Act of War

Act of War

“A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line” is the subtitle of New Havener Ryan Leigh Dostie’s Formation, released last month out of Grand Central Publishing. But Dostie’s colleagues in the Army—the soldier who rapes her and the higher-ups who refuse to believe or act on her report of the crime—are the real line-crossers in this raw and vivid work, which traces Dostie’s life from a strict Christian childhood in North Haven through an adventurous streak in her teens that leads to a life-changing stint in the military at the dawn of the war in Iraq.

“I don’t act like a rape victim, they say,” writes Dostie, who earned her MFA at Southern Connecticut State. “I’m not sure how a rape victim is supposed to act, but apparently I’m not doing it right.” The book begins with this central violation, one that will turn out to be more damaging even than entering combat, then backtracks to fill in the past and moves forward into Dostie’s deployment and eventual homecoming to New Haven, where her PTSD doesn’t act like it’s expected to, either.

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What makes Formation more than a story of victimization is partly Dostie the soldier, a gritty protagonist we can root for. It’s also partly Dostie the writer. Take, for example, her description of the Iraqi city of Al Kut:

Coming from Baghdad, I had expected more of the city feel, the stacked sandstone buildings and thick, cloying dust, the wet heat brewed from the Tigris and Euphrates, the continual activity and shooting, shooting, shooting. But Al Kut is silent. Remote. Both larger and less populated than our last camp. Even the wind tastes different. And this is the beauty of Iraq—it sneaks up on you unexpectedly, unnoticed until it strikes, engraving a deep scar just behind your eyes.

Despite the hardships of deployment and of dysfunctional command, there are moments when Dostie proclaims herself “so in love with the Army.” She remembers the high of “ripping a trail through the woods” in a Humvee with colleagues during a war simulation or simply admiring the “savage beauty” of Iraq. There are also moments of terrible darkness: the desire to kill, the realization that justice will never be served, the fear that life may never return to any semblance of “normal.”

Dostie says she hopes her story will give other women “an avenue to be heard.” After readings, women sometimes approach her and share their own similar stories or the stories of women they know. “I think I talked about it in a very blunt and frank way, and part of the reason is that I’d like to encourage people to do that more,” Dostie says. “I spent a long time hiding how I spoke about the rape, or even the word itself.”

She was also driven to add a woman’s voice to the predominantly male genre of war stories. As a follow-up to Formation, Dostie is writing a fictional work about women in the Lioness Program, a unit of female Marines who were trained to “conduct security searches of women crossing into Iraq” when, for cultural reasons, male soldiers could not, according to the U.S. Marine Corps website. Male writers’ virtual monopoly on war stories “makes it seem like we weren’t there,” Dostie says. It’s “the norm within our culture to assume that every time you say ‘soldier’ or ‘war’ or ‘PTSD’ that it’s male… I want to show that we were there, too.”

Readers seem to be paying attention. Formation is sitting on Amazon’s list of the top 20 books of 2019. National Book Award winner Phil Klay—one of those male war writers—has hailed the book as “a riveting, enraging memoir from an author of remarkable toughness and emotional range.” Fellow military personnel Dostie served with have been complimentary, too. Despite her youthful belief that everyone knew about her trauma, she’s finding many of them were in the dark. “You think you’re out on display and the whole world sees you,” she says, “and then come to find out that’s not the case.”

One of the women Dostie served with recently told her that she, too, had been raped. “Women in the military who are raped are so isolated that we don’t even go to each other, we can’t comfort each other, and that’s perhaps part of the reason why those people who would rape are bolstered into feeling they can get away with it,” Dostie says. Since her deployment in 2003, the reporting system and the training for prevention of sexual assault and rape has changed, she adds. According to a May 2018 Department of Defense report, there were 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members in 2017, a nearly 10% increase over the number of reports made the year before. The DOD goes on to say, “This increased reporting occurs despite the fact that scientific surveys of the military population show fewer service members experiencing sexual assault in recent years” and cites an annual decrease by half for active duty women in the decade leading up to 2016, which began several years after Dostie served.

Whether or not the situation is improving, it’s no spoiler to say there’s no neat and tidy happy ending for Dostie. The birth of her daughter, Adeline, in 2015 reads like a turning point. “After the first time I hold my daughter against my chest, both of us bloody and panting and dazzled, I know in that moment there will be parts of me I will never fear again,” Dostie writes. There will be different fears and challenges instead.

Dostie still minimizes the extent of her trials. She worries about the reaction Formation will get from fellow veterans and military personnel who have faced what she describes as much more difficult situations. “I didn’t get shot, I didn’t shoot anyone. I feel very lucky that that was never something that I had to do,” she says. Nevertheless, the trauma lingers. “Maybe,” she writes, “you never actually get over rape or war—you just have to carry it always, and it sits inside you, filling in the places where other things are lost and gone.”

Formation by Ryan Leigh Dostie
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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