Since 2003, over 160,000 female soldiers have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. One in seven soldiers is a woman. More women are serving in the Armed Forces than in any other period of U.S. history. In the Iraq war alone, the numbers of their deaths (71) and casualties (at least 450) exceed the figures for the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined.
The subsidiary effect of the increased prominence of women along the military battle fronts is a significant rise in rape and sexual assault by their male comrades.
Professor Helen Benedict of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University is an author of two books on sexual assault and sex crimes. She has spent months interviewing more than 20 women veterans of the Iraq war for up to 10 hours each in preparation for a new book about them.
According to Benedict, sexual harassment is almost unilateral throughout the military and it is something very few men in the military have to endure. Sexual assault and rape is a real and ever present danger from their own comrades, male comrades. This is a well known fact amongst the military in Iraq. All the women Benedict spoke to told her that their officers in Iraq routinely warned them they should never go to the latrine or showers without another woman for protection. In addition to the dangers of war then, female soldiers also had to worry about the danger of sexual assault from the very people they were supposed to place their trust in.
In an interview on Democracy Now!
, Benedict said the private war of female soldiers was "partly to be treated equally, but it’s mostly to feel safe."
Rape, sexual harassment and assault are not something recent in the military. The Women's Army Corps found it a serious problem in Vietnam. There was the infamous Tailhook incident in 1991 when dozens of Navy women were accosted and sexually molested. In 1997 an Army drill sergeant was convicted of raping six female trainees a total of 18 times.
Benedict reported results from other surveys on this issue:
* A 2003 survey of female vets from Vietnam through to the first Gulf War revealed 30% were raped while in the service.
* A 2004 survey of Vietnam vets and all wars since revealed 71% of all those seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder said they were raped or sexually assaulted while in the military.
* A 1992-93 study of female vets from the Gulf War and earlier revealed 90% said they experienced sexual harassment while in the military. Sexual harassment included anything from being pressured for sex to being stared at or relentlessly teased.
Figures given by the military on this issue are typically lower than from other surveys because women are reluctant to report sexual harassment while still in the service. The environment is simply non conducive to "ratting out" comrades.
Sergeant Eli Painted Crow is a 22-year Army vet who served in both Iraq and Kuwait. She retired from the service in November of 2005. She spoke of one female soldier she knew who had been raped and reported it. Though it was supposed to remain confidential and private, soon everybody knew what had happened. The female soldier was shamed while the the perpetrator was simply transferred to another base.
Painted Crow said there were some bases where there were plenty of females so that at least she knew she had a battle buddy and someone who could accompany her on trips to the latrine. But there were other bases where there would be only one female amongst the company. For that soldier, there was no support.
Only the women soldiers were ordered not to go out alone at night or to the showers or latrine. Take a buddy. But even if they had a female buddy to ask, it was not an easy thing to do. Soldiers get very little if any sleep and even when they sleep, they often wake up frequently for various reasons. Female soldiers were reluctant to wake up a battle buddy in the middle of the night just to accompany them to the latrine.
Colonel Janis Karpinski has been an outspoken critic of how female soldiers are treated in Iraq. Last year she testified at the Bush Crimes Commission Hearings, a mock trial. Below is an excerpt from her testimony:
Because the women, in fear of getting up in the hours of darkness to go out to the portatoilets or the latrines, were not drinking liquids after 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. And in 120-degree heat or warmer, because there was no air conditioning at most of the facilities, they were dying from dehydration in their sleep. And rather than make everybody aware of that, because that’s shocking -- and as a leader, if that’s not shocking to you, then you’re not much of a leader -- so what they told the surgeon to do was, “Don’t brief those details anymore. And don’t say specifically that they’re women. You can provide that in a written report, but don’t brief it in the open anymore.”
According to Professor Benedict, Karpinski had told her there were male soldiers lying in wait out there for the women soldiers. They would pull them into the latrines, abuse them and rape them. When word of this spread, the women became afraid to go out.
