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Finding the Right Role: Offbeat Women in Hollywood

Critic-at-large John Powers comments on the history of roles for offbeat women in Hollywood. Powers recently saw the hit film The 40-Year-Old Virgin and got to thinking about the actress Catherine Keener, who co-stars.

05:16

Other segments from the episode on August 25, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 25, 2005: Interview with Kayla Williams; Commentary on Hollywood actresses.

Transcript

DATE August 25, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Kayla Williams discusses serving with the Army in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Kayla Williams, has written a memoir about what it's like to be
young and female in the Army serving in Iraq. She writes about the terror and
the tedium of war and the camaraderie and sexual tensions between the women
and the men in the Army. And she describes the time she was asked to assist
in an interrogation and was told to say sexually humiliating things in Arabic
to naked prisoners.

Williams served in Iraq as an Arabic linguist on a signals intelligence team
with the 101st Airborne. She'd already learned a bit of Arabic through her
boyfriend, who was a Muslim. She enlisted in 2000 at the age of 23. Her
friends were surprised. She'd been part of the defiant punk scene when she
was younger. Williams was sent to the Gulf in February 2003 and returned from
Iraq in February 2004. Her new memoir is called "Love My Rifle More Than
You."

Now you write that 91 percent of all Army career fields are now open to women.
What are some of the things that are open that might surprise us and some of
the things that are not?

Ms. KAYLA WILLIAMS (Author, "Love My Rifle More Than You"): Women are
mechanics, women are military police, and women in intelligence jobs can serve
in infantry and artillery units as well. It's very complicated how it's laid
out, what we can and cannot do. But the main jobs that are closed to women
are the actual combat arms jobs: infantry, artillery; we can't be tankers.
But almost everything else is open to us. We can't be Rangers or Special
Forces, but we can act in support positions in Special Forces units.

GROSS: So you were not officially serving in combat, but did you feel at
times that you kind of were in combat?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Actually I was officially serving in combat. I'm not in a
combat job. I'm not in the infantry. I'm not a grunt. However, I was right
there with the--in an infantry division with infantry units, infantry
companies, infantry platoons during combat. But everyone in the military
knows--and I believe that most Americans know--that women are in combat. I've
actually talked to a lot of people who are surprised to hear that we're not
supposed to be in jobs that are combat jobs, like the infantry. There are a
lot of people who don't actually know that. We get the same compensation, and
in general we get the same recognition from people who understand, although
I've gotten very funny questions from people who do not understand, such as,
`Did you carry a gun?'

GROSS: And the answer is of course you did.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Of course I did. We were in Iraq. I wouldn't possibly go
there without a gun. But to be honest, that shows me that there are
definitely some people, and they tend to be a little older, who really do not
understand.

GROSS: You write in the book that you love your gun; you love the smell of
it, the smell of cleaning fluid, of gunpowder, the smell of strength.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. At the firing range, that's definitely true, and basic
training is when that was primarily--became--really came to enjoy firing
because it was the one time that drill sergeants really just left us alone to
do what we were doing. And in Iraq, it just became much more of a tool,
something that you use or pray not to use and have to carry with you all the
time and just became such a constant presence that coming home it was very
strange to not have it all the time.

GROSS: You write in your book that you knew you were there to help people in
Iraq, but you often felt like you were hurting them or, at the very least,
that they perceived it that way. And you write about the tension of wanting
to help the locals but having to do battle with them. You say you even
pointed your weapon at a child.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

GROSS: What was the circumstance that made you feel you needed to do that?

Ms. WILLIAMS: We were on a convoy. At this point we didn't even have doors
on our vehicles. We didn't have up-armored Humvees at all, and--my unit, and
we would remove the doors so that we could have better use of our weapons.
The way that people drive in Iraq is very aggressive, and people will try to
pass you by driving down the middle of the road, like the grass between the
two sides of the road. And sometimes people will cut between your vehicle and
the vehicle in front of you, and then somebody will come out of the trunk and
throw grenades at your vehicle or pop up and shoot you. The man who is now my
husband had already been very grievously wounded in an IED explosion while he
was on a convoy.

