The US serviceman waited outside the latrine and hit the woman on the back of the head as she exited, knocking her unconscious. He tied her hands with cord, blindfolded her, cut her clothes off with a knife, stuffed her underwear in her mouth and proceeded to rape her. When she regained consciousness and began to resist, he threatened to rape her with the knife instead. He hit her in the head again, this time forcefully between the eyes, again causing her to lose consciousness. When she came to she was transported to another facility where she was interrogated for three hours. She received no medical treatment for her head injuries. For the first few days following the rape she was housed with another woman; she was subsequently left in isolation for an extended period. Her requests for religious counsel were denied.
Sound like the latest exposé from Abu Ghraib? Guess again. It’s just one of the more than 100 incidents of rape, sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct reported in the past 18 months by U.S. women soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been sexually assaulted by fellow U.S. soldiers.
The military’s response to these victims has been grossly inadequate. Many victims did not receive even the most basic medical care– emergency contraception, rape evidence kits, testing for sexually transmitted infections, prophylactic treatment or testing for HIV, and rape crisis counseling are not consistently available. Military personnel lack even common-sense sensitivity as to how to respond to rape trauma; one mental health counselor cleared an Army sergeant who had just been raped to go out on missions again, feeling it would be good for her to “keep busy”. Prosecution of these crimes is delayed indefinitely, and servicewomen must often continue to serve in the same unit with their assailant.
In February, after Pentagon officials admitted receiving 112 reports of sexual assault of troops deployed in the Middle East over the previous 18 months, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed a task force, headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Ellen Embrey to investigate the problem and make recommendations. Those findings were released May 13th in a 114 page document titled “Task Force Report on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault”.
The report acknowledges the widespread problem of sexual assault in the military – over 1000 incidents reported in 2003 alone. It also acknowledges the military’s broad-based failings and lack of leadership in addressing the problem, noting everything from confusing definitions as to what constitutes sexual assault, to poor data tracking to a deficiency of sound policies for preventing or responding – most notably a lack of privacy or confidentiality of victims who report. The report notes that victim advocacy and integrated services are often not available, that offenders are rarely held accountable and that consistent, timely, sensitive responses to victim medical and psychological needs are frequently lacking. Indeed the report states that the Department of Defense does not have any mandated requirements to provide advocacy for sexual assault victims.
The report goes on to make recommendations about what needs to be done to address this problem in the immediate, near and long term. Astonishingly, here’s what the report recommends - more reports! Specifically, in the category titled “Recommendations for Immediate Action” the task force recommends:
“Within the next three months, convene a summit of DoD leaders (military and
civilian) and recognized experts on sexual assault, to develop strategic courses of action…”
“During the upcoming Combatant Commanders Conference, allocate time on the agenda to discern the how the findings and recommendations of this report should apply to their areas of responsibility.”
“Ensure broadest dissemination of sexual assault information regarding DoD’s policies, programs and resources available for sexual assault prevention, reporting, response, protection and accountability through DoD-wide communication outlets.”
The issue of sexual assault in the military is not a new problem; we have known of problems since 1991 at Tailhook, to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1997 and just last year at the Air Force Academy. Ironically the Task Force report appendix lists some 46 previous reports, hearings and investigations relating to the issue of violence against women in the military, dating as far back as 1988. Yet despite repeated research precious little has changed.
It is long past time for more reports, there is need for immediate action. First and foremost, the medical and psychological needs of the victim servicemembers being raped while in combat zones must be met. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners must be deployed, rape test kits provided and backlogs cleared so evidence can be processed in a timely manner. Beyond that, victims need to be ensured privacy and confidentiality so they can report incidents without fear of retribution or placing their career in jeopardy. The military definitions of sexual assault and rape need to be standardized and modernized to match non-military legal definitions. And of course strong leadership and strong policies must be implemented to change the sexist military culture that allows these abuses to continue unabated.
For fifteen years women servicemembers have been sexually assaulted in ways every bit as dehumanizing and agonizing as the assaults on prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The behavior of the men who commit these crimes is every bit as appalling, and the failures of leadership equally egregious. Maybe after fifteen years of management apathy and reports that go nowhere, the most important action we could take would be to send our women servicemembers digital cameras.
Irene Weiser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of StopFamilyViolence.org, a grassroots activist organization committed to ending all forms of violence against women and children.