>>POV: rapists in the ranks
Rapists in the ranks
Sexual assaults are frequent, and frequently ignored, in the armed services.
By Jane Harman
The stories are shocking in their simplicity and brutality: A female military
recruit is pinned down at knifepoint and raped repeatedly in her own
barracks. Her attackers hid their faces but she identified them by their uniforms;
they were her fellow soldiers. During a routine gynecological exam, a female
soldier is attacked and raped by her military physician. Yet another young
soldier, still adapting to life in a war zone, is raped by her commanding officer.
Afraid for her standing in her unit, she feels she has nowhere to turn.
These are true stories, and, sadly, not isolated incidents. Women serving in
the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed
by enemy fire in Iraq.
The scope of the problem was brought into acute focus for me during a visit
to the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center, where I met with female veterans
and their doctors. My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41% of female
veterans seen at the clinic say they were victims of sexual assault while in
the military, and 29% report being raped during their military service. They
spoke of their continued terror, feelings of helplessness and the downward
spirals many of their lives have since taken.
Numbers reported by the Department of Defense show a sickening pattern. In
2006, 2,947 sexual assaults were reported -- 73% more than in 2004. The DOD's
newest report, released this month, indicates that 2,688 reports were made in
2007, but a recent shift from calendar-year reporting to fiscal-year reporting
makes comparisons with data from previous years much more difficult.
The Defense Department has made some efforts to manage this epidemic -- most
notably in 2005, after the media received anonymous e-mail messages about
sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. The media scrutiny and congressional
attention that followed led the DOD to create the Sexual Assault and Response
Office. Since its inception, the office has initiated education and training
programs, which have improved the reporting of cases of rapes and other sexual
assaults. But more must be done to prevent attacks and to increase
At the heart of this crisis is an apparent inability or unwillingness to
prosecute rapists in the ranks. According to DOD statistics, only 181 out of 2,212
subjects investigated for sexual assault in 2007, including 1,259 reports of
rape, were referred to courts-martial, the equivalent of a criminal
prosecution in the military. Another 218 were handled via nonpunitive administrative
action or discharge, and 201 subjects were disciplined through "nonjudicial
punishment," which means they may have been confined to quarters, assigned extra
duty or received a similar slap on the wrist. In nearly half of the cases
investigated, the chain of command took no action; more than a third of the time,
that was because of "insufficient evidence."
This is in stark contrast to the civilian trend of prosecuting sexual
assault. In California, for example, 44% of reported rapes result in arrests, and 64%
of those who are arrested are prosecuted, according to the California
Department of Justice.
The DOD must close this gap and remove the obstacles to effective
investigation and prosecution. Failure to do so produces two harmful consequences: It
deters victims from reporting, and it fails to deter offenders. The absence of
rigorous prosecution perpetuates a culture tolerant of sexual assault -- an
attitude that says "boys will be boys."
I have raised the issue with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Although I
believe that he is concerned, thus far, the military's response has been
underwhelming -- and the apparent lack of urgency is inexcusable.
Congress is not doing much better. Although these sexual assault statistics
are readily available, our oversight has failed to come to grips with the
magnitude of the crisis. The abhorrent and graphic nature of the reports may make
people uncomfortable, but that is no excuse for inaction. Congressional
hearings are urgently needed to highlight the failure of existing policies. Most of
our servicewomen and men are patriotic, courageous and hardworking people who
embody the best of what it means to be an American. The failure to address
military sexual assault runs counter to those ideals and shames us all.
Jane Harman (D-Venice) chairs the House Homeland Security subcommittee on
The private war of women soldiers
Many female soldiers say they are sexually assaulted by their male comrades
and can't trust the military to protect them. "The knife wasn't for the
Iraqis," says one woman. "It was for the guys on my own side."