And we were driving--I was in the back seat behind the driver, watching my
sector, and there was this vehicle driving very aggressively to our left on
the grass, trying to cut in front of us. And I had no idea why they were
doing this, if they were just in a hurry or if there was an actual threat.
And I'm motioning to them with my weapon to stay away from us, to not get too
close to us, to not try to cut us off. But they were continuing to drive very
aggressively. And I was raising my weapon into the aiming position because it
was a very intimidating and intense moment. And then the passenger turned and
looked at me, and it was a child. And I immediately lowered my weapon. I was
horrified. I felt very guilty, and I waved at him and he waved back.

And it was just one of those moments when I felt this intense disconnect
between what we were supposed to be doing and what we were actually doing and
what was going on and the difficulty of trying to protect yourself and your
colleagues--and my colleagues and having to try to make a difference in
people's lives at the same time.

GROSS: You know, so many men are brought up to be protective of women, and
you wanted to be an equal in the military. Did men in your unit want to--did
they have that instinct to protect you, and did you have to stop them from
doing it? Was that an issue at all?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I never noticed that tendency, but I was not generally in
situations where it might have come up. I've talked to men who are infantry
or artillery who say that they are concerned that in a firefight they would
want to protect a female soldier more than they would want to do the mission
or that they would be distracted by the presence and their desire to protect
her and let the mission fall by the wayside. But I don't know how much that's
actually true because when you're actually in the middle of an intense
situation, you tend to focus so much on just doing what has to be done. So I
don't know.

GROSS: You write about being a young woman with young men, men who are mostly
away from women, except from the other soldiers in their unit. So that makes
you kind of an erotic magnet, even in the most unerotic of circumstances. Can
you talk a little bit about how men who you were working with related to you
as a sexual being? You know, in other words--I mean, here are all these horny
men, you're the woman. So how much was that acknowledged?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It varied so much, and it was so interesting to me when I could
have the distance to look at it from outside, almost, and watch what was
happening. And I definitely noticed that the men that I went out with in Iraq
on combat patrols, who saw me doing a service that was incredibly useful to
them when I translated for them for--between the soldiers and the civilians,
which is not my job, but I did with pleasure, they always treated me as a
soldier. And even months later when they would see me, they would say, `Hey,
you were our linguist in Baghdad.' They always remembered me for my ability
to do a job that was helpful.

But men who did not get to see me doing a useful job and saw me infrequently
definitely thought of me as more an object or just a girl. `Hey, you were
that chick that was with us in Najaf,' or something like that. And they very
much would sexualize me and the other women that I worked with, coming up to
us and offering us coffee or just wanting to talk, just wanting to talk to a
girl, went on and on and on, never a moment's peace, it sometimes seemed like.

And then the guys on my own team, the guys that I served with and lived in the
same truck with and was with every single day, really was--it just disappears,
in a sense, almost. They're more like your brothers or close friends. You
see them constantly. And it's funny because they almost don't want to
acknowledge that you're a girl because they work with you so closely. I
remember at one point up on the mountain they said, `Don't stand where the
wind blows the smell of you to us right after you've taken a shower, when you
actually smell like a girl in America. We don't want to smell your lotion or
your shampoo. Go away.' Because they had gotten to a point where I didn't
seem like a girl, but that was such a poignant--forced reminder.

And it was just very interesting to see different people treating it different
ways. It seemed almost as if guys in intelligence wanted to pretend that we
were the same more, whereas combat arms guys were much more willing to say,
you know, `Wow, you have boobs. I want to look at them.' They were very
blunt about it, just no shame about acknowledging the fact that there were
pressures and that they had desires, even if they weren't going to do anything
about it, just to be like, `Whoa, boobs. I haven't seen them in so long.' I
don't know if I can say `boobs' on...

GROSS: No...

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...FRESH AIR.

GROSS: That's fine. But--and speaking of boobs, you tell this great story.
You're with a few of the guys, and they ask you to lift your blouse for them.

Ms. WILLIAMS: My T-shirt.

GROSS: Yeah, your T-shirt--your blouse, right, yeah. Your blouse with the
lace trim. Yeah, so they asked you to lift your T-shirt to--you know, set the
scene for us. What happened?

