The U.S. military may have done away with its combat-exclusion policy for female service members in 2016, but that doesn’t mean female soldiers didn’t know the horrors of war before that. Even though the policy was to keep women out of combat, many of them were in the middle of firefights and attacks, whether as military police or in support roles. And one doesn’t have to be fired upon to bear the scars of service.
Women know the danger of combat. And, just as significantly, they know the price paid for service after returning from deployment, as evidenced in “Served Like a Girl,” Lysa Heslov’s honest portrayal of female veterans that made its world premiere at South by Southwest on Monday. (The movie screens again Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.)
The title is a reference to the tongue-in-cheek slogan worn on the shirts of the finalists in the 20015 Ms. Veteran America competition that serves as the centerpiece of Heslov’s story. While the idea of pageants may bring to mind awkward question-and-answer segments and spark feelings of exploitation in some, the Ms. Veteran America pageant is a celebration of courageous warriors who have sacrificed greatly for their country. As seen in the film, the cost paid comes in the form of lost limbs, fractured lives, post-traumatic stress and the other emotional and financial complications that make re-entry into the civilian world difficult.
Heslov follows a collection of women from various socio-economic backgrounds from all over the country as they prepare to compete for a small cash prize, but the purpose of the competition isn’t about financial gain or vanity. Heslov shows the process to be a cathartic opportunity for female soldiers to bond as they raise money and awareness to support and advocate for homeless women veterans, of which there are an estimated 55,000 in America today.
Ms. Veteran America is one of the main fundraising apparatuses of Final Salute, Inc., an organization founded by Jaspen Boothe, a veteran who founder herself out of the service and homeless after a cancer diagnosis and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Boothe, who shepherds the women, sometimes with a disciplined military hand, through the process of the competition exemplifies the strength and courage of female soldiers, who take the same pledge as their male counterparts: to never leave a fallen comrade behind.
The film suffers from some jarring jumps in narrative at times, but it allows Heslov to show the diversity of the female soldiers and mine some rich and specific details about their struggles, from the horrors of military sexual trauma to putting the pieces back together after a divorce. There are avenues viewers may leave wishing were explored in more detail, such as how Boothe could be discharged and callously sent by the V.A. to collect food stamps following her discharge simply because she was a woman, but “Served Like a Girl” does a sensitive job of showing the bravery of female soldiers in both deployment and at home.
As with Ms. Veteran America, “Served Like a Girl” gives these women a chance to find their voices and tell their stories. And they do so by asking for fair treatment, not special treatment. They just want (and deserve) to be seen and heard.
In the words of Boothe, “We are not second class soldiers or damsels in distress. We are warriors.”
“Served Like a Girl” screens again at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday and 1:45 p.m. Thursday at Alamo South Lamar.