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Military Sexual Assault and Rape 'Epidemic'

Studies suggest as many as one in three female soldiers are raped during their US military service.

by Sarah Lazare

"My experience reporting military sexual assault was worse than the actual assault," says Jessica (a pseudonym for her protection), a former marine officer and Iraq veteran who left the military because of her command's poor handling of her assault charges. "The command has so much power over a victim of sexual assault. They are your judge, jury, executioner and mayor: they own the law. As I saw in my case, they are able to crush you for reporting an assault."

Jessica is joining a civil lawsuit bringing claims against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, charging that under their watch the military failed to adequately and effectively investigate rapes and sexual assaults within the ranks.

As many as one in three women in the US military are raped during their service, studies suggest. (Gallo/Getty) The litigation, which was filed in Virginia district court in February of this year by the law office of Susan Burke, is set to go to trial in the coming months. The initial suit named 16 plaintiffs, all former or current military service members - but in recent months that number has swelled to more than 30, as more and more veterans come forward as survivors of sexual assault.

These plaintiffs join the growing crescendo of veterans, military service members, spouses and their advocates speaking out against the problem of widespread sexual assault and rape in the US military.

As the war in Afghanistan passes its ten-year mark, sexual assault runs rampant within the ranks, with an estimated one in three female service members raped during their service, according to at least one peer-reviewed study. This is in a military where women comprise more 11 per cent of active duty service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and more than 15 per cent of the total military, with at least 200,000 active duty women currently serving. This epidemic also affects men: 60 per cent of women serving in the National Guard and Reserve, along with 27 per cent of men, are estimated to have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Perpetrators rely on a chain of command that appears to offer virtual impunity for sexual assaults committed against lower-ranking service members.

'Re-traumatising' redress

Military reports and Congress-appointed task forces acknowledge that sexual assault within the military is widespread. While the Department of Defense (DoD) has repeatedly said it is attempting to curb the problem, the most recent evidence shows that it has failed to adequately address the spread of this outbreak.

The most significant change made by the military in the past decade was the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) in 2005. This office, which encompasses the entire DoD, is responsible for oversight of sexual assault policies and the implementation of prevention and response programs. However, SAPRO is rife with problems. The primary role of the office is to track rapes and sexual assaults and release annual reports. According to the US Government Accountability Office's (GAO) own evaluation, SAPRO has failed to work with the disciplinary arm of the DoD, giving its reports and findings little muscle. Furthermore, the Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military December 2009, which was ordered by congress, found that funding of SAPRO had been "sporadic and inconsistent".

SAPRO introduced a system of restricted reporting, allowing survivors of sexual assault to make confidential reports, to avoid outing themselves in a hostile environment.

While this step has increased the number of reports and created avenues for survivors to seek personal care, it does not launch an investigation into the assault. "Restricted reporting allows the military to ignore criminal aspects of sexual assault and to just take care of it," says Greg Jacob, a former Marine and the current policy director for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an organisation dedicated to advocacy and providing a healing community for military service women.

Military officials claim that improvements have been made since the Defense Task Force's 2009 report. "DoD has a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault," says Cynthia Smith, SAPRO press spokesperson. "Over the past two years, DoD has affirmed its commitment to preventing and effectively responding to sexual assault. The department's focus has been on reducing the stigma associated with reporting, providing sufficient training for commanders, and ensuring adequate training and resources for prosecutors and investigators."

Yet, the prosecution rates of sexual assault in the military remains at eight per cent, a dismal percentage in light of the staggering number of assaults that are believed to go unreported. This compares to a 40 per cent prosecution rate for sexual assault charges in civilian courts, which itself is considered low. For cases that do make it to trial, sexual assault conviction rates are astoundingly low. According to SAPRO's most recent annual report, in 2010, of 3,158 reports of military sexual assaults, only 529 alleged perpetrators were convicted, while 41 per cent were acquitted or had charges dismissed. Some six per cent were discharged or resigned in lieu of courts-martial, which means that they were allowed to leave their jobs in order to avoid sexual assault charges.

Some survivors of sexual assault claim that SAPRO's "zero tolerance" policy has only succeeded in creating an environment where the command has incentive to deny and cover up sexual assault. "They have all of these generic catch phrases that sound great," says Jessica. "But in reality, 'zero tolerance policy' means that when you make a complaint, it is hidden. Assault reflects badly on the command. What results is cover ups."

Furthermore, critics charge that SAPRO's educational materials are ineffective and often serve to reinforce the mentality that victims are to blame for their own assault. According to the Defense Task Force's 2009 report, "the Task Force's interactions with Service Members suggest training is only marginally effective".

A sexual assault prevention poster released by SAPRO reportedly urges soldiers to "wait until she's sober" before propositioning a woman for sex. "The military believes falsely that if you eliminate alcohol you can eliminate sexual assault," says Jacob. "There is perception that it is the result of bad decision making on the part of the victim."

Critics charge that SAPRO fails to address the rape culture that permeates all aspects of military life. "Rape culture separates service members from a group of people that they can consider others, victims, weaker beings," insists Maggie Martin, Army veteran and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an anti-war group comprising active duty service members and veterans who have served since September 11, 2001. "The rape culture in the military is another way that some service members reduce real life trauma to a joke that they can pretend is not real. It is a way for some to try to prove they are 'hardcore' to the point of inhumanity."

Many insist that the military, which is largely allowed to investigate itself, is still not telling the full story. A 2010 lawsuit filed by SWAN and the ACLU against the DoD and Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was filed after the military refused requests for government records concerning rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the military.