Specialist Mickiela Montoya served in Iraq with the National Guard in 2005. She said she figured out a way to get around the problem of going to the latrine in the middle of the night. She would drink her 3 liters of water daily (a necessity because of the intense heat conditions in Iraq) but cut the top off a bottle and urinate into it at night. When morning came, she dumped out the bottle's contents.
Montoya also carried a knife around with her to keep herself safe from the other soldiers. "I never intended on using the knife for an Iraqi. I had my M-16 for that. But my knife, I always just kept it for another soldier, because any time I would have any type of strong sexual harassment words spoken, I just mainly felt a little bit more secure, and it was visible, too, to the other soldiers."
She also told Benedict, "There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, a ho or a dyke."
Abbie Pickett is a specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company. Her company spent 15 months in Iraq. Pickett spoke of a certain base camp in Kuwait where soldiers go to get deployed. "They call Camp Arifjan 'generator city' because it's
so loud with generators that even if a woman screams she can't be heard."
Pickett further added that: "My engineering company was in the first Gulf War, and back then it had only two females. 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."
Reporting a rape for a civilian is difficult enough but the military environment is extremely harsh on whistle-blowers. Women who reported rape were viewed as "incapable traitors." You kept your mouth shut and handled the situation on your own.
If a female soldier reported rape, she had no chance of remaining anonymous. She would not only have to face her assailant every day but also the "rumors, resentment and blame" from fellow soldiers. If her assailant is her superior, she also risked punishment from him for ratting him out.
The Defense Department has not necessarily turned a blind eye to the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the military. It began addressing the issue on its website in 2006. It informs military personnel that rape, sexual harassment and assault are illegal behaviors and explains that a solider can report rape anonymously to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) without triggering an official investigation. Victims are promised advocate and medical care.
The reality is that only active and federal duty soldiers can seek help from SAPR. Inactive reservists and veterans are ineligible. While victims are encouraged to report rapes to a chaplain, chaplains have no training in rape counselling. If a women confides in a friend in the military about a rape, by law the friend must report it to officials. It will then no longer remain anonymous because pertinent details and information such as age, rank, race and gender must be disclosed. In addition, action can only be taken against the accused assailant if the victim steps out of the cloak of anonymity.
According to Benedict, women veterans tell her the military reforms are not working. What the military promises it will do on its website is a far cry from what is implemented in practice.
It has been well documented that soldiers returning from war suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They suffer from some combinations of nightmares, sleeplessness, flashbacks, panic attacks, fear, angry outbursts and inability to cope with daily life. Depression or suicide sometimes result. Many become emotionally numb to family.
Sexual abuse in the military can also trigger PTSD. Those victims are particularly vulnerable to self-destruction under the weight of coping with PTSD from both combat and sexual assault.
Paula Shnurr is a research professor of psychiatry. She did a study of therapy for female vets with PTSD for the Veterans Administration. Shnurr said: "When you are sexually assaulted by people who are your comrades, PTSD can be worse than in
other circumstances. You feel incompetent and helpless, like children feel when abused by the very people who are supposed to look after them. The people you depend on have attacked you."
Though Professor Benedict believes virtually everybody is being harassed in the military, by no means does this mean every woman is being assaulted. Most are not. There are many male soldiers who are good, dependable people. These are the ones that treat women soldiers like their sisters just as they treat their male comrades as
brothers. Soldiers in arms to them means siblings in arms.
The soldiers told Benedict it is the commander that sets the tone for the troops. If a commander does not tolerate the harassment and assault of women, it simply will not happen. But if the commanders and the women themselves turn a blind eye to it, it sends a message to everyone that it is okay.
Out in the battlefield a soldier's life is dependent on many factors. One of the most important is that of his/her battle buddy. "You protect your battle buddy, and your battle buddy protects you."
Female soldiers cannot always find other women in their squads to act as battle buddies. They must rely on the men. Some can be depended upon but many cannot. In the latter case, the women soldier finds herself alone.
Caryle García, who served in the Military Police in Baghdad summed it up this way: "Battle buddy bullshit. 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."
Additional source for the information written in this story came from an extensive article by Professor Helen Benedict