By Helen Benedict
Mar. 07, 2007 | As thousands of burned-out soldiers prepare to return to Iraq
to fill President Bush's unwelcome call for at least 20,000 more troops, I
can't help wondering what the women among those troops will have to face. And I
don't mean only the hardships of war, the killing of civilians, the bombs and
mortars, the heat and sleeplessness and fear.
I mean from their own comrades -- the men.
I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few
months, interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on
the topic, and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is
so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go
to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection.
The female soldiers who were at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, for example, where
U.S. troops go to demobilize, told me they were warned not to go out at night
"They call Camp Arifjan 'generator city' because it's so loud with generators
that even if a woman screams she can't be heard," said Abbie Pickett, 24, a
specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company who spent 15
months in Iraq from 2004-05. Yet, she points out, this is a base, where soldiers
are supposed to be safe.
Spc. Mickiela Montoya, 21, who was in Iraq with the National Guard in 2005,
took to carrying a knife with her at all times. "The knife wasn't for the
Iraqis," she told me. "It was for the guys on my own side."
Comprehensive statistics on the sexual assault of female soldiers in Iraq
have not been collected, but early numbers revealed a problem so bad that former
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a task force in 2004 to
investigate. As a result, the Defense Department put up a Web site in 2005 designed to
clarify that sexual assault is illegal and to help women report it. It also
initiated required classes on sexual assault and harassment. The military's
definition of sexual assault includes "rape; nonconsensual sodomy; unwanted
inappropriate sexual contact or fondling; or attempts to commit these acts."
Unfortunately, with a greater number of women serving in Iraq than ever
before, these measures are not keeping women safe. When you add in the high numbers
of war-wrecked soldiers being redeployed, and the fact that the military is
waiving criminal and violent records for more than one in 10 new Army recruits,
the picture for women looks bleak indeed.
Last year, Col. Janis Karpinski caused a stir by publicly reporting that in
2003, three female soldiers had died of dehydration in Iraq, which can get up
to 126 degrees in the summer, because they refused to drink liquids late in the
day. They were afraid of being raped by male soldiers if they walked to the
latrines after dark. The Army has called her charges unsubstantiated, but
Karpinski told me she sticks by them. (Karpinski has been a figure of controversy
in the military ever since she was demoted from brigadier general for her role
as commander of Abu Ghraib. As the highest-ranking official to lose her job
over the torture scandal, she claims she was scapegoated, and has become an
outspoken critic of the military's treatment of women. In turn, the Army has
accused her of sour grapes.)
"I sat right there when the doctor briefing that information said these women
had died in their cots," Karpinski told me. "I also heard the deputy
commander tell him not to say anything about it because that would bring attention to
the problem." The latrines were far away and unlit, she explained, and male
soldiers were jumping women who went to them at night, dragging them into the
Port-a-Johns, and raping or abusing them. "In that heat, if you don't hydrate
for as many hours as you've been out on duty, day after day, you can die." She
said the deaths were reported as non-hostile fatalities, with no further
Not everyone realizes how different the Iraq war is for women than any other
American war in history. More than 160,500 American female soldiers 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 percent 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.
Officially, the Pentagon prohibits women from serving in ground combat units
such as the infantry, citing their lack of upper-body strength and a
reluctance to put girls and mothers in harm's way. But mention this ban to any female
soldier in Iraq and she will scoff.
"Of course we were in combat!" said Laura Naylor, 25, who served with the
Army Combat Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04. "We were interchangeable
with the infantry. They came to our police stations and helped pull security, and
we helped them search houses and search people. That's how it is in Iraq."
Women are fighting in ground combat because there is no choice. This is a war
with no front lines or safe zones, no hiding from in-flying mortars, car and
roadside bombs, and not enough soldiers. As a result, women are coming home
with missing limbs, mutilating wounds and severe trauma, just like the men.
All the women I interviewed held dangerous jobs in Iraq. They drove trucks
along bomb-ridden roads, acted as gunners atop tanks and unarmored vehicles,
raided houses, guarded prisoners, rescued the wounded in the midst of battle, and
searched Iraqis at checkpoints. Some watched their best friends die, some
were wounded, all saw the death and mutilation of Iraqi children and citizens.
