Imagine a military health issue that affects almost every woman who enlists. Imagine that this same problem affects a smaller proportion, but a large number, of men. This problem seriously impacts a soldier's ability to serve, often causes mental and physical health issues, and can even lead to suicide.
And imagine that those who face this issue are likely to find themselves further traumatized by any attempt to address the problem. According to Invisible No More, since 2006 more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the military. While most victims do not report their crimes, the few that have the courage to come forward are often ostracized, further harassed, and sometimes even punished more harshly than their perpetrators. They can see their dreams of serving their country in the military shattered, their careers derailed by something for which they are not to blame.
On July 6th at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, I saw The Invisible War, a film that investigates the epidemic of rape in the U. S. military. This wasn't a topic that was news to me: I am old enough to remember the Tailhook scandal and the assaults at Aberdeen Proving Ground. And in 2009, Beacon published Helen Benedict's book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, which tells the story of five women soldiers who bravely served in Iraq but were faced with a culture of misogyny, homophobia, and sexual violence so pervasive, as one female soldier put it, "I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform as mine."
The Invisible War filmmakers (director Kirby Dick and producers Amy Ziering and Tanner King Barklow) credited Benedict's writing as an inspiration, and she is one of many experts who appears in the film. Since the book was first published, Benedict has appeared before Congress to testify about military sexual assault. She has also written a novel, Sand Queen (Soho Press), and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, inspired by her research.
I've followed Benedict's work since the book was published, and through it I've had an education in the lives of women in the military. I've learned about organizations such as the Service Women's Action Network and Protect Our Defenders, and about the work being done by Massachusetts Representative Niki Tsongas (who introduced the movie when I saw it at the Coolidge) and others in Congress to investigate the problem of military sexual assault and encourage positive changes in military culture. The men and women who have come forward to share their stories--with Benedict, with the filmmakers, before Congress--to call them brave is an understatement. They speak for countless others who suffer in silence.
After seeing the film, I interviewed Helen Benedict via email. —Jessica Bennett, Blog Editor, Beacon Broadside
The women profiled in the film and in your book were different and their stories were each unique, but the similarities are striking: harassment, assault, retaliation, threats, and a lack of accountability. The Lonely Soldier focuses on women from one war, in one branch of the military, but it seems that this is a problem that has been persistent in all branches of service, and one that manifests itself both stateside and overseas. How pervasive is sexual assault and harassment in the military and how does it affect soldiers—both women and men?
The latest Department of Defense figures are showing that 20 percent of military women are sexually assaulted while serving, while for men, the number is one percent. Because men outnumber women in the military, this means that many more men than women are assaulted, but proportionally the vast number of victims are women. Other studies I cite in my book show an even higher rate – 33 percent of women sexually assaulted – and a 90 percent rate of sexual harassment. These numbers are of epidemic proportions and affect women on home bases and at war.
The stories of abuse in the movie and in your book are harrowing, but it seems that a good deal of the damage inflicted upon victims comes from the way they were treated by the military after they are assaulted. How does military leadership fail assault and harassment victims?
The military is a blame-the-victim culture, thus many victims are met with skepticism, disbelief or outright blame when they report an assault. They are often treated as liars trying to get attention or bring down the career of a man, or blamed for drinking, flirting or otherwise “inviting” the assault. (No one invites a brutal attack, ever.) Furthermore, even for those cases that are taken seriously and prosecuted, the conviction and punishment rates are shockingly low--much lower than they are in civilian courts. This sends the message that assailants will be protected by the military, whereas their victims will be vilified.
The most recent scandal--which has received surprisingly little media attention--involves twelve instructors and at least 31 female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base. One instructor, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, was allowed to plead guilty to "having sex with a female trainee" and received 90 days confinement before he acknowledged being involved with a total of ten trainees. The most serious charges, which will be addressed in a court-martial trial beginning this week, are leveled against Staff Sgt. Luis Walker. The leadership at Lackland has taken great pains to stress the personal responsibility of the perpetrators for their crimes, emphasizing that the great majority of instructors are ethical in their treatment of trainees. While this is certainly the case, does this PR tactic sound familiar?
Well, in all fairness, most men in the military are not sexual predators. Many too many are, but not most, so in a way the military is justified in saying most of their leaders behave correctly. We should be careful not to paint all military men as rapists, for this is terribly unfair to the majority who would never behave like that and are as appalled by it as women are. Sexual predators are repeat offenders, so one man can cause an egregious amount of harm.
That said, the military must take more responsibility for this huge problem in its ranks and its culture. It has been denying and covering up the problem for decade after decade, thus perpetuating and even supporting what is essentially a rape culture. No organization in the U.S. gives individuals as much power as the military does: with that power must come ethical behavior and anyone who abuses the power should meet with the proper justice.
Sexual "predators" or repeat sexual offenders like Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Catholic Priests accused of abusing parishioners, and military serial abusers thrive in an environment where they have power imbalances and institutional secrecy on their side. Predators also feel empowered by "getting away with it," something that happens in an overwhelming number of sexual assault cases in the military. What does the military do to screen out or identify sexual predators?
As far as I understand, the military does almost nothing to screen out or identify sexual predators. Under President Bush, many criminal records were waived for recruits because the military was too short-staffed to run two wars. No one with a criminal record, especially one that entails abuse of women, should be allowed to serve.
At the moment, one in four veterans in prison is there for a sexual assault. Furthermore, if a sexual predator is expelled from the military, the civilian community to which he returns is not informed of his record.
In a postscript at the end of the Invisible War, the filmmakers note that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took steps this past April to assist victims, clarify sexual assault policies, and elevate investigations of assault beyond the local unit commanders. When I saw the film, Representative Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts spoke to the audience about how she has worked in Congress to affect positive change in the military. The military has promised change before—do you think that we are finally moving in the right direction?
I do. We need to take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and military justice system because it is too closed a system to be fair to victims. For example, some 25 percent of victims must report their assault to the very man who assaulted them; whereas 33 or so percent must report to someone who knows the assailant. This results in a system in which friends and those in command can close ranks and protect one another, shutting out all justice for the victim.