Teresa Fazio was only 23 years old when she was deployed to be a United States Marine Corps communications officer in the Iraq war.
She said she remembers sitting at a bar with her friends after the summer of ROTC Candidate school. It was the night of the 9/11 attack and they looked at each other “like yep this is happening,” Fazio said.
“To be honest, I was never so glad to be a Marine or on my way to that commission as I was on September 12,” she said. “It made me feel like I was going to do something about it – even if I didn’t know what that something was.”
Fazio added, “It was definitely a watershed moment. I certainly hadn’t expected to be called to be on my way to war.”
Twenty years later, Fazio has now earned a Columbia University Ph.D. and a Bennington Writing Seminar MFA, and she has journaled her experiences across all different mediums including The New York Times and the anthology Retire the Colors.
On March 1, she sat down with History Professor Joseph Adelman over Zoom to discuss her memoir “Fidelis” in which she details her journey as a woman in the Marines as part of the Arts & Ideas Women’s History Month Virtual Event series.
Adelman kicked off the discussion by asking what led her to want to take an MIT ROTC scholarship and join the Marines so early in her career.
“I wanted to do the hardest possible thing,” she responded. “I was 16. It was pre-September 11, 2001. It seemed like a way to get a free college education in terms of tuition paid for, books paid for, guaranteed job after graduation, and along the way, learning to blow stuff up which in the late ’90s really seemed cool before many other things started blowing up.”
She added, “Then life turned around quite a bit – for our country too after September 11th. But it certainly affected me personally.”
She explained to Adelman how she found out in the midst of her training that she would be going to Iraq.
“You can’t really tell over Zoom, but I’m very short. They’re like ‘You’re small and nerdy. We’ll make you communications officer.’ It also meant that the training course was six months long. “
She spent a year and a half in Quantico – a Marine base in Virginia – and midway to Iraq, the war started.
She said this happened to most of the lieutenants in her cohort.
Adelman asked Fazio what she was in command of when she arrived in Iraq as a communications officer in 2003.
“My job was two fold,” she said. “I had a wire platoon and a maintenance platoon.”
She said that as the communications company, there was a section that did radios, one that did computers, one that was in charge of satellites, as well as a section that would lay the cable and fix the cable. Her job as lieutenant was to supervise all of them, and keep a “bird’s eye view of where the electrons were flowing.”
Fazio said, “We were really trying to stabilize anything that could be stabilized. My unit took over a base that the Army had initially taken over from the Iraqis.”
She added, “It speaks to that long tale of what Hollywood thinks of a war as folks going house-to-house and kicking down doors and lots of shooting. There’s such a long tale of the supply chain and the communication infrastructure, and all those other things that go into a war.”
Adelman pointed out how something else that isn’t represented in Hollywood is age differences.
He noted how in “Fidelis,” Fazio discussed being in command of men 10 or 15 years older than her as a recent college graduate and a 23-year-old. Adelman wondered what it was like to be in command of people with significantly more experience than her.
Fazio said about a fifth of her Marines were significantly older than she, then there were others who were only a few years older or younger.
“One can be technically in command and still know that you really are supposed to listen to those older than you,” she said. Fazio added she would typically “huddle up” with her staff sergeants who were usually a decade older to see what they thought.
“I had to practice listening,” she said. “Fortunately, I think I was maybe mature enough to know. I didn’t know everything.
“It was a bit strange to be called ma’am by someone a dozen years my senior,” Fazio added.
Adelman then asked her to open up about being a woman in the combat zone amongst other Marines.
Fazio said she grew up among three younger brothers and was “used to being on the playground and shoving them. … Through ROTC, I was surrounded by dudes.” She said this served her well as there weren’t many women – only 7% of the Marine Corps at the time.
“Back then, I didn’t look like I look now. I looked like Harry Potter,” she added. “I wasn’t the most conventionally attractive – going to get hit on … I looked like a 12-year-old playing dress up.”
She said that in candidate school she was taught that if you’re a woman in the Marine Corps you’re either a “B-word, d**e, or a h**.
“Best thing you can possibly be is a b****,” she said, because that’s a woman who takes charge and doesn’t allow the men to bother her.”
Fazio said, “I found this little known fourth way that only works if you are the youngest and most junior – to be like everybody’s sister with the other officers.”
She added it worked out that she was everybody’s kid sister because she was able to “boss” people around much like when she was 7 and did the same to her 7- and 3-year-old brothers.
As far as relationships go, Fazio said she did not date openly in the Marines, and if she did, she kept it on the “down-low” and only told her close friends.
“I certainly would not show much emotional vulnerability. That’s a key thing in the service, too. … One is not encouraged to show lots of emotional vulnerability.”
Fazio also credited the fun times. “It was like having a platoon of 35 little brothers throwing footballs around and goofing off.”
Adelman inquired further about relationships in the military and the experiences of her female colleagues.
She said there is a stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dominating man who is supposed to be in charge and lead, and if you’re a woman, all the men want you. You’re “untouchable” and you’re not allowed to have “sexual agency.
“You’re just supposed to stand there and let the men come to you,” she said. There’s an expectation that you’re supposed to stand there and act “helpless – which is the opposite of the way to be a good Marine or a warrior,” she added.
Fazio said although the military is becoming more accepting of dating, women who choose to be in a relationship often have their competency called into question.
The conversation then switched to discuss the experience of readjusting after deployment.
Fazio said the experience of deployment as a 23-year-old who had previously only known life in the states was like “pressing pause for seven months.”
She had experienced “the most intense moments of her life” in Iraq, and when she got back to the United States it was “disconcerting” and “jarring” to be in a place where everything – including her parents, the mall, and her civilian friends – were all the same as when she left them when on the inside, she had “changed so much.”
“I can go to In-N-Out Burger and get those burgers. I feel different and I did not feel OK,” she added. “Just the intense privilege of being an American. That was shocking to me after seven months of living in a tent and showering in a trailer, and going everywhere with a pistol on my hip.”
She told Adelman that while initially she didn’t deal with that adjustment, she eventually got a dog named Buster who she would feed and walk, which helped her cope.
Adelman asked if she ever envisioned the Marine Corps as a career possibility.
Fazio said when she was commissioned, she promised herself that if she really loved it, she would make it her career, but it “didn’t take long for me to realize that I did not really love it.”
Fazio said while she loved her troops, she knew she did not want to be in the Marine Corps forever.
“While I was in Iraq, the experiences were intense enough and I saw enough people being hurt or wounded or killed that I really wanted to do something that could potentially help people in the future,” she said.
This is when Fazio decided to get her Ph.D. in material science, and began writing as an outlet for herself.
As she accumulated some more pieces, she realized she did want to publish her writing and that her audience would hopefully be young women service members or women veterans like her who don’t quite know how to cope the right way.
“The thing that has gotten me through the whole publication process is knowing that somebody else might see themselves in my experiences and not quite feel as alone. If my book even helps one other person feel less alone, then that’s worth it,” she said.
According to Fazio, she hopes her writing encourages women to make different decisions from the ones she made.
Fazio also said she was surprised there was a subset of baby boomer male veterans who are resonating with her work.
On young women joining the marines, Fazio emphasized the importance of getting therapy for trauma and coming to terms with themselves before going in. “Too many people join the military to gain power,” she said.
An audience member asked if coming back to America surrounded by material goods was why the title of the talk was “Always Faithful… To What?”
She responded, “Not intentionally. I don’t think coming back to this sort of go-go-go unfettered capitalism is really the most appropriate thing.”
Fazio said, “‘Fidelis’ is coming back and recognizing that you did the best you could at a particular moment and being able to move on with your life.”