Ms. WILLIAMS: We were sitting on the side of a mountain for weeks on end.
There were eight of us only, and we had been--we didn't see other people for
days at a time other than the locals that we had some language barriers with.
There's nothing to do. The key game that we played was to throw rocks at each
other. It felt like being a child, but there's just nothing. You can only
read so much, and you have to interact with other people. So they'd play
baseball with a rock and a stick. We'd sit there and throw rocks at each
other. They'd throw rocks at my boobs. They'd throw rocks at each other's
crotches. All of them, their pants had been ripped in the middle by then from
wearing them constantly. They'd try to get the rocks through the hole. And
part of the boredom, eventually it devolved into, `Hey, show us your boobs.'
This was actually almost a daily question. But one day they actually started
offering money, and it got up to $87 and a bag of M&Ms was the offer for me
to show my boobs, and I declined.

And it's--I'm not ashamed of my body and I'm not very hung up on issues of
sexuality or nudity in a way that a lot of Americans seem to be. But I think
them offering me money for it made it worse than if they had just asked
nicely. It felt very degrading to be offered money to see my boobs. And I
declined at that point.

GROSS: Well, I was trying to imagine what it was like for you in that
circumstance, and I imagine there were a lot of other times similar to this.
So like, on the one hand, I'm sure you really empathized with these guys.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

GROSS: Like they're away from women, they're young guys, they're horny, you
know...

Ms. WILLIAMS: It's not like women don't feel similar pressure.

GROSS: Right, right, right. So, you know, on the one hand you could be the
kind of like sister of mercy making a sacrifice by showing them your breasts
because these men are serving, they're sacrificing for our country. On the
other hand, like what does that do for you and for--you know, for what you'd
be in their eyes, and so on? So did you go...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly.

GROSS: Did you go through this long kind of--long thought process about
whether it would be the right thing or the wrong thing in these circumstances?
Do you just like lift your T-shirt and show them?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Sure. I had to think about that sort of thing a lot, like: Is
it nice to just give in and give them that moment of happiness when they're in
this difficult situation? Although on the other hand, of course, I'm in the
same difficult situation, and it's not like I don't have pressures. But guys
would walk around without their shirts on, so I get to check out their pecs or
whatever. I mean, to be very honest, of course, women in this situation have
desires and miss their husbands or boyfriends as well. It isn't just the men
who are over there saying, `Wow, I miss female company in intimate forms.'
The women feel the same pressures. The men just tend to be a little more
outspoken about it. But then I did not want to change my relationship too
much with these men by making a transition from being a sister with weird
undertones to the relationship to being a full-on sex figure, if that makes
any sense.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WILLIAMS: But, yes, I overthink everything, so I definitely spent a long
time thinking about all of these issues while I was there.

GROSS: Now are the kind of pressures that you're talking about an argument
against men and women serving together in combat? Because I know that's how
some people will hear it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I don't think so because when there is an actual combat
situation going on, when there's a firefight, when the mission is happening,
all of these things are gone. It's only when people have too much time on
their hands and are sitting with nothing to do for days that these issues even
become really apparent. And I believe that there have always been problems in
the military when people have too much time and have nothing to do. It sounds
as if in Vietnam there was a drug problem, and that may have been partly
related to down time when there was not an actual mission going on.

And it's just a matter of things changing over time. Women being fully
integrated is not going to be an easy process, just as it was not an easy
process to integrate African-Americans into the Army. But after some
bumpiness, it's going to be fine. And at this point, with women at 15 percent
of the military, there's no turning back.

GROSS: My guest is Kayla Williams. Her new memoir is called "Love My Rifle
More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kayla Williams. Her new memoir
is called "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,"
and it's a memoir about her service as an Arabic linguist in the 101st
Airborne Division. She was deployed to Kuwait in February of 2003, returned
from Iraq in February of 2004.

You say in your memoir that, you know, women where you were serving were
either considered a bitch or a slut. If you didn't say yes to men, you were a
bitch and, if you did, you were a slut. Did you feel that you were typed in
any of those categories?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. When I was friendly, smiling, outgoing, I would be
considered a slut. And so partway through the deployment, I made a very
conscious decision that I would rather be a bitch. I would rather be
respected than liked. And that is a painful decision to make because I
believe that most people have a desire to be liked. But my desire to be
respected was stronger. And there were certainly times that I wished that I
was better liked, but I wanted to be respected for my ability to do my job and
my leadership position at that point than anything else. That was what was
important to me.

