By: Yadira Y. Caro
War Virgin is not an archetypal war narrative of how protagonist vanquishes the enemy through a series of battles. Instead, Laura Westley describes her personal path as a military grad and recruit. The path covers her strict upbringing in Florida, attending the U.S West Point Military Academy, where she graduated in 2001, and her deployment to Iraq in 2003. She describes her day to day: the arduous and the redundant tasks, the restrictive discipline, the expected gender roles, the temptation and the harassment, all done with humor and candor. It also addresses life after the war and mental health challenges she confronted.
War Virgin was also a musical play, where Laura performs as singer and actor. These artistic endeavors helped Laura to raise awareness of the many struggles experienced by soldiers and veterans.
Aside from being an author and actor/singer, Laura has a seasoned IT career. She is currently a Technology Services Senior Manager at Johnson and Johnson. I asked Laura about her years in the military, her motivations to write War Virgin, and what she has learned along the way.
What made you go to West Point?
I kind of joke when people ask me that, ‘Do you have a leather couch for me to lay on and talk about my daddy issues?’ (laughs) I think a lot of it could have stemmed from the fact that my father really wanted a son and he got two daughters. I was the first born and I felt like his love wasn’t unconditional. Whenever I would do something that was more perceived as masculine, whether it was excel in sports or do something more traditionally masculine, I just felt like I got more positive affirmation from him.
I remember when he was reading from U.S. News and World Report an excerpt about West Point and I just liked the way he was trying to paint the picture ‘imagine you doing that Laura.’ So I think at a deep level I thought I’d be more accepted and loved. Other reason I think is because it seemed like the ultimate challenge. I used to be all about doing the absolute most difficult things in life. I’m definitely not that way anymore (laughs).
” I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. “Laura Westley
What was one of the greatest challenges you had there?
I think the hardest part is sleep deprivation. There were definitely some academic geniuses there, but I felt like the people that did the best overall were able to survive on such little sleep. To me that would be the absolute number one struggle: it’s just not having enough hours in the day to get everything done and then also get a good night sleep.
You spent your time in Iraq. How long were you there for?
I was deployed for seven months: I deployed in January 2003, in Kuwait in the middle of a desert, in a camp made up with tents and porta potties. I was there for two months and then I was a part of the Invasion. I went in March 21, 2003, and then came home in August.
From your experience there, how much did your expectation differ from what was going on there?
I could not believe that we were at war. It was really surreal. I think my top expectation would have been preparedness and to take war more seriously. We didn’t train sufficiently, the gear that we had wasn’t sufficient. Even the way that we were making plans and the way information was disseminated just seemed like a big joke to me.
I remember wanting to go practice the range on my weapon more and my supervisor being like ‘No, you need to work on the spreadsheet for me,’ and me getting into a fight with him since he just would not let me go. I remember that was the first time I publicly cried, because I was seriously worried about needing potentially to use my weapon, not being skilled enough at it, and dying because he wanted me to work on some spreadsheet. We just didn’t seem to take it very seriously, and at the same time, it’s like most of the people, especially the leadership, conveyed that they could not wait to go to war. They were glorifying it, but they weren’t taking the right measures to properly prepare for it.
You detail a lot of your experiences in your book War Virgin. What made you want to write that book?
I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. I feel like now with technology and social media, and now that some people have put books out there, I see the real authentic stories are more accessible, but they didn’t really exist before. I got so sick of every military story being written by some male who’s this stereotypical hero charging off the platoon and winning victory. I feel like that’s actually only a tiny percentage of who serves.
I feel like my experiences, as absurd as they were, might actually be more common than those other experiences, like the boredom that I talk about, and the lack of preparedness, or how you’re confused during war and information’s not being passed along and you don’t know what the hell is going on. Another really common theme, I think, is the feeling of wondering whether or not you’re actually being a productive member of the military, if you actually should be there and questioning your role instead of just being like, the stereotypical ‘I served my country. I fought for your freedom.’
How was the reception to the book? Were you surprised in any way?
