Women in the Military:
Who’s Got Your Back?

By Jane Hoppen

When a woman joins the military and attends the basic training of her respective branch—Air Force, Navy, Marines—every element of that training hinges on one primary principle. That principle is camaraderie. One soldier always protects another soldier’s back. Everything is about unity and uniformity. The rhythm of cadence is the rhythm of the day. Imagine the devastation, then, of being an American soldier who is assaulted or raped by one of her own, a fellow soldier. Camaraderie becomes cruel captivity.

Events such as the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, in which more than 100 officers sexually assaulted and harassed dozens of fellow female soldiers but were never convicted; the 1997 sexual assault scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland; and the 2003 sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy have brought the issue of military sexual assault and abuse to the forefront. However, in the past the issue has faded from attention quickly, with the military pledging to police its own, plan for prevention, and clean up the mess.

Little seems to have changed though. An official Department of Defense report states that, “Thirty percent of female veterans in a recent survey reported rape or attempted rape during active duty. Thirty-seven percent of women who reported a rape or attempted rape had been raped more than once; fourteen percent of the victims reported having been gang raped” (Department of Defense, 2002). This is a disturbing reality during a time when 15 percent of our nation’s armed forces are female, with more than 204,500 American women serving in the military. The November 23, 2003, article in the Denver Post, “Protect Women in Military,” reports that, “Nearly one-third of the women in the military have reported a rape or attempted rape, compared with 18 percent in the civilian world. Yet during the past decade, twice as many accused sex offenders in the Army were given administrative punishments as were court-martialed.” Female soldiers are betrayed by the chain-of-command that is their only line to justice.


Only after the Denver Post launched a nine-month investigation into rape and sexual assault against female soldiers in the U.S. military, and then published a three-day series, entitled “Betrayal in the Ranks,” from November 16 though November 18, 2003, did Congress and the general public wake up to the terrors that many of our female soldiers face from their fellow soldiers. What the Denver Post revealed is an obvious military cover-up that has spanned decades, with reporters discovering that “…military commanders routinely fail to prosecute those accused of sexual assault and domestic violence. Nearly 5,000 alleged sex offenders, including alleged rapists, avoided prosecution in the Army the past decade when commanders handled their cases administratively instead of through their criminal courts (Herdy & Moffeit, 2003).”


Military sexual trauma (MST) occurs not only during wartime, but during peacetime as well. Compared with women in the civilian community who face the same experiences, the experiences of women in the military are most definitely unique. The military itself is a microcosm of patriarchal society, isolated from most of civilian society and community, including its justice system. For women in the military, sexual trauma usually occurs in the very setting in which the victim works and lives—a setting to which the victim must return. Depending on the circumstances, the woman might actually find herself still working with and taking orders from the man who raped her. Imagine the sense of helplessness and powerlessness, as well as the risk for more victimization. If the perpetrator is in the female soldier’s chain-of-command, she might even be dependent on him for basic necessities, such as medical or psychological care. The perpetrator might also have control over her career, deciding about evaluations and promotions. Many female soldiers who become victims of MST find themselves in a situation where they must either see the perpetrator every day or sacrifice their career to protect themselves from further trauma.


The cohesion and stigma of camaraderie within the military makes it particularly difficult for women in the military to divulge negative information regarding a fellow soldier. Powerful risk factors for women in the military include young women who enter male-dominated work groups at lower levels of authority, sexual harassment by officers, and unwanted advances while on duty and in sleeping quarters (Sadler et al., 2003). Many victims are often reluctant to report sexual trauma, or cannot find methods for reporting the experience to those with authority. When military women do report sexual trauma, they are often encouraged to keep silent, further harassed, or not believed. Reports are often ignored, or the female soldier herself is blamed. The daily situation becomes one of invalidation and constant fear. The betrayal is a devastating one for these women, soldiers committed to protect a country that most often doesn’t return the favor.


Due to the military’s mishandling of sexual assault and trauma, the Veterans Administration has had to deal with the effects, providing counseling and healthcare to victims of MST. On February 25, 2004, in her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, Dr. Susan Mather, Chief Public Health and Environmental Hazards Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs, stated that, “The Veterans Health Administration has been aware of the issue for women since at least 1991 when there were reports of sexual abuse among women who served in the Gulf War. Jessica Wolfe, who was then working at VA’s Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, reported that 8 percent of the female Gulf War veterans that she surveyed reported attempted or completed sexual assault during their deployment.” A sexual victimization study conducted by the Department of Defense in 1995 among the active duty population found that, “Rates of military sexual trauma among veteran users of VA healthcare appear to be even higher than in general military populations. In one study, 23% of female users of VA healthcare reported experiencing at least one sexual assault while in the military (Street and Stafford, National Center for PTSD).” In a personal interview with Sharon Morrison, Clinical Counselor for the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic in Manhattan, she stated, “I have worked with victims of MST from World War II, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf eras, as well as peace-time, and the helplessness that a victim feels when attempting to receive aid and justice within the military realm after an assault or rape becomes just one more trauma.”


The Miles Foundation, a private, non-profit organization, provides services to victims of violence associated with the military, tracking and bringing public attention to the problem of sexual harassment and assault in the military. Using statistics gathered from various government reports, the Miles Foundation reports that “75% to 84% of alleged offenders are honorably discharged (Department of Defense, 1994).” Public groups like the Miles Foundation are now pressuring the military to both protect female solders and to provide adequate care for those who fall prey to sexual abuse or harassment. This pressure has forced the Department of Defense to begin to addressing the issue, such as announcing a new confidentiality policy for sexual assault victims.

The new policy sets guidelines for restricted reporting that “…allows a sexual assault victim, on a confidential basis, to disclose the details of his/her assault to specifically identified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling, without triggering the official investigative process (Department of Defense, March 18, 2005).” Daniel Pulliam reported that in early January 2005, Pentagon officials “delivered a new set of policies designed to improve the system of preventing and responding to sexual assaults in the armed services. Formed in the last three months as a response to legislation enacted after numerous reports of sexual misconduct involving military personnel, the policies include a military-wide definition of sexual assault, the creation of the position of sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocate, and a checklist for uniformed commanders” (Pulliam, 2005).


Despite these new policies, the question in regard to whether or not the military is even able to rehabilitate itself still remains. This question becomes a disturbing one during a war time in which combat battle lines are less defined, with many female soldiers in combat support units finding themselves vastly outnumbered by male soldiers, facing enemies on both sides. Until public pressure can force the military to both police and punish its own in sexual assault and abuse cases, anyone who has a sister, mother, wife, daughter, niece, aunt serving in the military must worry, and wonder, who’s got her back?m

References

Herdy, A. and Moffeit, M. (2003, December 9). Report on sex assault, domestic violence in military spurs house panel chief act. The Denver Post, p. A-04.

Protect women in military. (2003, November 23). The Denver Post, p. E-06.

Pulliam, Daniel. (2005, January 4). Defense official release set of sexual assault policies. GovExec.com. Retrieved January 7, 2005 from www.GovExec.com.

Sadler, Booth, Cook, and Doebbling. (2003). Factors associated with women’s risk of rape in the military environment. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 43(4), 325-334.

Street, A. and Stafford, J. (2005). Military sexual trauma: Issues in caring for veterans. National Center for PTSD. Retrieved April 13, 2005 from ww.ncptsd.org/war/military_sexual_trauma.html.

U.S. Department of Defense. (1994). Abuse victims study. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2002). Armed forces 2002 sexual harassment survey. Washington, D.C.: Defense Manpower Data Center.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2005). News release (No. 267-05, March 18, 2005. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.

 

 

 

 

     
     
 
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