"When I heard about women who had accused someone of rape or sexual assault it was always framed as some personal vendetta the women were taking out on those they accused," says Martin.

Selena Coppa, a former Army Sergeant of eight years and a current member of IVAW tells of an Army Specialist who was molested by another Army Specialist while drunk and passed out. "The woman who was assaulted found out the next morning what had happened. She wanted to do something or say something. Everyone was like, what are you talking about? That is not sexual assault, only sex counts as sexual assault."

According to Army policy, sexual assault includes sexual contact when the victim "does not or cannot consent." Yet, rules in the books are seemingly meaningless in an environment where sexual assault appears to go unreported and unacknowledged.

Impunity of high-ranking males

For those who do seek redress for sexual assault and rape through the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal code governing military service members, many face an uphill battle in which they are pressured to drop their charges at every step along the way.

When Jessica was raped by a senior officer and his friend, she reported the assault to her command. However, she says that the ensuing investigation was nothing more than a retaliatory measure inflicted by a command that was more interested in covering up assaults and protecting their own reputations. "My command, and the [military lawyer] ordered to do it, produced not a thorough, but a voluminous - as cover ups often are - investigation that proved that I was routinely called disgusting denunciatory names by junior and senior Marines alike, but that because I wore make up and running shorts in the summer, that I therefore welcomed the harassment and subsequent assault and did not deserve protection," she says.

Jessica says she requested a deployment to Afghanistan to get away from the harassment and isolation she faced after filing her report, but when this was denied, she decided to leave the Marines, which she was able to do because of her status as an officer. Jessica joined the lawsuit against Rumsfeld and Gates because, she says: "No one right now is holding commanders accountable." Meanwhile, Jessica says that she is still pursuing charges against her alleged perpetrator through the UCMJ.

Lower enlisted service members who are raped or sexually assaulted, however, often do not have the option of leaving, with many forced to continue serving alongside their perpetrators, including in war zones. "They are putting people in a situation where they are totally dependent on their peers, and when their battle buddies rape them, their superiors are not doing anything about it, explains Johanna (Hans) Buwalda, a mental health provider who has worked with survivors of war for more than twenty years. "There is no safe place for them to go. They can't even leave the military. They have to fulfill their contract." Some researchers say that military sexual trauma compounds deployment-related traumas by excluding women from military camaraderie and fraternity.

These military sexual assaults are in addition to the countless rapes and sexual assaults that have been carried out against civilians at the 800 US military bases around the world, including within occupied populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there have been several high-profile scandals exposing US military rapes and slayings of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, as well as sexual assault and humiliation as a tool of torture, there is little information about overall rates of military sexual assault of civilian populations overseas. If sexual assault rates within the military are any indicator, sexual violence would seem to be endemic to the US' global military presence.

Last April, Jennifer (a pseudonym for protection), who is a civilian, reported sexual assault by her then-boyfriend after he returned from a tour in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. Her alleged assaulter's sergeant major told her that she sounded like a "crazy ex-girlfriend" and that her sexual assault charges were not viable. Jennifer spent the next year and a half contacting everyone she could think of in hope that the military would take her charges seriously. She watched as her assault charges were ignored and dismissed by SAPRO, the NCIS, and even the Pentagon. After navigating countless meetings and phone calls with caseworkers, sexual assault survivor advocates, and even several congressional representatives, Jennifer feels that she has made little progress in her effort to get a fair process through military channels, and, to date, there is no indication that her charges will bear any consequences for her alleged assaulter. Within two months of her report, her alleged assaulter was promoted, and she says that he may be deployed any day, if he is not already.

Jennifer says that the process of attempting to press charges has been deeply traumatising. "When you have been assaulted, talking about it is hard enough," she says. "And having to wait to hear back from someone for help makes you want to give up."

"I do not trust the US military at all. Their rules and regulations are nothing more than words on paper," she says. "I am a woman and a civilian, and I have been treated like nothing more than a dog."

The 1996 Federal Lautenberg Amendment, which makes it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence to carry a weapon, extends to the armed forces. With many forms of sexual assault falling under the rubric of domestic violence, assault convictions could preclude a service member from carrying a weapon.

Yet, if these assaults go unreported and untried, little stands in the way of perpetrators serving in combat, sometimes alongside those they have assaulted.

Furthermore, the military often blatantly ignores this federal law and sends convicted sex offenders and domestic abusers into war in a climate where the military is overextended, from fighting two ongoing wars. Since September 11, 2001, the DoD has been granting an increasing amount of "moral waivers" which permit soldiers convicted of domestic violence and sexual assault to serve in combat.

High rates of sexual assault take a profound toll on the mental health of service members. Sexual assault is the number one predictor for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for women serving in the military, according to a study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development. Yet the difficulty and stigma against reporting sexual assaults creates significant obstacles for survivors seeking care and disability benefits through the VA. A study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America shows that approximately 40 per cent of homeless female veterans report having been sexually assaulted in the military.

Members of IVAW are drawing attention to the problem of sexual assault and rape that plagues the military. "IVAW's campaign Operation Recovery is focused on raising awareness about sexual assault and gender-based violence," explains Martin. "We are building a healing community where veterans and service members can challenge military leadership and stand up for the right to heal and the right to access the care survivors of trauma need."

"As an organiser I believe that the best way for us to combat military sexual trauma is to tell the truth about it," insists Martin. "We need to tell the truth that all types of people are sexually assaulted and that no one deserves it. We need to start looking to the perpetrators of sexual assault and the military environment for answers, not look to victims to see how they can be blamed for their own assault."

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