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(DV) The Rape, Assault and Harassment of Women in the Military





Scandal Bigger than Walter Reed
The Rape, Assault and Harassment of Women in the Military
by Kevin Zeese
April 14, 2007

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Women are facing widespread sexual harassment and even rape by their male comrades in the military. The threat of sexual violence against female soldiers by their male colleagues is so great that women are warned not to go out to the bathroom alone at night. This has led women to stop drinking fluids at 3:00 in the afternoon and has even led to deaths due to dehydration.

How common are these problems? It is difficult to tell since the military has not published a complete survey, but indications are that 80% have faced sexual harassment and 30% have been raped. This is a disgrace that should be resulting in hearings on Capitol Hill, independent investigations, policy changes and loud cries by women’s rights activists. It should be a bigger scandal than the problems at Walter Reed, but so far there is mostly silence.

Women fighting in Iraq face two sources of potential post traumatic stress disorder: the traditional combat related action; and sexual assault and harassment by their fellow soldiers. With regard to combat related PTSD, while women are generally limited to combat-support roles, they are still witnessing a historic amount of violence. Roadside bombs and blind ambushes, civilians who look like insurgents and resistance fighters who look like civilians limit the difference between the stress of combat units and support units.

The rapes and sexual harassment of Navy women at Tailhook in 1991 and of Army women at Aberdeen in 1996 became national news. Regarding sexual violence, there are sources showing widespread harassment and rape.

* A 2003 report financed by the Department of Defense revealed that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the VA said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang raped.

* A 2004 study of veterans from Vietnam and all the wars since, who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military.

* In an earlier study conducted in 1992-93 with female veterans of the Gulf War and earlier wars, 90 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the military, which means anything from being pressured for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at.

* The results of a change in policy in 2005 allowing sexual assaults to be reported confidentially in “restricted reports” resulted in the number of reported assaults across the military jumping 40 percent, to 2,374, but still most are not reported.

* The VA has diagnosed possible PTSD in some 34,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; nearly 3,800 of them are women. With regard to women, nearly every expert interviewed by writer Sarah Corbett mentioned the reportedly high rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. 

* A nine-month study of military rape by the Denver Post in 2003 found that nearly 5,000 accused military sex offenders had avoided prosecution since 1992.

One of the shocking pieces of information coming out of the Iraq War is widespread reports that women are not safe going to the latrine at night.  Author Helen Benedict reported on her research of Iraq soldiers on DemcoracyNow!:

[Q]uite a few of them told me that they were ordered to not go out at night alone and not to go to the latrines or the showers without a buddy, without another woman. This was not being told to the men . . . it was a universal recognition that it was dangerous for women out there. And they weren’t talking about danger from the Iraqis, they were talking about, as I’ve said, danger from their fellow soldiers.

DemcoracyNow! also included the testimony of Col. Janis Karpinski, who testified last year at a mock trial known as the Bush Crimes Commission Hearings:

Col. Janis Karpinski: Because the women, in fear of getting up in the hours of darkness to go out to the portoilets or the latrines, were not drinking liquids after 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. And in 120-degree heat or warmer, because there was no air conditioning at most of the facilities, they were dying from dehydration in their sleep. And rather than make everybody aware of that, because that’s shocking -- and as a leader, if that’s not shocking to you, then you’re not much of a leader -- so what they told the surgeon to do was, “Don’t brief those details anymore. And don’t say specifically that they’re women. You can provide that in a written report, but don’t brief it in the open anymore.”

Marjorie Cohn: Was there a commander who saw dehydration listed as a cause of death of a woman, a woman female US soldier, and after that he said “Do not list dehydration as a cause of death anymore”?

JK: Yes.

MC: Who was that?

JK: General Sanchez [who served as the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq].

Benedict described men waiting outside who were pulling women into the latrines and abusing and raping them. She also said she went to “the Iraq casualty site, which lists all the deaths, and I did indeed find three deaths of women in the year she was talking about attributed to non-hostile causes, which the Army never seems to really explain, so I think it’s very possible those are the three she was talking about.”

Also on Demcracy Now!, Specialist Mickiela Montoya described how women would cut of the tops of water bottles and pee in them at night. She also described how she would carry a knife with her “to feel safe,” she explained, “from the other soldiers.” She said when there was “any type of strong sexual harassment words spoken, I just mainly felt a little bit more secure, and [the knife] was visible, too, to the other soldiers.”

While confidential reports are now allowed, most assaults go unreported. Sarah Corbett reported in the New York Times that women told her: “You just don't expect anything to be done about it anyway, so why even try?”  DoD statistics demonstrate the validity of those feelings: of the 3,038 investigations of military sexual assault charges completed in 2004 and 2005, only 329 -- about one-tenth -- of them resulted in a court-martial of the perpetrator. More than half were dismissed for lack of evidence or because an offender could not be identified, and another 617 were resolved through milder administrative punishments, like demotions, transfers and letters of admonishment.

Sarah Corbett reports in “The Women’s War”, published in the New York Times Magazine, that:

More than one-quarter of female veterans of Vietnam developed PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey conducted in the mid-'80s, which included 432 women, most of whom were nurses. (The PTSD rate for women was 4 percent below that of the men.) Two years after deployment to the gulf war, where combat exposure was relatively low, Army data showed that 16 percent of a sample of female soldiers studied met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as opposed to 8 percent of their male counterparts.

The problems with sexual harassment, assault and rape are systemic in the military beginning with recruiters, military academies, carrying on through service and at the Veterans Administrations.