GROSS: You know, one of the things you write about is how some of the
military leadership just doesn't get certain things about women's needs and
how they're different from men. So, you know, for example, you were in a
convoy in which you were told you absolutely couldn't stop, not even to
urinate. And you write the captain had given no consideration to the girls.
Had anyone informed him that peeing in a bottle for a girl was not the same as
it was for a guy. What could the captain have done? I mean, assuming that
you really couldn't afford to make stops, what could the captain have done to
have been more sensitive to the women in the convoy?

Ms. WILLIAMS: That's a great question. I have no idea. Luckily, a vehicle
broke down and we stopped anyway, which happens almost all the time. Even
when he made the announcement, I thought, you know, `We will stop because
something always breaks.' But that's something that needs to be addressed at
a greater level. I actually knew girls who would take adult protection, adult
diapers in case this happened. And female passengers could, in fact, pee in a
bottle. But as a driver, it's tougher. After I was telling this story to
somebody else I talked to, another woman who said, `Yeah. I did it. As a
driver, I made it happen.' So it can happen. It's just much tougher, much
more acrobatic I would imagine. But I didn't do it. I didn't have to. But
apparently it can be done, it's just much more difficult.

GROSS: And would you like to think that somebody someplace within the
military would design a good way of helping to make that happen in an easier
way? It wouldn't be--I'm sure there's some kind of solution.

Ms. WILLIAMS: There's a NASA thing. It's this little--that I've read about
but I've never used that could possibly be issued. It might be handy. It's
like a little cup with a tube that you can just kind of slide down there
and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...you know, put the tube into a bottle.

GROSS: Is this the kind of thing...

Ms. WILLIAMS: I haven't yet issued...

GROSS: I know this thing probably sounds really trivial, but the thing is I
remember, like, when there were days when a lot of institutions didn't have
ladies' rooms in it because only men had the jobs. And eventually...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Like Congress?

GROSS: Yeah, like Congress. Right. So eventually you have to kind of deal
with that there's women here, too.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And do you feel that there are certain things where the military
hasn't, you know, quite gotten that and that, you know, if there's women in
there, that it has to be certain changes that are made?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Sure.

GROSS: Even like little, easy ones like finding a way to deal with what we're
talking about here.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. One of the other really easy ones that would drive me
nuts in Iraq was at the shopettes set up by AFIs, the little PXs, there were
never small brown T-shirts or small socks. And there's small guys, too, but
more women are wearing small sizes than men. And there was never conditioner.
It sounds so petty I'm sure. But there was shampoo, but there was never
conditioner. And I just wanted to be able to buy conditioner.

GROSS: Were there tampons?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. And condoms, amazingly enough.

GROSS: Are you ever afraid that if you point out certain difficulties you
have as a woman, that that will be used as an argument against women in the
military? You know, that if--you should just swallow it; otherwise it'll be
used against you.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. Absolutely that is a concern of mine. And I hope that
that doesn't happen, but I can definitely imagine it happening.

GROSS: Kayla Williams' new memoir is called "Love My Rifle More Than You."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Kayla Williams talks about being asked to assist in an
interrogation by saying sexually humiliating things to naked Muslim prisoners.

Also, Catherine Keener's performance in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" gets our
critic at large John Powers thinking about roles for women who don't fit the
mold.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kayla Williams. Her new
memoir, "Love My Rifle More Than You," is about being young and female in the
Army. She enlisted for five years in 2000 at the age of 23. She spent about
a year in Iraq and returned to the States in February 2004. She served as an
Arabic linguist on a signals intelligence team with the 101st Airborne
Division.

