soldier: A Woman Under Fire - Information for Writers with Michelle Dunne



Fiona - 
Let's start with an introduction Can you give the readers some of your professional background and little about how you started writing?

Michelle -
Sure! So I was brought up in a house where books were devoured by everyone. We're a fiction loving family, so I've always loved escaping into a good book. 

What prompted me to start writing? Well, it was more of a challenge. I suppose I always had stories to tell about places I'd been, things I'd done, or more often than not, things that went horribly wrong for me. And one night I was regaling a group with another one of these stories when one of them (who's heard quite a few of these stories) said, "you need to write a book." I thought, "why not?" I started the next day and never looked back. That was around 6 years ago.


Amazon Link $2.99
Fiona - 
Why don't we start with the books you've written?

Michelle - 
My first book "Did Someone Order Cactus?" which was based on 3 young women, preparing to leave home and go out into the world for the first time. Needless to say - nothing works out as they'd planned. But then, when does life go to plan! This book was a huge
learning curve for me and I was very
lucky to gain some interest
from some agents and one
publisher who took the time
throughout the process of
this book to actually critique each draft, which is extremely rare considering how many submissions every agent gets! Finally I was signed by an agent in the UK. But although I finished the book, I didn't quite feel that the story was finished, so I went onto the second book in what became "The Turbulent Series" - It's Just Turbulence. Here the characters grew along with me. It's 6 years later for them as well and guess what ... life still refuses to abide by their plans!

Amazon Link $3.99
I have to say, I'm in love with my 3 heroines and I'm finding it hard to leave them behind now that I'm working on something else, but mind you, I'm being drawn back into military life with a whole new cast of characters in my new novel Playing the Game and I can't wait to see where that takes me.







Fiona - 
But literature is not your life-style choice. Your job was antithetical to reading a book - you were living the adventure. Can you tell us about your job?






Michelle -
When I was coming towards the end of my years at secondary (high school), so many different career choices were thrown at me and none of them really got my juices flowing. None of them excited me in the least little bit. At the time, I was rowing at an All-Ireland level, I trained 6 days a week and the idea of giving it all up to sit at a desk all day seemed ridiculous to me. So I applied for the army.

At the time there were almost 1000 applicants for 60 places. I was lucky enough to get one of those places. And on my first day as a recruit, I met some of the most amazing people I could ever hope to work with.

During my career I went from recruit to infantry soldier, to UN Peacekeeper in Lebanon, to instructor back here in Ireland.




Fiona -
I didn't realize that being in the Irish army was so incredibly prestigious - what about you stood out to the recruiters, do you think?

Michelle -
Yes, it's actually quite difficult to get into the army here - it's regarded as the type of career where you'll experience things that none of your civilian friends will ever get to experience. What's not to love about that! I'm not sure what made me stand out - I think they looked for people with a strong sporting/athletic background and a lot of enthusiasm for the life. I'd also joined the reserve defense force's (FCA) the year before with my sights firmly set on the permanent defense forces.


Fiona - 
So there you were training with your fellow recruits - how many women?


Michelle - 

There were 5 women and 27 men in my platoon - that was for around 5 months. Then we all went our separate ways. I went to an infantry unit with one of the women from my platoon. We were the only 2 women in that barracks when we arrived.

The thing with life in the army is that you're never in the same place with the same people for very long. You're always moving around doing different things. 

But if someone asked me what it was like being a woman in the army, I'd say it was a mixed bag of everything! Unbelievably tough - sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, sometimes both. There were days when I wanted to drop everything, go home and curl up in a ball. But then there were times when I couldn’t imagine myself ever wanting to do anything else. For me, being in the army was one of the best experiences of my life and working with the UN topped it all. 

I formed strong bonds with those serving alongside me and to this day, they’re still some of the best friends I’ll ever have. Of course I was faced with some men who resented the fact that I was there and some who even went out of their way to make things, “less than pleasant” for me. I suppose you could call them bullies. The odd one would show his open contempt, not for me personally, but for me as part of what he perceived to be a wider problem (i.e. women in the army).Then you had the odd coward who’d scratch his feelings onto a wall, rather than to my face, but luckily, they seemed to be as much a minority as I was, and I was surrounded by enough fantastic people to just about cancel them out. 