In 2006, Associated Press reported that, “more than 100 young women who expressed interest in joining the military in the past year were preyed upon sexually by their recruiters. Women were raped on recruiting office couches, assaulted in government cars and groped en route to entrance exams.” According to the report more than 80 military recruiters were disciplined last year for sexual misconduct with potential enlistees. This included at least 35 Army recruiters, 18 Marine Corps recruiters, 18 Navy recruiters and 12 Air Force recruiters who were disciplined for sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behavior with potential enlistees in 2005.  AP put together the report based on dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The AP also found that this is not a new problem.  For example, the Army, which accounts for almost half of the military, has had 722 recruiters accused of rape and sexual misconduct since 1996.  And, 1 out of 200 frontline recruiters across all services was disciplined for sexual misconduct last year. As to punishment, most recruiters found guilty of sexual misconduct are disciplined administratively, facing a reduction in rank or forfeiture of pay. AP found that military and civilian prosecutions are rare.

At military academies, USA Today reports a 2004 Pentagon survey of the three military academies found 1 in 7 female cadets said they'd been victims of sexual abuse, ranging from unwanted advances to rape, during the previous five years. Only a third of the incidents were reported.

Helen Benedict, Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism whose latest article, “The Private War of Women Soldiers,  said on Democracy Now! that in the military: “the harassment is almost universal -- sexual harassment -- throughout the military. Sometimes it’s more severe than others, but it mounts up, the stress of being constantly pressured for sex and constantly teased -- makes it very hard to do one’s job… But there’s also the danger of sexual assault and rape. And all the soldiers I’ve talked to are very well aware of that. So they not only have to worry about the dangers of war, incoming fire and so on, but the danger of assault from the very people they’re supposed to trust.”

Benedict explained that “almost everybody is being harassed, but not every woman is being assaulted. The majority aren’t. And there are a lot of soldiers out there who -- male soldiers -- who treat the women as their sisters, just as they treat the other men as their brothers, and who are wonderful and reliable people. And the majority of them are like that.”  She says one key to whether there is harassment is the attitude of the commander.

Thomas Berger, national chairman of Vietnam Veterans of America's PTSD-and-substance-abuse committee, told Sarah Corbett: “The fact is, if a woman veteran comes in from Iraq who's been in a combat situation and has also been raped, there are very few clinicians in the V.A. who have been trained to treat her specific needs.”  Only 2 of the VA’s 1,400 hospitals and clinics have PTSD programs exclusively for women.  The Bush administration recently announced that while it will increase VA health-care financing by 9 percent for 2008, it has proposed consecutive cuts of about $1.8 billion for 2009 and 2010.

There is not much action on this issue in the Congress. Senator Barak Obama has introduced a bill to put more resources into treatment of women.  He described a woman he met at Walter Reed that “many of the women in theater face first hand dangers in their combat support roles. Driving a truck in Baghdad is one of the  most dangerous missions around and that is a support role. Women are witnessing the horrors of improvised explosive devices and the horrors of losing fellow service members. And too many experience the trauma of sexual abuse.” He noted how the woman trembled when he spoke to her and explained how she could not handle group counseling sessions, but needed one-on-one support. He concluded “Treatment for women with PTSD, especially sexual abuse victims, is very different from treatment for men.” He proposed adding $15 million to address the unique mental health needs of women.

One case that received lots of attention was the case of Specialist Suzanne Swift. Swift faced redeployment to Iraq while serving under the command of the same individuals that allowed her to be raped and sexual harassed. She suffered a breakdown due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and went absent without leave rather than subject herself to the horrors she experienced during her first tour of duty. Her violators warned her that no one would believe her, saying: “Swift, you look like you are going to tell someone about what happened between us. Nobody will believe you.” They were right. In January, she faced a court-martial and was stripped of her rank and sentenced to jail for 30 days. No action was taken against her commander in Iraq, and another harasser man was given a letter of admonishment -- a slap on the wrist. Suzanne Swift has advice for women being recruited by the military, “for the women who are considering going into it, don’t.”

Another case that has received less attention but may have ended in murder is the case of Private LaVena Johnson. Johnson died in 2005 and the military claims it was a suicide. Her father believes that the death began with a sexual assault. LaVena then went for health care to make sure she had not caught any sexually transmitted disease and she shared the name of her attacker. He believes that led to her murder. Indications that it was not a suicide include:

* Evidence of physical abuse that went unremarked by the autopsy.

* The absence of psychological indicators of suicidal thoughts; indeed, testimony that LaVena was happy and healthy prior to her death.

* Indications, via residue tests, that LaVena may not even have handled the weapon that killed her.

* A blood trail outside the tent where Lavena's body was found.

* Indications that someone attempted to set LaVena's body, as well as the crime scene, on fire.

The military is refusing to reopen the investigation.

Women are playing important roles in the US armed services but are facing abuse they should not have to endure. More than 160,500 U.S. women have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East since the war began in 2003, which means one in seven soldiers is a woman. Women now make up 15% of active duty forces, four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War. At least 450 women have been wounded in Iraq, and 71 have died -- more female casualties and deaths than in the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined. And women are fighting in combat. But, if the problems of harassment, assault and rape are not dealt with the future of women in the military is uncertain and problematic.

Kevin Zeese is executive director of Democracy Rising and co-founder of Voters For Peace.

For more information:

* Website for Suzanne Swift
* Website for LaVena Johnson
* Women Helping Women

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