Now because you were an Arabic linguist, you were also asked to assist in
interrogations at one point. What were you told to do?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Initially I was under the impression that because I was a
female Arabic linguist, I was being asked to help, and I thought that I would
maybe be helping with interviewing a woman. I was completely wrong. When I
got down to the cage--that's what it's called--where the prisoners were being
kept, I was told that I would sit in a room, a prisoner would be brought in
blindfolded, his clothes would be removed, and then his blindfold would be
removed in such a way that I would be the first thing that he saw in order to
humiliate him and that then I should mock him and try to break his spirit
using the fact that I was a woman and an American woman to further humiliate
him and try to break him down and that they hoped this would help to break
his resistance, and he would answer any questions; and that there would be two
men, that they would do this in a row. And it was very disturbing. I
couldn't believe that it was happening. I felt as if since I had agreed to
come down and help, that I would go through with it.

GROSS: Where and when was this?

Ms. WILLIAMS: This was in Mosul in probably late November of 2003.

GROSS: So in following your instructions, what did you say to the prisoner?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Things along the lines of, `Do you think you can please a woman
with that thing?' It's interesting--although I do speak Arabic, the types of
language that one would use to mock somebody else is not something I had
really focused on. And even in English, trying to break someone by mocking
them, especially sexually, is not something that I've ever given a lot of
thought to. So I really didn't have a big repertoire in my mind of things I
could say. And I felt so uncomfortable about it that I really had no
creativity for it. I had no inspiration to do it well. And I just felt so
uncomfortable that I ended up spending a lot of the time just kind of sitting
there and watching the situation play out around me.

GROSS: And what did you see as you sat there and watched? What else was
going on?

Ms. WILLIAMS: The other US soldiers in the room actually ended up flicking
lit cigarette butts at the detainees, which I was horrified at. And at one
point one of the prisoners was slapped. He was handled very roughly, and it
was very difficult to watch the prisoners. One of them cried. And I couldn't
get past seeing their humanity. I could not see them just as prisoners or the
enemy. I was looking at them, looking at their eyes, and seeing them as men,
as other human beings, like me. And it was so disturbing to me. I had a very
hard time handling it.

GROSS: When you tried the sexual humiliation thing, did you feel like--what
kind of reaction did it get? It was supposed to break them down so finally
they'd give information. Were you there long enough to know what the results
actually were?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It was ineffective that day, at least while I was there. And
as to whether or not there was any long-term effect, I have no idea. There
are such strong stigmas attached to sharing information within the
intelligence community, like, I would never ask, `What are you getting from
your interrogations?' It's just not my business.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And--just as I would never tell what I was getting from my job
to them. We have this heavy pressure to compartmentalize information and
things are need to know, and you use proper channels to report information
up. So I have no idea if these men ever broke or had any intelligence value
to begin with. I didn't think they looked like they were hardened criminals.

GROSS: Now you write that you told the interrogator that you didn't want to
do this again because you found this so distasteful, but you...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

GROSS: ...stopped short of blowing the whistle. Had you thought about doing
that? Did you think that this was against military regulations and, you know,
violated regulations and should be reported? Did you have any sense of that
one way or another?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I struggled with it internally a lot. I told the NCOIC, the
noncommissioned officer in charge, that I thought that they were crossing the
line; that I thought that what they were doing was probably violating the
Geneva Conventions. I haven't read all of them, but we had gotten briefings
on at least some of it. And I also told him that if someone came in not a
terrorist, they would be a terrorist by the time they left being treated this
way. And he said he knew. And he outranked me. He wasn't in my same unit;
we didn't have the same commander. I am not familiar with the field manual
governing interrogations, it's not my job.

So I told him my opinions and then waited and struggled internally a lot with
should I go forward, should I do something, should I talk to someone else? I
had a very close friend that was at the same location at the same time, and
she and I discussed it. Do we have an obligation to do anything? Is it going
to be taken care of? And while we were still struggling with whether or not
we should try to seek someone out to go forward with complaining about what we
were seeing when we would go down there, even to use the phone or anything,
there was an investigation, though we did not know that it was going on at the
time. And at the conclusion of the investigation, military police were
brought in to take over control of the cage. And so it seemed to me, to my
great relief, the Army found the problem and fixed the problem. And I felt as
if my obligation to do anything about it had been kind of relieved because it
had been fixed.

GROSS: Did you feel when you were asked to verbally sexually humiliate
prisoners that you were being abused as a woman?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No. That didn't occur...