What I learned about the army is that you’re an outsider only for as long as it takes them to get to know your true character. If you have a strong character, then the vast majority will accept you as one of their own, and I felt that I was accepted, at least by enough people that I didn’t care about the rest. But I do think that, to be a woman in the army, you should possess the ability to not let one negative over-shadow the many positives, if that makes sense? Generally speaking, I don’t take things too personally, especially from people who know nothing about me. So if you have a similar trait, then man, woman, it doesn’t matter, I would happily recommend a career in the army.

Fiona - 
And you were with the U.N. Can you give me a snapshot of life there?



Michelle -
With the UN, I was posted with B-Company in a little black spot in South Lebanon that was always caught up in the cross-fire between the Hezbollah and the SLA (South Lebanese Army).

For the majority of my tour in that little camp the male to female ratio was 1 (me) : roughly 80 – 100 men, but contrary to popular opinion, it didn’t matter for a minute because no-one ever made an issue out of it (at least not that I was made aware of.) I had my own room (everyone else shared, 2 to a room) I had my own toilet/shower at the back of the camp - There were 2 women stationed in that same camp as me before I arrived (we were their relief) so actually, they were ready for me. Of the hundred or so men that I was stationed with in B-Coy, some I knew since day one in the army, some were stationed with me in my home unit, while others I met for the first time when we formed up as a company 2 weeks before flying out to Lebanon. Out of all of them, there was probably one or two who had a problem with me being there, but I really couldn’t tell you anything about them. Not because I don’t want to, but because they were truly un-memorable. Once again the good massively outweighed the bad. Of course there were some general pains in the ass, but there’s bound to be when you’re living in each other’s pockets for months at a time. Overall I can honestly say that I would travel to the ends of the Earth with most of those people and would be happy to do so.

Fiona - 
How did your day go while there in South Lebanon? 







Michelle - 
I worked in signals in the Comcen (Communications center). The comcen was a tiny, room/bunker, half underground. It had a tiny, Perspex sliding window looking out at a wall of earth, but if you looked up, you could see the boots of people walking past outside. Like everything else, it operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Everything in our area of operations had to be very closely monitored, including people, vehicles etc. We also had to monitor the Hezbollah and SLA compounds in our area. The gist of our job was to communicated between each of our posts, outposts, patrols, check-points etc, and log every movement, every noise & every whisper. When we, or any area in our region, came under fire, anyone who could see where the fire was coming from or being aimed at, or where it was landing, called a shoot report (shoot-rep) into the comcen. We marked each location on the map and relayed the information to HQ. Situation reports (sit-rep) damage reports, injuries/medical evacuations (med-evac) were all called in like this.

The comcen was a hub and I loved working there. We had mortar rounds explode directly outside, sending mounts of earth pouring in the little window on top of us. They struck the building that we worked in. They injured the guys patrolling the roof over our heads, but the comcen never took a breath during these times. 

For obvious reasons, this was when we were at our busiest. You could freak out later in your own time but while the s**t was hitting the fan, you had to be calm, you HAD to multi-task, and you had to ignore the noise of the explosions and gun fire while you worked. Then when things quietened down and groundhog was lifted (groundhog is an indeterminate length of time in the bunker), the comcen crew had to go out and check our communication lines and equipment for damage, and then repair/salvage what we could. 

Likewise if the comms equipment was damaged on any of our outposts, we’d need to take a trip out there to repair/replace it. But it wasn’t all go, go, go. There were times when boredom was your biggest enemy. But that was another good thing about working in the comcen – it’s where a lot of bored soldiers went to pass their time. There was always someone there, happy to accept a cup of tea and shoot the breeze until the next firework display. 

We also had landline communication to each of our outposts and the person in the observation tower on each post would often call for a chat to pass the time while keeping their eyes trained on the hills, roads and compounds all around them. I got to know people very well through these time-killing chats. When I wasn’t on duty, time was passed gossiping (this is the most popular past-time among bored soldiers), playing cards, reading, watching bad quality pirated DVDs, or visiting the shops owned by the local people, who were extremely welcoming and quick to offer a cup of Chai-Tea whenever I called. 