Yet, despite the equal risks women are taking, they are still being treated
as inferior soldiers and sex toys by many of their male colleagues. As Pickett
told me, "It's like sending three women to live in a frat house."
Rape, sexual assault and harassment are nothing new to the military. They
were a serious problem for the Women's Army Corps in Vietnam, and the rapes and
sexual hounding of Navy women at Tailhook in 1991 and of Army women at Aberdeen
in 1996 became national news. A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam
through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the
military. 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. And
in a third 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.
"That's one of the things I hated the most," said Caryle García, 24, who,
like Naylor, served with the Combat Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04.
García was wounded by a roadside bomb, which knocked her unconscious and filled
her with shrapnel. "You walk into the chow hall and there's a bunch of guys who
just stop eating and stare at you. Every time you bend down, somebody will say
something. It got to the point where I was afraid to walk past certain people
because I didn't want to hear their comments. It really gets you down."
"There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a
bitch, a ho or a dyke," said Montoya, the soldier who carried a knife for
protection. "This guy out there, he told me he thinks the military sends women over
to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He said in Vietnam they had
prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, but they don't have those in Iraq. So
they have women soldiers instead."
Pickett heard the same attitude from her fellow soldiers. "My engineering
company was in the first Gulf War, and back then it had only two females," she
said. "One was labeled a whore because she had a boyfriend, and the other one
was a bitch because she wouldn't sleep around. And that's how they were still
referred to all these years later."
In the current Iraq war, which Pickett spent refueling and driving trucks
over the bomb-ridden roads, she was one of 19 women in a 160-troop unit. She said
the men imported cases of porn, and talked such filth at the women all the
time that she became worn down by it. "We shouldn't have to think every day,
'How am I going to go out there and deal with being harassed?'" she said. "We
should just have to think about going out and doing our job."
Pickett herself was sexually attacked when she was training in Nicaragua
before being deployed to Iraq. "I was sexually assaulted by a superior officer
when I was 19, but I didn't know where to turn, so I never reported it," she told
Jennifer Spranger, 23, who was deployed at the beginning of the war with the
Military Police to build and guard Camp Bucca, a prison camp for Iraqis, had a
"My team leader offered me up to $250 for a hand job. He would always make
sure that we were out alone together at the beginning, and he wouldn't stop
pressuring me for sex. If somebody did that to my daughter I'd want to kill the
guy. But you can't fit in if you make waves about it. You rat somebody out,
you're screwed. You're gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out."
Spranger and several other women told me the military climate is so severe on
whistle-blowers that even they regarded the women who reported rape as
incapable traitors. You have to handle it on your own and shut up, is how they saw
it. Only on their return home, with time and distance, did they become outraged
at how much sexual persecution of women goes on.
Having the courage to report a rape is difficult enough for civilians, where
unsympathetic police, victim-blaming myths, and simple fear prevent 59 percent
of rapes from being reported, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. But
within the military, reporting is even more risky. Military platoons are
enclosed, hierarchical societies, riddled with gossip, so any woman who reports a
rape has no realistic chance of remaining anonymous. She will have to face her
assailant day after day, and put up with rumors, resentment and blame from other
soldiers. Furthermore, she runs the risk of being punished by her assailant
if he is her superior.
These barriers to reporting are so well recognized that even the Defense
Department has been scrambling to mend the situation, at least for the public eye.
It won't go so far as to actually gather statistics on rape and assault in
Iraq (it only counts reported rapes in raw numbers for all combat areas in the
Middle East combined), but in 2006 the DOD did finally wake up to the idea that
anonymous reporting might help women come forward, and updated its Web site
The Web site looks good, although some may object that it seems to pay more
attention to telling women how to avoid an assault than telling men not to
commit one. It defines rape, sexual assault and harassment, and makes clear that
these behaviors are illegal. The site now also explains that a soldier can
report a rape anonymously to a special department, SAPR (Sexual Assault Prevention
and Response), without triggering an official investigation -- a procedure
called "restricted reporting." And it promises the soldier a victim's advocate
and medical care.
