The Invisible War: Sexual Assault in the Military

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By Sayantani DasGupta

A female soldier shows the two items she always carries on her body: a cross and a hunting knife.

“You always have protection with Jesus,” she says, “but sometimes you need just a little bit more.”

Similarly, another female soldier explains, “[My] knife wasn’t for the Iraqis… it was for the guys on my own side.”

For this year’s Veterans Day, I wanted to acknowledge the efforts of women soldiers. More than any time before in history, women are serving in the armed forces. According to 2007 estimates, women made up 15 percent of active duty forces in the Iraq War, four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War.

And while many women have happily served in the U.S. armed forces, forging noteworthy careers in service to their country, it is also estimated that over 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during their service. And it is quite possible the real figures are much higher.

Sexual assault of fellow soldiers is the U.S. military’s dirty secret. The 2012 Sundance winning film, The Invisible War, documents the rampant epidemic of sexual assault of soldiers by their own comrades, and the military’s systematic policy of covering up most such cases. The film captures the voices and experiences of women soldiers (as well as some men) in all branches of the armed services – women who were not only assaulted by those pledged to be their ‘brothers in arms’, but unable to seek justice due to the military’s internal handling of such cases. Watch the film trailer:

Over and over again, women in the film describe entering the armed services due to family tradition, dreams of honor, professional camaraderie, and public service, only to be treated as second-class citizens (“walking mattresses”) by their fellow soldiers. Women describe being harassed, ridiculed, isolated, and yes, assaulted. They describe being afraid to walk alone through their bases, afraid to go to the latrine at night, afraid to go into the room of a superior when summoned. Women describe being attacked, drugged, beaten, repeatedly raped, and then told by higher ups to “deal with it” or risk demotion, further harassment, or even facing charges themselves for everything from adultery (if their assailant was married) to conduct unbecoming an officer to court-martial. Women describe being unable to remove themselves from unsafe situations, being unable to access mental or other health services, being unable to even receive VA benefits for injuries received from their assaults.

The military’s culture of silencing and retaliating against those who report rape only exacerbates the trauma of the assault. As The Invisible War documents, many assault survivors are so traumatized, they quit the military (‘Go AWOL’), and receive dishonorable discharges – therefore disqualifying themselves from Veterans and other benefits. They may suffer more PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) than soldiers returning from war, becoming homeless, alcoholic, drug dependent, and, with all too much frequency, actively suicidal.

It was journalist and Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict who first broke this story in a 2007 Salon.com article called “The private war of women soldiers.” The article, based on interviews of 20 female Iraq war veterans, and Benedict’s subsequent book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving In Iraq point to the military’s long history of covering up sexual misconduct, from the Tailhook incident in 1991 to Aberdeen in 1996. According to Benedict:

A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans from Vietnam and all the wars since, who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military. And in a third study, conducted in 1992-93 with female veterans of the Gulf War and earlier wars, 90 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the military, which means anything from being pressured for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at.

The burning question, of course, is why? Why is there such a culture of sexual assault in the U.S. military?

As an ex-military colleague recently said to me, “In the military, your body is not your own, it is the property of the U.S. government.” In some ways, the U.S. military is an environment actively conducive to sexual assault and rape. Unlike say, the Israeli army, where service is mandatory for men and women, and there is relative gender equity in numbers at least, women are still a tiny minority in the U.S. military. In combination with a professional culture of violence, strict hierarchy, and unquestioning obedience, the military’s practice of signing “waivers” for up to one in 10 recruits with criminal records creates horrific consequences for female (and many male) soldiers.

Rape in the U.S. military is, of course, not inevitable. Benedict found that the relative safety of any unit was entirely dependent on the commander’s tolerance for mistreatment of women. Unfortunately, due to the strict hierarchy of the military, where soldiers are told never to question the authority of a superior, “command rape” is also quite common – whereby a superior assaults a less powerful soldier with relative impunity. In fact, that rapist may be the very individual to whom the assaulted soldier is supposed to report such occurrences.

Organizations like the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) are working to change military culture and bring about legal reform such that military rape survivors can access the same systems of justice as civilian rape survivors. But there is much work to be done.

Indeed, the situation may be even worse for male survivors of military sexual assault, whether gay or not, due to the rampant homophobia in both military and civilian society. Women of color, who may suffer multiple marginalizations in the military, may also be disproportionately affected by military sexual assault, as some have suggested they were by the now defunct ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ legislation. However, as this article from Colorlines points out, women of color were predominantly left out of the narrative of The Invisible War.

From ancient history and into modern times, rape of women has been an atrocious act of war. In conflicts including the 1971 Bangladesh War and the more recent war in Bosnia, rape has been used as a tool of not only aggression but ethnic cleansing – an attempt to systematically make women pregnant with a next generation fathered by the enemy.

In 2008, the U.N. declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, the Commander of the U.N. Peacekeeping forces, is documented as having commented, “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.”

But what about being a woman soldier? As one of the soldiers asks in The Invisible War, do sexual assault survivors from the U.S. military get recognized for their valor and suffering at the hands of their comrades in arms with purple hearts?

In honor of Veterans Day, let us work to recognize all rape – whether of civilians or fellow soldiers – as an unconscionable act of war. And let us work to recognize all our soldiers — men and women, gay and straight, our service men and women of all classes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Let us make sure all their sacrifices, and all their courage, is honored.

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  1. [...] “Sexual assault of fellow soldiers is the U.S. military’s dirty secret. The 2012 Sundance winning film, The Invisible War, documents the rampant epidemic of sexual assault of soldiers by their own comrades, and the military’s systematic policy of covering up most such cases. The film captures the voices and experiences of women soldiers (as well as some men) in all branches of the armed services – women who were not only assaulted by those pledged to be their ‘brothers in arms’, but unable to seek justice due to the military’s internal handling of such cases. ” The Invisible War: Sexual Assault in the Military – Adios Barbie [...]