Like I said, everyone was assigned a certain role in a UN camp, but then there were universal duties like for example, every UN vehicle that left camp, had to have a driver (obviously) and an armed passenger for security. This passenger was whoever was free at the time. I usually volunteered for this job whenever I had a day off or a few hours to spare. Despite the dangers of driving around in Lebanon, it was pretty much the only way to have a change of scenery.




Typical day In the army, there’s really no such thing as a typical day. It depends on what you’re doing or what’s going on at the time. 

You’re always training for something, so every day there’ll be some sort of physical training, weapons training, preparing for tactical exercises, or doing other duties like 24 hour guard duty or cash-in-transit duties. Or you could be on a random security assignment where your landed in the middle of no-where, or half way up the side of a mountain and left there for days because ... who knows! Maybe we’re there because we haven’t done anything for a few days and the powers that be don’t want us getting bored. Like I said – no such thing as a typical day. 

With the UN though, days are much more structured. There’s a long list of things that have to get done every day. Roads must be swept for mines, water must be delivered to each of the outposts, weapons must be cleaned, camp must be cleaned, equipment must be maintained, everyone has to stay fit, and everyone’s assigned duties must be carried out. Most days there was some military activity to keep us on our toes, some days much worse than others, although most of the serious attacks took place by night or before dawn, so full, un-interrupted night’s sleep weren’t all that common. Aside from all that though, there was still plenty of time to get bored and sometimes get on each other’s nerves (being stuck in a very small camp with the same people 24/7 for 6 months will see to that). 

We made friends with the locals and we killed time as best we could. In the evenings we had a canteen (little galvanised structure) that served one type of beer. We also had several very talented musicians in camp who brought their instruments with them. This was home to some of the liveliest music sessions I’ve ever heard. It’s also where I spent my 21st birthday surrounded by Peacekeepers from all over Ireland, Ghana and Switzerland, who weren’t all that far away from us and were invited over for the occasion. Naturally enough, the party started in the canteen and ended in the bunker, but memorable none the less!

Fiona- 
What challenged or worried you?

Michelle - 
From the time you begin your career in the army, you touch on just about everything and get some basic training in most areas. I was an infantry soldier, promoted early to the rank of corporal which saw me becoming one of the first female instructors to train new recruits. As much as I loved it, it was seriously tough and a lot of pressure. 

When you’re training or on exercises with your own platoon, it’s pretty much a given that everyone struggles with something at some point, whether it’s physical strength (in my case), mental strength, sleep deprivation, hunger, blisters the size of golf balls – whatever. My point is – everyone is getting screamed at and pushed and generally lambasted for their best efforts, but all the while knowing that the 30 other agonized people around them, have their back no matter what. You’re all in the same boat, pushing each other to do better. But as an instructor, under NO circumstances can you appear to be affected by the cold, the tiredness, the hunger or the lack of sleep. You certainly can’t be beaten by a blister, no matter how big! 

I cope alright with these things, but where the pressure came from for me, was the fact that I could not demand that a recruit do something that I was physically unable to do myself and for me, this was a source of constant anxiety. 

I also had to find my own way of getting my point across. It’s always the way with male instructors that they shout and scream and spit until there is no doubt in your mind that they will murder you if you don’t do exactly what is needed, and on my NCO course, this is what I was trained to do. But I’m not a naturally loud person and my voice is obviously quite feminine, so to me, I always thought I sounded ... just wrong. I was actually trying to make myself sound like a man which was ridiculous, and this was confirmed when I first stood in front of my new platoon of recruits and screamed blue murder at them ... not one of them looked the least bit worried. I also heard a snicker coming from the ranks, so clearly that method wasn’t going to work for me. 

What I developed instead was an eerie calm and a slightly deranged smile, a combination that worked well together because it was usually followed by a horrific task or punishment. It actually didn’t take long before those young recruits respected my authority as much as the male instructors. At least to my face they did. I couldn’t tell you what was said after I walked away, but having been a recruit once myself, I know for a fact that almost ALL instructors had the piss taken out of them when they were out of earshot. That’s a given. 