On closer scrutiny, however, the picture is less rosy: Only active and
federal duty soldiers can go to SAPR for help, which means that neither inactive
reservists nor veterans are eligible; soldiers are encouraged to report rapes to
a chaplain, and chaplains are not trained as rape counselors; if soldiers tell
a friend about an assault, that friend is legally obliged to report it to
officials; soldiers must disclose their rank, gender, age, race, service, and the
date, time and/or location of the assault, which in the closed world of a
military unit hardly amounts to anonymity; and, in practice, since most people in
the Army are men, the soldier will likely find herself reporting her sexual
assault to a man -- something rape counselors know does not work. Worse, no
measures will be taken against the accused assailant unless the victim agrees to
stop being anonymous.
The DOD insists on the success of its reforms, the proof being that the
number of reported military sexual assaults rose by 1,700 from 2004 to a total of
2,374 in 2005. "The success of the SAPR program is in direct correlation with
the increased numbers of reported sexual assaults," Cynthia Smith, a Defense
Department spokeswoman, wrote to me in an e-mail.
In fact, as anyone familiar with sexual assault statistics knows, nobody can
ever tell whether increases in rape rates are due to more reporting or more
My own interviewees and advocates on behalf of women veterans say these
reforms are not working. They say there is a huge gap between what the military
promises to do on its Web site and what it does in practice, and that the
traditional view that reporting an assault betrays your fellow soldiers still
"Are soldiers who report sexual assaults in the military still seen as
betraying their comrades?" I asked Smith.
"Our soldiers are being fully trained that sexual assault is the most
under-reported crime," she wrote in reply. "In that training, not reporting a sexual
assault is the betrayal to their comrades."
Back in real life, Pickett watched several of her friends try to report
sexual harassment and assault since the 2005 reforms, and she said that none of
them were sent a victim's advocate, a counselor or a chaplain. "These women are
turning perpetrators in and they're not getting anyone to speak on their
behalf," she told me. "There's no one sitting in that room with you, so you're
feeling all alone." In the end, she added, it boils down to the woman's word vs.
the man's, and he is the one with the advocate, not her.
Meanwhile, the studies I have cited, along with the other past and present
studies of veterans, who feel freer to talk than soldiers because they are out
of the military, show that women soldiers are suffering post-traumatic stress
disorder as a consequence of military sexual abuse. All soldiers with PTSD come
home to some combination of sleeplessness, nightmares, bursts of temper,
flashbacks, panic attacks, fear and an inability to cope with everyday life. They
often turn to drugs or alcohol for escape. Some become depressed, others
commit suicide. Many are too emotionally numb to relate to their families or
children. But those who have been sexually assaulted also lose their self-respect,
feel they have lost control over their lives, and are particularly prone to
I have yet to meet an Iraq war veteran of either sex who does not suffer from
some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but officially the number of
Iraq veterans with PTSD is estimated to be about 30 percent for those newly back
from war, according to a 2004 study of combat veterans in the New England
Journal of Medicine.