GROSS: You didn't feel like you were being deployed in an incorrectly sexual
way? I mean, in a way that took advantage of you?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It didn't occur to me at the time. I was so much more wrapped
up in what was going on. I definitely just felt so much more shocked and
disturbed by what was happening. It didn't occur to me to frame it in those
terms.

GROSS: Did your book have to pass through any kind of official military
reading or censorship before publication?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. Because I was military intelligence and had a security
clearance, they had to verify that I did not give away any classified
information.

GROSS: Was there any questioning of you about this incident in which you
were asked to verbally sexually humiliate prisoners?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes, it started a very ugly situation. I was not aware that
the investigation, though it determined that things were going wrong, was
unable to determine who was doing anything wrong because they don't tend to
publish results of investigations. So I had no idea. And then when they were
reviewing my book, this chapter was almost pounced upon. And the Army being
the Army, rather than somebody saying, `Hey, we really want to know who was
doing what. Can you talk to us about it?' they said, `We might court-martial
you for failing to come forward and for your being there.' And I had to get a
lawyer and go through a huge, long ordeal of getting immunity and making a
statement and going through exactly what happened. And it was very stressful
and upsetting.

I was shown by friends that there had been an article written--I think an
Associated Press reporter had requested any information under the Freedom of
Information Act from the military about other instances of detainee abuse, and
that this had come out; that these things had happened, had come out about the
same time that they got the chapter of my book. And it seemed as if this
probably encouraged them to want to wrap everything up or finish things. The
way that they did it was so heavy-handed and unpleasant, though. I was very
upset about it.

GROSS: My guest is Kayla Williams. Her new memoir is called "Love My Rifle
More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kayla Williams. Her new memoir
is called "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army." And
she was sent to Kuwait in February of 2003, returned from Iraq in February,
2004.

Why did you join the military?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I had lost my job which I loved and I wanted...

GROSS: What was it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I was actually working for a company in Florida that does the
direct mail and telemarketing fund-raising database management and gifts
processing for a number of PBS and NPR stations nationwide.

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah. I actually worked for a couple different PBS
stations before then. And so my background is actually in public TV and
radio. I've always loved it. But I lost my job, which I loved and had been
very emotionally invested in. I wanted to continue my education but did not
want to work full time and go to school full time, as I did for a lot of my
undergrad. I was in a complicated relationship that I wanted to get out of
but felt very trapped in. And I had this feeling that I was on a path in my
life where I had not taken any risks, I had done what I knew I was good at,
majored in lit, which was something that I loved. I loved reading books.
They gave me a degree for reading books--it almost felt like I was tricking
them to give me a college degree for doing something I loved so much. And
then working for PBS, I was good at it, but it was easy for me, and I hadn't
taken risks; I hadn't taken chances and risked losing everything.

And I really felt as if, if I stayed on the path I was on, I was going to wake
up and be 40 with a minivan, a white picket fence, a husband, 2.5 children, a
dog, no idea how I had gotten there. I felt as if I had to break out of the
rut that I was digging for myself and try something radically different. And
the military has great benefits for college, and they were willing to pay me
to learn a foreign language, which I thought was very exciting.

GROSS: What are some of the ways that you feel that you were changed
physically, emotionally in terms of what you want out of life by your service
in the military and the time you spent in Iraq?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm stronger. That is the biggest and most obvious change--is
that I know my own strength, I know...

GROSS: Are you talking about physically or beyond physically?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Both physically and mentally and emotionally. I know now that
I can handle myself in a crisis. I'm tougher than I ever knew that I was. I
can handle extremes of temperature and deprivation in terms of sleep and
physical comforts in a way that I had no idea that I would be able to not only
handle but handle fairly well. And I know how privileged we are in America.
We are just desperately privileged. We have so much. And I have so much more
of an appreciation for how much we really have, how wealthy we are as a
nation.

GROSS: Now you're married now. You married...

Ms. WILLIAMS: On Sunday.