Fiona - Excellent! Ohmygod I'm laughing so hard! I would pay good money for a picture of your specialized smile and the whimpering recruit on the receiving end

Michelle -
It's a little rusty now, but I'm sure I could still pull it out of the bag if I needed to.

Fiona-
Do you have children? I think you need to have a mom course and teach them how to smile - so in public their kids blanch and start quaking

Michelle -
I don't have kids, but I actually do have that effect on them sometimes!

Fiona - 
Most excellent - as the survivor of two grown children and now in full battle mode with my next set of teens - every tool of authority is wielded for survival's sake. So go on with your story...

Michelle -
I always had a nervous, almost sick feeling in the pit of my stomach thinking about what the day’s physical training would bring. Would I be fast enough? Would I be able to get over that obstacle without help? If not, how stupid would I look? Because suddenly I wasn’t working alongside the men and women that I began my career with, or those that I served overseas with – those who knew and respected me for all the strengths that I do have. Now I was working alongside 5 other male instructors, who were working with me for the first time and who were skeptical at best about having a female instructor with them. And of course there were the 30 new recruits, who would all form their own opinions about me – none of which mattered. I was more concerned about my peers and the fact that all eyes were on me, the new female instructor. 

My time with the UN in Lebanon was very different from this though. In those situations, there’s no-one screaming in your face (or vice versa). This is not a training exercise. There you’re expected to know exactly what you’re doing at all times, and you’re expected to do it without ever having to be told.

Fiona - 
One thing I always like to touch on is the media and novels that are out there. One would hope the writer did good research and is representing everything correctly. As a female soldier are there blatant mistakes that have become stereotypical?  

Michelle - 
I wouldn’t say that I notice anything incorrect as such, but I have to say I’m really tired of seeing the same 2 female soldier stereotypes:
 1) The woman who is HUGELY discriminated against by 
     everyone, bar maybe one, who also becomes a love interest,
     and as a result her life is a living hell. 
2) The “pain in the ass”, “ball-breaker” on a gung-ho mission to
    prove that she’s better than everyone around her. 

I’m not saying that these two characters don’t exist in real life. In fact, I’m very sure that they do, and I don’t have a problem with them. I just never met either of them. 

With regard to discrimination in the army, of course it happens. In fact there’s no shortage of A**holes in the army, as I’m sure is the case with any large institution. But it’s just the scale on which it’s portrayed in movies. I can only go by my own experiences (in the Irish army) and the experiences of the women that I served with and yes, we’ve all encountered guys like that in our time, and yes, it did grind down very small number of women that I know of. But dare I say that not all women (or men) are suited to a career in the army, and if that’s the case, then yes, it could be profoundly upsetting. 

Discrimination of any kind has become such a massive no-no in the defense forces that it makes it much easier to nip it in the bud before it gets to the point where it affects your work and your life. I have no doubt that in the early days, when women were just being integrated into the military, that life for them would have been very different, but whoever writes these characters now needs to move with the times and accept that the vast majority are capable of working very well together. 

Now onto the “ball-breaker”! Again, I have no doubt that she exists, but again going by my own experiences, the army is very, very much team orientated, where every person on that team has their strengths and weaknesses. These strengths are utilized at every opportunity while you’re forced to work on your weaknesses. To give an example of what I mean – If we’re on an exercise and I struggle to get over a 10ft wall with a 90lb pack on my back – the guys around me will get me over that wall (one way or another) and they won’t do it just to prove how much stronger than me they are. They do it so that I don’t get left behind. A couple of months later, we’re in Lebanon – away from family and loved ones. Our camp is being pummeled on a nightly basis, we haven’t slept in days and stress levels are through the roof. One of the lads comes to the comcen. He’s freaking out about things that might be happening at home, and he has a melt-down through sheer exhaustion. I’ll take as much of his work from him as I possibly can. I’ll be his sounding board, I’ll speak to his family for him if needed. I’ll cover for him while he gets some sleep, and I won’t leave him too far out of my sight until I know that his head is cleared ... and not because I want to prove that I’m stronger than him ... 

