It’s time for a band of brothers…and sisters
by Michael O'Brien
As if the horrors of the war on Iraq weren’t frightening enough, yet another evolving scandal involves sexual assaults on women members of the Unites States military. Reminiscent of the U.S. Navy’s Tail Hook scandal in 1991 where several dozen women were sexually assaulted during a drunken rampage and more recently at the United States Air Force Academy in 2003, women have become the victims not only of their attackers but of superior officers and the military justice system. In the case of the Air Force Academy, 1 in 5 female cadets reported some level of sexual assault including rape.
As in civilian life, the vast majority of sexual assaults on women in the military go unreported. The Pentagon’ own statistics show that nearly 3,000 rapes and other sexual assaults on women were reported in 2006 alone. Almost 1,200 of these assaults involved attacks by fellow soldiers. The actual number of sexual assaults is certainly much higher but – as in civilian life – women who do come forward are often forced to run the same gauntlet of reverse blame encountered by their civilian sisters.
As someone who has never been victimized in such a way, I can scarcely imagine the horror, pain and isolation that victims of sexual assault must experience. Even if the attacker is brought to trial and convicted, the aftereffects of the attack often last for a lifetime. How then must a victim feel when the perpetrator not only avoids prosecution but is still in a position of authority over the victim? Fearful of retaliation and abandoned by the command structure and the military justice system, many victims choose not to report the crime.
Despite an almost total absence of coverage the corporate mainstream media, the stories of some of the victims has reached the light of day. A recent broadcast of the news program NOW on Public Television exposed the awful truth about sexual assaults on military women stationed in Iraq and elsewhere. The NOW investigation reported that nearly 1 in 4 women in the military have been subjected to sexual assault during their active service. The report goes on say that while the Pentagon has established protocols for reporting assaults and aiding the victims, the military has failed to act to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place. The NOW report cited that out of 1,400 investigations into sexual assault only 72 resulted in a courts-martial, the military equivalent of a criminal trial. From 2004 to 2006, service member-on-service member sexual assaults rose 33% from 800 to 1167, this according to the 2006 Department of Defense Annual Report on Military Services Sexual Assault.
I personally found one story to be particularly disturbing, involving a woman who was victimized not only by two sexual assaults but by the military justice system. After being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier she reported the attack. The perpetrator was convicted during an Article 15 hearing, given a fine, demoted in rank and ordered to stay away from his victim- no court marital, no jail time - just a non-judicial slap on the wrist. Still she was forced to confront her attacker everyday as though nothing had happened. To make matters worse, her superior officer took up where her attacker left off, stalking her on a daily basis. Reporting the stalking to a military chaplain did nothing to prevent her superior from eventually raping her. Based in part on the experience of her first attack and fearing greater retaliation she dropped the investigation.
Victims of sexual assault face sometimes insurmountable hurdles and military life can make matters worse since it is where you live and work often in close quarters. Without a system of support and the knowledge that wrong-doers will be punished commensurate with the crime, victims can find themselves virtually powerless.
The military is proud to promote the bonds of brotherhood that often develop among soldiers especially in those troops who find themselves in combat situations. The evidence can very often be seen in the promotional advertising that the military uses to lure new recruits. Even Hollywood jumps on the bandwagon when it comes to depictions of military male bonding and often with good reason since troops in combat must rely on each other for protection and support. Life and death situations profoundly change people whether in combat or surviving a deadly plane crash. These bonds are an important part of who we are as people – powerful and good for the soul.
What continues to escape me is why so many women in the Armed Forces seem not to benefit to from all this camaraderie. The Pentagon is actively recruiting women to join up, employing the same inducements used to recruit young men, including cash bonuses and promises of a college education. Women are trained in much the same way as their male counterparts and many face the same dangers that come with trying to survive life in a war zone.
Past wars are replete with stories of proud mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts who honored the service of male family members. Battle-worn G.I.’s looked forward to letters from home and spoke glowingly of wives and sweethearts left behind. The current conflict is different given the increased numbers of enlisted women who find themselves in the middle of the battle zone. Why is it that more and more women who have chosen to serve find themselves victimized by the very institution they chose to join?
The overwhelming majority of male soldiers respect their female comrades but the increasing number of sexual assaults should be a cause of concern of everyone. The real victimization may very well be coming from field commanders who overlook what in the civilian world is felony criminal conduct. The notion that sexual assault can be effectively dealt with through non-judicial hearings, avoiding the remedy afforded victims through the military court-martial system staggers the mind.
With women playing an increasing role in the 21st century military it’s time to start thinking in terms of a band of brothers and sisters.