The extent and severity of PTSD in women who have had to cope with both
combat and sexual assault in Iraq is still being studied, but as it is known that
these are two of the highest predictors of PTSD, it is logical to assume that
the combination is pretty bad. "When you are sexually assaulted by people who
are your comrades, PTSD can be worse than in other circumstances," said Paula
Shnurr, a research professor of psychiatry who conducted a new Veterans
Administration study of therapy for women veterans with PTSD, published last week in
the Journal of the American Medical Association. "You feel incompetent and
helpless, like children feel when abused by the very people who are supposed to
look after them," Schnurr told me. "The people you depend on have attacked
I am not claiming that sexual persecution is universal in the military, or
that it is inevitable. Several soldiers I interviewed told me that if a
commander won't tolerate the mistreatment of women, it will not happen, and studies
back this up. Jennifer Hogg, 25, who was a sergeant in the Army's National
Guard, said her company treated her well because she had a commander who wouldn't
permit the mistreatment of women. But another National Guard soldier, Demond
Mullins, 25, who served with the infantry in Iraq for a year, from 2004 to '05,
told me that although there were no problems in his unit he heard from his
commanders that there were rapes in other units in his camp. "One time a woman
was taking a shower late, and guys went and held the door closed so she couldn't
get out, while one guy went in to rape her," he said.
While commanders of some units are apparently less vigilant about policing
rape, others engage in it themselves, a phenomenon known in the military as
"command rape." Because the military is hierarchical, and because soldiers are
trained to obey and never question their superiors, men of rank can assault their
juniors with impunity. In most cases, women soldiers are the juniors, 18 to
20 years old, and are new to the military and war, thus vulnerable to bullying
Callie Wight, a psychosocial counselor in women veterans' health in Los
Angeles, has been treating women who were sexually assaulted in the military for
the past 11 years. In all that time, she told me, she has only seen a handful of
cases where a woman reported an assault to her commander with any success in
getting the assailant punished. "Most commanders dismiss it," she said. 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.
At the moment, the most shocking case of military sexual assault is that of
Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, 21, who served in Iraq in 2004. Swift was coerced into
sex by one commanding officer, which is legally defined as rape by the
military, and harassed by two others before she finally broke rank and told. As a
result, the other soldiers treated her like a traitor for months.
Unable to face returning to the assailant, she went AWOL during a leave at
home, and was arrested and put in jail for desertion. At first the Army offered
her a deal: It would reduce her punishment if Swift would sign a statement
saying that she had never been raped. She refused, saying she wouldn't let the
Army force her to lie.
The Army court-martialed Swift, and stripped her of her rank. She spent
December in prison and was then sent to Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, far away
from her family. She must stay in the Army for two more years, and may face
redeployment. The men who assaulted her received nothing but reprimanding
Swift's mother, Sara Rich, has set up a Web site with a petition calling for
her daughter's release: More than 6,700 veterans and soldiers have signed it,
and 102 of them signed their names to stories of their own sexual persecution
in the military.
Swift's case, and those of her petitioners, illustrate the real attitude of
the military toward women and sexual assault, the one that underlies its fancy
Web site and claims that it supports soldiers who've been raped.
The real attitude is this: If you tell, you are going to get punished. The
assailant, meanwhile, will go free.
Which brings up an issue that lies at the core of every soldier's heart:
It is for their comrades that soldiers enlist and reenlist. It is for their
"battle buddies" that they risk their lives and put up with all the miseries of
sandstorms, polluted water, lack of sanitation, and danger. Soldiers go back
to Iraq, even if they've turned against the war, so as not to let their
buddies down. Comradeship is what gets men through war, and is what has always got
men through war. You protect your battle buddy, and your battle buddy protects
As an Iraq veteran put it to me, "There's nobody you love like you love a
person who's willing to take a bullet for you."
So how does this work for women? A few find buddies among the other women in
their squads, but for most there are no other women, so their battle buddies
are men. Some of these men are trustworthy. Many are not.
How can a man who pressures you for sex every day, who treats you like a
prostitute, who threatens or punishes you if you refuse him, or who actually
attacks you, be counted on to watch your back in battle?
"Battle buddy bullshit," said García from the Military Police. "I didn't
trust anybody in my company after a few months. I saw so many girls get screwed
over, the sexual harassment. I didn't trust anybody and I still don't."
If this is a result of the way women are treated in the military, where does
it leave them when it comes to battle camaraderie? I asked soldier after
soldier this, and they all gave me the same answer:
-- By Helen Benedict
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