"Grandpa wants you honey." This is my mom now, coming up the stairs and repeating his wish. I take a deep breath, grab a coffee pot and descend slowly. When I hit the bottom stair, Grandpa motions me near and uses all of his energy to force, in a barely audible voice, these words: "This is my granddaughter, the one who wrote a book."
The book. My book. My soon-to-be published memoir. I become light headed as I feel the eyes of the praying, faithful, God-centered men on me. And while I should beam from Grandpa's pride, I don't. Instead, I pretend I don't hear him. I move into the circle of men, pour coffee and speak loudly about nothing before they can ask me questions. I do this because my book is about the thing I have learned does not go with religion: me. And to talk about my book would reveal what I believe they will reject: gay. In his weakened state Grandpa can't compete with my flurry of distraction, so he closes his eyes and fades away.
The Pentagon's announcement this week that it will lift the ban on women in ground combat positions is welcome news to many of those who value equal rights. But it is also an urgent reminder that sexual assault remains a blight on our armed forces that only constant, sincere efforts will erase.
As a writer who has been interviewing female veterans for many years, I have long argued that lifting the ground combat ban would help military women win the respect they deserve. As long as women were officially prohibited from engaging in that essential act of a soldier - fighting - they were seen as second-class. And that has contributed to the violence, predation, and harassment so many military women endure.
The ground combat barrier is gone now, but the attitudes that sprung from it will not disappear so easily. Plenty of military men will decry this decision and resent the women who wish to fight by their sides. Some will be angered, insisting that their female comrades endanger them - an assertion often made but never demonstrated. And some will express their anger with violence. [Read the rest here]
Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”
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."
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.
In a New York Times interview, Dave Eggers mentions Malcolm Garcia: “there’s a writer named J. Malcolm Garcia who continually astounds me with his energy and empathy…I’ve been following him wherever he goes.”; New York Times
“One of the wonders of coming back to NOTES after such a long time is how “current” Baldwin is. That might sound like a cliché but in so many instances in our lives we learn that some clichés are built on things solid and familiar and timeless. “Journey to Atlanta” is but one of a hundred examples in NOTES. What also comes across, again, is how optimistic James Baldwin was about himself, his world, black people. Even when he describes the awfulness of being black in American, he presents us with an optimism that is sometimes like subtle background music, and sometimes like an insistent drumbeat. But through it all, with each word– perhaps as evidence of a man certain of his message – he never shouts.” From the new introduction by Edward P. Jones (Pulitzer Prize The Known World)
"You should not have to be subjected to being raped or sexually assaulted because you volunteered to serve this nation." -- Susan L. Burke, lead lawyer in a case filed this week against the Department of Defense.
On Tuesday, two men and fifteen women filed a class action lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and current Secretary Robert Gates, claiming that the Pentagon leadership failed to protect servicemembers against sexual assault. We asked Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, about her book, which chronicles the lives of several women serving in the military, and the accusations in the case.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was unhappy about the Iraq War from the start, but I wanted to hear what the soldiers who had actually been fighting it thought. Then I met my first woman soldier, and she told me, "There are only three things the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military: a bitch, a 'ho, or a dyke." She also told me that no one believed that she'd served in a war because she's a woman. Then I discovered that more women were fighting, being wounded and dying in the Iraq War than all US wars put together since World War Two. All that made me know I had to write about women soldiers.
How long did it take, and how many people did you end up interviewing?
I interviewed for about three years. I interviewed over 40 women who'd served in Iraq, as well as some who had served in Afghanistan and earlier wars. I also talked to male soldiers. Of all these people, I picked five women to spend a lot of time with, visiting their homes, seeing them several times, talking to them for many hours, both in person and on the phone.
What surprised you in the course of your research and interviewing?
I never expected to hear so many stories of the women being relentlessly harassed, sexually assaulted and raped by their own comrades – while they were training or actually at war. I was also surprised by how engaged in ground combat these women were, despite the Pentagon's ban against women doing this job. They were raiders and gunners and guards. They were fighting.
Finally, I was surprised by how much I liked and sympathized with the women, and how touched I was by the idealism of the young.
A play was produced as a direct result of your book. How did that come about, and what was it like for you to see your book come alive?
I wrote the play myself, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Then, through sheer luck, I found a director (William Electric Black) who had a theater ready to go. He suggested I expand the play, and he figured out how to stage it.
It was humbling to see the words come alive on the stage, but as the play was in the words of the real soldiers I had interviewed, it was also odd. As I watched the actors perform, I could see the actors, the real soldiers behind them like ghosts, and hear the words in my head as I had written them down – all at once. I also learned how many fewer words you need when a human being adds expression and gestures to them. I learned how much I could cut!
What kind of effect has the book and play had as far as you can tell?
