“A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire,” stated former California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman in testimony before a July 2008 House panel investigating the military's handling of sexual assault reports. The Congresswoman added that her “jaw dropped” when she learned from military doctors that four of ten women in a local veterans hospital had been raped by fellow soldiers. What's equally startling, though, is that Harman – a reputed national security insider and a strong supporter of women in the military – was in the dark about rampant military sexual assault.
Not long after the hearing, one of the most eye-opening accounts of the sexual torment of women soldiers, “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” was published. The author, Columbia professor and journalist Helen Benedict, had interviewed more than 40 soldiers and vets, mostly women, who came from all branches of the military except the Coast Guard. They included active-duty soldiers as well as reserves and National Guard, and held a variety of ranks, from privates up to a general. Most served in Iraq, a few in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Of these, Benedict chose five whose war lives most reflected the diverse experiences of female soldiers in Iraq, and she followed them over the course of years, uncovering “the universal stories of war” in their individual experiences. They elected to have their stories told because they “wanted people to know what it was like to be a woman at war.”
The common motif threading through their narratives is, in the words of one, that “The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me that the men with whom I shared my food.” Most of the women she followed were pushed to and beyond the limits of their substantial emotional and physical resilience, and, ultimately, the sexually abusive environments shattered them. The military inculcates into recruits that their comrades are their family in order to assure loyalty on the battlefield. Benedict concludes that the pervasive and constant sexual assault by “brothers in arms” has left many women veterans ashamed, terrified, blaming themselves irrationally and without trust in others. “Many turn to drugs or drink to numb the pain, losing control of their lives.”
The journalist reports that she felt herself in a “time warp” as she listened to women soldiers' accounts of training and active duty in war. So pervasive was woman-hating in military culture, from boot camp through active duty, with obscene comments on breast size, relentless staring and ridicule, sexist rhymes, and pornography everywhere, including in latrines and common areas, that she characterized it sexual persecution.
Victims Turned Advocates
Susan Avila-Smith is a survivor of military sexual trauma (or MST), the Veterans Administration (VA) term for the corrosive burden of persistent sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced in the military. As director of the veterans' advocacy group Women Organizing Women, she has assisted women and men sexual trauma victims for 15 years.
Of the 3,000 I've worked with, only one is employed. Combat trauma is bad enough; but with military sexual trauma, it's not the enemy. It's our guys who are doing it. You're fighting your friends, your peers, people you've been told have your back. That betrayal, then the betrayal from the command is, they say, worse than the assault itself.
She described the stark bewilderment of having someone who is supposed to save your life in battle, turn on you and rape you. “You don't want to believe it's real. You don't want to have to deal with it. The family doesn't want to deal with it. Society doesn't want to deal with it.”
Nor does the military.
In a 2011 interview on National Public Radio, Panayiota Bertzikis, a Coast Guard veteran and founder of the Military Rape Crisis Center in Cambridge Massachusetts, describes the retaliation against victims for reporting sexual assault. She was raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, given no medical services, made to continue working with her rapist and ultimately dismissed from the Coast Guard as unfit for duty.1 The source of her “unfitness for duty” was the trauma she suffered from both the assault and her futile attempts to seek justice from a stonewalling commander who told her to “shut up and leave his office.” Bertzikis is one of 17 plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed February 15, 2011, in Federal District Court in Virginia, against former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, charging them with failure to protect service members from repeated rape and sexual assault in the military and failure to investigate complaints or prosecute and punish perpetrators.
Sexual Assault and Harassment: Epidemic in the Military
Women in the military are raped and sexually assaulted at significantly higher rates than in civilian society. A 2003 study of women seeking health care through the VA from the period of the Vietnam war through the first Gulf War found that nearly 1 in 3 women was raped while serving – almost twice the rate of rape in US society – and that 8 in 10 women had been sexually harassed during their military service. Rates were consistent through all periods and wars studied. Of those who reported having been raped, 37 percent were raped at least twice and 14 percent were gang-raped.
What's often overlooked in these statistics is that the reported prevalence of rape in the military is based on a period of 2-6 years in military service, whereas the sexual assault of women in civilian society (nearly 1 in 5) is based on lifetime prevalence – signifying an even more concentrated culture of sexual assault and a higher threat for active-duty military women from fellow soldiers. A distinct pattern has emerged from VA studies which reveals older and sometimes senior men rape younger and more junior women, exposing the dominance motive in rape.