So now that the script-writers have bombarded us with the down-trodden and the gung-ho “female soldiers”, why not give us a real woman who also happens to be a soldier? Or is that just boring? 


Fiona - 
Next is our traditional ThrillWriting question - Do you have a scar/harrowing story at the ready?

Michelle -

What always stands out in my mind and still haunts me every time I see something on the news about the war in the Middle-East, are the local people who just want to live their lives and raise their families. 

While in Lebanon there were several little shops near our camp. Most were run by young Lebanese men, and we spent a lot of time chatting with them and got to know them quite well. Most were also very active with Hezbollah so they were kept at arm’s length. But there was also one family living just outside the gates of our camp, husband, wife, daughter (maybe 9/10 years old) and son (around 6 years old) They had a shop on one side of the road and their little house was on the other side. The wife Aala was one of the kindest, warmest most welcoming women I’d ever met. Up until just before we came home, I assumed that Aala was aged in her early 50’s – turns out she was 28, just aged by the life that she was living. 

Her husband beat her regularly and yet she always had a smile on her face when I called to see her in the shop. Once he beat her so badly that she ran from the house. He chased her with a stick of some sort and continued to beat her in the street. Some of the lads went and ... had a quiet word with him. It was little consolation.

They also ran a laundry service out of their house for B-Coy at a cost of $6 per bag. Of course we could send our laundry away to get done for free by the UN, but we were the only source of income for the locals, so almost all of us used their service. But this was a catch 22. On the one hand, if we didn’t give them our laundry, their income would diminish. On the other hand, it broke my heart when I called to their house and saw little 9/10 year old Aysha (their daughter) scrubbing our uniforms by hand over a metal tub while Aala worked the shop. In fact, Aysha worked like a Trojan, while her brother was never expected to do anything for himself. Amazingly Aysha not only spoke fluent English, but she spoke with a perfect and genuine Irish accent. Her mother said that it was because she’d grown up with Irish soldiers, and it was all she knew.

At Christmas every year, Irish soldiers visit each of the schools and orphanages in the area. We bring Santa with us in an APC (armoured personnel carrier), and we deliver gifts of toys, books & food to the kids. I was lucky enough to go that year, and I met Aysha in her school, and it really hit me, just how amazing a childhood I’d had compared to these poor kids. 

Their school was heavily damaged by artillery and riddled with bullet holes and yet every child in there had a beaming smile on their face when they saw us. Most of the girls by-passed Santa and his male helpers altogether and surrounded me, playing with my hair, holding my hand, touching my face ... it was amazing, but so so sad. I attached a photo of me (above) with Aysha taken outside her school on that Christmas day. 

I spoke to Aala about it the next day over a glass of Chai, about the school and life in general for her and Aysha. She told me that her dream would be for Aysha to find love and happiness, to be safe. Then she lowered her head and said, “maybe not here, in this life...” 

When I left the shop an hour later, I looked at their little house with a large bullet hole in the gable end. I thought about a 9 year old girl working as hard as Aysha did at home in Ireland – her school being shot at on a weekly basis. I thought about that girl being forced into a loveless marriage to a man who wouldn’t respect her, let alone love her ... there would be outrage. It simply would not be allowed to happen and yet here it was common place. In fact it was normal.

I understand the meaning of cultural differences, but I find that heart breaking. The women and girls of the Middle East have to endure life as second class citizens AS WELL AS trying to survive one war after another. Both Aala and Aysha hugged me and cried when I was preparing to leave Lebanon, and it gutted me to have to leave them behind. Now I picture all the families just like them every time I watch the news, and I can’t help wondering what became of them.


Fiona - 
That was very poignant. Thank you for sharing and for this wonderful information. 


Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


4 comments:

  1. Wow! I think I will remember the story you shared about Aysha for a long time. Very powerful.

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  2. Thank you Lynn. It's hard to imagine, isn't it!

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  3. What experiences you have had, amazing. The story of Aysha is most compelling.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Teresa. I do still wonder about her.

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