The effects have been gratifying, and numerous.
Top members of the Defense Department have read the book and implemented some of the changes I suggested.
I have been invited to testify to Congress twice on behalf of women soldiers.(Read testimony from May 2010 here.)
Many articles have been written about the book and its subject, here and abroad. (The book is out in Italy now.)
And a lawyer named Susan Burke came to see the play, and subsequently read the book, and then she contacted me and we met. She said she was inspired by the soldiers' stories to start a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of military women who have been sexually assaulted while serving. That suit is now a reality.
I have also received dozens of emails thanking me and the soldiers -- and the actors -- for bringing this great injustice to light.
Last, but not least, the real soldiers came to see themselves portrayed in the play, and it was a moving experience for them, the actors and the audience alike.
The class action lawsuit you mentioned accuses the Department of Defense of allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape and sexual assault, and of mishandling cases that were brought to its attention. The case claims that the Pentagon violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Can you explain the claims in the case? Do you think that the leadership has failed to protect service members?
This case came about for several reasons. Too many female servicemembers have reported rapes and assaults only to be countercharged with threat of court martial to keep them quiet. Military culture fosters and encourages a blame-the-victim attitude that intimidates women out of telling anyone about sexual persecution. And among those cases that are brought the trial, the vast majority are either dismissed, or result in non-judicial and absurdly light punishments for the perpetrators. The details are in the book, but, in short, the command from the top down has done little to either prevent or punish the sexual harassment and assault of its female servicemembers, and this has been the case since women were first allowed into the military over 100 years ago.
Here at Beacon, we're very sad to be saying good-bye this week to publicist extraordinaire Maxine Giammo and our beloved CFO John Wong. They will be dearly missed, and we wish them all the best in the future.
Sarah Palin's decision not to pay for rape kits when she was mayor of Wasilla was an issue in the campaign for the White House. But allow me to introduce the large pink elephant that has been sitting quietly in the corner of the room:
At the Winter Soldier Investigation* in March, Spec. Patricia McCann, who served in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard from 2003-4, read a memo issued to all MEDCOM commanders clarifying that "SAD kits"-- which are forensic rape kits--"are not included in TRICARE coverage."
TRICARE, the United States Department of Defense Military Health System that covers active duty members, will only pay for rape kits if the victim is seen in a military or a VA facility.
But the Pentagon acknowledges that 80 percent of military rapes are never reported. And that 80 percent who go off-base to protect their anonymity (and/or their careers) are on their own. If a soldier is on leave, or is five-hours from the nearest VA, or if a soldier is simply delivered to the nearest hospital by the local ambulance driver, their rape kits are not covered under TRICARE. Neither are other forensic exams that might be used in domestic violence situations.
Front-line treatment shouldn't be conditional on where a rape occurs or where the nearest treatment is available. This is not only a parity issue, but a further obstacle to treatment and justice.
"To understand military sexual assault, let alone know how to stop it, we must focus on the perpetrators." Helen Benedict on why soldiers rape.
"To us sofa slouchers, these teen Olympians are heroes. But they have the nation's pediatricians on edge." A Baltimore Sun op-ed by Mark Hyman about young athletes. Also check out Hyman answering questions about how to be a good sports parent.
"They're being asked now to tighten their belts, and there simply aren't any notches left, so that I think what we're going to see is people going into a huge amount of debt." Nan Mooney, author of Not Keeping Up With Our Parents, on NewsHour (available in transcript, audio or video).
"At the nation's extreme western edge, sitting over 2500 miles from the U.S. mainland, Kauians are as vulnerable to high food and energy costs as a people can be." At the Slow Food Nation blog, Mark Winne highlights the special challenges faced by a Hawaiian food bank.
"There's historical truth, which I don't discount at all, and there is, co-existing with it, a deeper truth about what it is to be a person and what it is to live your life in alignment with the sacred." Danya Ruttenberg, author of Surprised by God, at the Cultural Criticism and Beauty Tips blog.
this past year, I have talked to forty or so women soldiers for my forthcoming
book, The Lonely Soldier: Women at War in Iraq, and it has become clear
to me that they have a set of needs quite different from those of men. All
soldiers must deal with the roadside bombs, mortar and grenade attacks, and
gunfire that are a part of daily life in this war, where the front line is
everywhere and not even bases are safe; and all soldiers must cope with seeing
the dead and wounded close up and with, perhaps, having killed. But women have
additional burdens: they are sexually harassed by their male comrades day in
and day out; one in three is sexually attacked or raped; and they are pressured
every minute to conform to a military culture that is intractably male. "The
Army consistently tries to make women into men," as Sergeant Sarah Scully of
the Military Police wrote to me. "Any sign that you are a woman means you are
automatically ridiculed or treated as inferior."