In the spring of 2011, the Air Force released results from a survey of sexual assault conducted by Gallup of nearly 20,000 male and female “airmen” (sic). Nearly 1 in 5 women reported being sexually assaulted while in the service, with most of the perpetrators being men in the Air Force. Eighty-three percent of those assaulted did not report the crime because they “did not want to cause trouble in their unit”' or did not want supervisors, family or fellow airmen to know. According to clinical psychologist David Lisak, who helps train military lawyers, one of the setbacks in justice for Air Force women assault victims is that military lawyers representing them are often young and inexperienced in sexual assault cases. On the other hand, many alleged perpetrators hire specialized and experienced civilian sexual assault defense lawyers.
In contrast to surveys of women veterans and the 2011 Air Force survey, the Department of Defense (DoD) statistics of active-duty women do not reveal the extreme rates of rape because an estimated 80 percent are not reported while women are in the military. This compares to 60 percent of rapes going unreported in civilian society. Many factors conspire to shape a threatening and asymmetric environment that defeats women's reporting of sexual assault: fear of not being believed or of being accused of lying by one's commander; risk of retribution in a closed, rigidly hierarchal institution; the culture of male impunity; and the prevalence of older and higher-ranking soldiers raping younger and junior-ranking women. Other peer-driven dynamics are also at play within a tightly confined military environment. Fears of looking weak, cowardly, or disloyal, or of being ostracized or becoming the object of gossip further function as censors and constraints on soldiers who might otherwise report sexual assault.
Worse than Combat Trauma
A 2008 review of studies documenting the prevalence and health consequences of military sexual trauma found that younger, less educated women and those at enlisted rank are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than older, more educated women and women officers. Women victims of military sexual trauma suffer significantly more depression and alcohol abuse, poor health, and chronic health problems, including chronic fatigue, back and pelvic pain, and gastrointestinal problems and headaches.
Studies have found that military sexual assault contributes more strongly to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat-related stress, and that those assaulted sexually suffer more PTSD than those with other trauma. One striking VA study of more than 300 women veterans enrolled in a clinical program for stress disorders found that “sexual stress (stress related to sexual harassment and abuse) was almost 4 times more influential than duty-related stress in the development of PTSD.” A 2005 study of 30,000 Gulf War veterans3 had an added finding: sexual assault during military deployment put victims at risk of PTSD more than “high” combat exposure.
The reasons given for such profound consequences of sexual abuse in the military are akin to the reasons women do not report sexual abuse. These include the torturing combination of isolation within a confined, no-exit environment; threat of death from the rapist; marginalization and punishment when reporting abuse; no one watching your back; and a command that wants the problem and “the messenger” to go away. It's a toxic, private war zone that takes more psychic strength to endure than combat.
When women veterans were asked how they protected themselves from unwanted sexual contact, they reported behaviors and actions familiar to most women, particularly where sexual harassment and threat of sexual violence are prevalent. Many avoided eye contact with male soldiers and were intentionally less friendly; some dressed in “more masculine or unattractive” ways. Other women socialized only with groups of women or developed a relationship with a male soldier to secure themselves from rape and harassment. One-quarter of women responded that they carried a weapon and readied themselves for self-defense on base. Others moved off-base to reduce their risk of sexual violence or to enjoy leisure time without sexual harassment. The ultimate self-protection – leaving the military earlier than planned – was chosen more often by women who were raped than by those who were not.4
The most tragic consequence of self-protection from sexual assault is the deaths of several women soldiers in Iraq who died from dehydration in their sleep. Despite the 120-degree desert heat and little to no air conditioning, they stopped drinking liquids after 3 or 4 PM. They did so to avoid using remote, unlit latrines after dark because of the high risk of being raped by fellow soldiers. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, senior US military commander in Iraq, ordered a coverup of this potentially explosive news, directing the reporting surgeon to omit in oral briefs that the deceased soldiers were women and not to list the cause of death on their death certificates. His attitude? “The women asked to be here, so now let them take what comes with the territory.“
The DoD response to sexual terrorism in its midst calls to mind another male-controlled, ultra-hierarchical institution whose bedrock lies in its smug sense of God-ordained authority and its entitled tradition of living above the law. In the next installment of this series, “The Military and the Church: Bedfellows in Sexual Assault,” we will turn a critical eye to the patterns of military response to sexual assault in its ranks, namely, DoD's vaunted reforms to staunch the deluge of military sexual crimes.