GROSS: On Sunday?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

GROSS: Wow. Congratulations.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: And I think you met your husband at Ft. Campbell the summer after you
returned from Iraq. Do I have that right?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No. We met on the side of a mountain in Iraq.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Tell us how you met.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I was on the side of a mountain with the team that I was on and
another team of soldiers. And it was just the eight of us up there for many,
many weeks. And the man who is now my husband was the platoon sergeant of the
other team that was up there. And he would bring them resupply and come up to
deal with his soldiers periodically. We met. I was interested in him. We
talked. There was often nothing to do but talk when we weren't working on the
mountain. And I knew I wanted to get to know him better. Iraq not a terribly
romantic place, not exactly a place we could go on dates or anything. And
then he was very severely injured in October of 2003 and came home--he was
sent home at that point to get medical treatment. He was very lucky to live.
And he got back to Ft. Campbell in probably late January of 2004, and then I
came back in February of 2004. And we started dating at that point and got
married just a few days ago.

GROSS: So you weren't really a couple in Iraq?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No.

GROSS: Right. So he was severely injured and probably still requires medical
help?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. He is still in the Army. They have not finished
medically boarding him or medically retiring him. And it is a very long time.
It should've happened already. It's very frustrating for us to try to deal
with it. And he still is getting some treatment, so he's doing much better
than anybody had I think initially hoped. He had shrapnel go into his skill
and he is missing parts of his skull. He has plates and still has some
difficulties both from the physical injury and the psychological aftereffects
that so many soldiers are struggling with coming home.

GROSS: How are you finding the military health benefits?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It has been a disaster. I believe that the system is
overwhelmed by the volume of soldiers coming back injured. I'm trying to be
generous. The actual medical care that he got when he was hurt was
phenomenal. He lived, which is fantastic. He has had far fewer long-term
problems resulting the extent of his injuries than you might expect. He's
been very lucky. But dealing with the problems that he does have, that has
not gone well. He has horrible headaches and the pain management has not
happened at all and also just, again, the psychological aftereffects that he
deals with that a lot of soldiers coming back deal with in terms of
posttraumatic stress disorder. There really has not been a good system in
place to try to help.

I know that the military is struggling to catch up and to do the right thing,
but it's taken a very, very long time. And the lack of support for family
members is also very difficult. He has a traumatic brain injury; he has PTSD.
That's tough on me, too. And there isn't a support system in place to tell me
what's normal and what isn't. And it's also difficult because injuries that
are that severe affect the whole family. And it's very tough going to Walter
Reed with him on a regular basis and seeing the number of amputees and just
very severely injured soldiers. This war is having a terrible toll.

We're lucky in that increases in battlefield technology, helicopters to evac
people more quickly, the fact that so many soldiers have been trained in basic
life-saving techniques and immediate first aid and the fact that flak vests
and Kevlar helmets save lives that would've been lost in any previous combat.
That's great. It's wonderful. These people are so lucky to live. But
they're living with injuries that are really devastating that would have
killed people in any other war. And so you have so many soldiers coming home
with very, very severe injuries. I think it's up to for every one soldier
that is killed, it's more than 10 are grievously wounded.

GROSS: Do you know what you're going to do now?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No. I know that I have a book tour coming up, and I'm--I've
not gotten a job because I didn't feel it would be very fair to get a job
after getting out of the Army and saying, `OK, by the way, after I work for
three months, I'm going to need about six weeks off.' It didn't seem like it
would be fair to...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...an employer. Plus dealing with Brian's issues and trying
to get him out of the Army with the compensation that he deserves has been
very time consuming. And planning a wedding apparently takes up a lot more
time than I really imagined. So after all of this with the book dies down a
little, I think then I will be able to try to figure out where I want to go
with my life and see what doors the book opens and what doors the book closes.
It may definitely closes off some career paths for me, even as it may open
others.

GROSS: Well, I want to wish you good luck and wish your husband good luck as
well.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Kayla Williams' new memoir is called "Love My Rifle More Than You:
Young and Female in the US Army." You can read an excerpt on our Webs site,
freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, "Six Feet Under" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" get our critic at
large John Powers thinking about unconventional actresses and roles. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: History of roles for offbeat women in Hollywood
TERRY GROSS, host:

The number-one movie this week is "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" about a grown man
who buddies help him cross the final sexual frontier. The comedy may sound
like a classic guy movie, but our critic at large John Powers says it got him
thinking about actresses and the women of "Six Feet Under."