I was prepared to receive more backlash. Now when something gets posted on social media, I don’t comment. I was trained by a Washington Post editor, because I remember publishing my first op-ed back in 2012, I read comments and laughed and had a good time with it, but he was like, ‘don’t engage.’ Since then, I think trolling has become much, much worse.
But the feedback that I was aware of was overwhelmingly positive. I thought that there would be more negative ramifications. I definitely took measures to make sure that I changed names (in the book); I didn’t want anybody to get in trouble. So I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more backlash. It was overwhelmingly positive.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.”Laura Westley
How was your transition into the corporate world?
It was interesting because I fantasized about War Virgin allowing me to become a full time author or performer speaker. That was a very far fetched fantasy, especially for being financially practical (laughs). I kind of beat myself up for a little bit thinking ‘Okay, if I have to go back into the corporate world, I failed at War Virgin.’ But then I realized I had this professional IT career before this and I was building it. I did take time away once the book was being published and once I went on tour. But I had to go back to that.
I also wondered, ‘what can I go back to doing?’ I want to make sure that whatever I do is in alignment with my values, that I don’t compromise who I am. When I go back to the corporate world, I don’t want to have to be shut up and not expressive. I also was wondering, ‘Does having War Virgin out there will impact me getting a job?’
I spoke to a fellow West Pointer who was interested in hiring me for this associate vice president position. I just had the feeling that we were not a good match and I said ‘I want you to read War Virgin and then come back.’ He had concerns, but he was very conservative. Interestingly, he also has a sister who went to war and went to West Point and he’s like ‘I didn’t even know what it was like for women.’ It just wasn’t going to be a good match.
What ended up happening is I got a good (referral) in for my current job by someone who knew me because of War Virgin. She was from the first class of women who graduated from West Point. And so its ironic that War Virgin actually helped me get the job that I have now, which is a really good corporate job.
How do you describe what you’re doing right now?
I lead a new software development department at Johnson and Johnson. I take care of software developers, software testers and project managers, trying to make us a really valid force to be reckoned with.
Really, everybody else, they’re the doers. I joke that they do the real work around here and it’s my job to take care of them. So I actually tell them that they’re all my bosses. My job is just to whatever obstacles might be in their way, let them be able to fully focus on what they need to do, even if that is something beyond the work environment, even if there is something that they may be struggling with at home. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.
Are there any resources that you recommend that have helped you throughout your career?
When I wanted to learn how to be a better storyteller in my writing, it was almost like an academic pursuit for me. All I had known was academic writing and so I did take a comedy writing class. It was helpful for me to understand that if you’re going to write a book to be consumed, you can’t write in this high brow or dry academic (tone), you have to write as a story teller. In order to be a better storyteller I took a comedy writing class, and I joined a story-telling competition group in Massachusetts. One of my favorite books is called The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker and it was hilarious. Before she wrote her memoir, she did stand up comedy and so she perfected the art of story-telling orally and that translated to the page. That got me thinking and got me into doing the live story telling. Then it eventually evolved into the show.
There were definitely some people that came into my life that helped me to know more about storytelling. I was taking it all in, and working with theater professionals. Now I am really obsessed with an author named Jo Piazza. She has a podcast called Committed and my favorite book of hers is called Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.
I’m trying to think of books about IT career and I know that there’s a lot out there. But I find that I’m running into the same frustration that I did with military books with respect to how boring they could be, or how masculine they can be. I feel like there’s a lot of books written by super successful women like a billionaire CEO, or COO, but it seems like those are the books that get published, by these very privileged highly educated, multibillionaire white women. I would love for there to be books that are written by more normal women. Why can’t I read a book by a mid level manager? Those are the kinds of jobs that are more popular than the super crazy executive positions. I’m probably going to have to write the book that I want to read with respective to navigating a corporate environment, especially in a traditionally male-dominated environment.
If there is anything in the future, I want to collaborate with other women.
Would you recommend any women to join either the military or go into West Point?
It’s hard because when I think about it, I get a little knot in my stomach like ‘it’s going to be brutal.’ But I don’t want to say, ’No, don’t do this’ because sometimes that’s just your calling in life.
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