JOHN POWERS:

In the unexpectedly smart and funny new comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," Steve
Carell stars as a middle-aged guy who's never slept with a woman. His love
interest is played by Catherine Keener, and this is striking for a couple of
reasons. For starters, she's age appropriate. This is not one of those
movies where some 40-year-old goofball winds up bedding a 22-year-old hottie.
But it's even more striking because Keener is well, Catherine Keener. Don't
get me wrong. I mean this as a compliment. You see, I love Catherine Keener,
and I'm not the only one.

Over the last 15 years this wonderful actress has built up an enormous
reservoir among people who go to the movies regularly. We appreciate the
distinctive tang she brings to every performance, from the bitchy body
traveler in "Being John Malkovich" to the haplessly artistic housewife in
"Lovely & Amazing." Keener shines in four very different movies this year
alone: "The Interpreter," "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," "The 40-Year-Old
Virgin" and the upcoming "Capote." And it's easy to see why filmmakers keep
hiring her. She's sharp, vivid and emotionally real. All her characters have
filigrees and edges. They're human.

Now you might hope such talents would have propelled Keener to Hollywood
stardom. After all, she has incomparably more screen presence than Kate
Hudson, say, or Jennifer Garner. But Hollywood doesn't know what to do with
offbeat women who don't fit the usual mold. In fact, the very qualities that
make her special can sometimes be a liability, as she told Terry on this show
three years ago.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Ms. CATHERINE KEENER (Actress): I was told, you know, that's not pretty
enough, not--oh, a lot of times, especially for television, I got the note
back that I came across as too hard. I know it's hard to believe, considering
the parts I get usually they're pretty tough. But I think that they were too
much for, you know, television. I think they want--even if the character is
described as, you know, a hardened person, they want them really soft, in my
opinion.

GROSS: Right, right.

Ms. KEENER: Hard but not, like, life hard.

POWERS: Of course, Keener's not the only actress to face such attitudes.
This is an era filled with superb performers like Hope Davis, Rachel Griffith
and Tilda Swinton, who have the capacity to carry a movie but rarely, if ever,
get to. They're too edgy, too intelligent or too life hard. The industry
fears that such aggressive female characters will scare off teen-age boys,
whose ideal women seem to have escaped from a video game or comic book still
clad in scanty costumes. The only scary women that Hollywood embraces these
days carry ice picks or are busy killing Bill.

Needless to say, it wasn't always so. While we like to flatter ourselves that
we're incomparably more sophisticated than those benighted yokels who lived
during the Dark Ages--you know, back when movies were still shot in black and
white--the '30s and '40s were actually bursting with great female stars, like
Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn. Pitched
to an audience of adults, their performances bristled with the kind of wit,
ambition, ferocity and intelligence that would be thought off-putting in our
supposedly post-feminist days. If they were working now, they'd almost
certainly be vying for the character roles played by Keener, Davis and
Griffith: the mouthy girlfriend, the bitter sister, the heroine's ruthless
career woman boss, which helps explain why so many of my women friends mourn
the passing of "Six Feet Under," the HBO series that ended last Sunday with
tombstones sprouting like mushrooms.

Although women are all over TV, usually playing cops, caricatured sexpots or
screwball chicks, there's never been a TV show that celebrated a broader range
of unconventional women, be it Frances Conroy's melancholy mom, Lauren Ambers'
angst-ridden photographer Claire, Patricia Clarkson's pill-popping New Age
looney, the sappy little ferret Maggie who sleeps with Nate or Rachel
Griffith's Brenda, perhaps the show's most resonant character, who battles to
transform her life from a symphony of self-destructive self-loathing into
something resembling stability.

What all these women share is that in one way or another they're intelligent,
hyperdramatic and not always likeable, what some people think of as difficult.
And while I can't imagine Catherine Keener having lunch with the "Desperate
Housewives" or being invited to cocktails with the "Sex and the City" gals,
she'd have been right at home with the uncomfortable silences of the Fisher
family on "Six Feet Under." Of course, now that this show is dead and buried,
you have to wonder: Where will all the passionate and brainy, all the
difficult women go?'

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and the author of "Sore Winners,"
which has been published in an expanded paperback edition.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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