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Sexual Assault in the Military: Q&A with Lonely Soldier author Helen Benedict

"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?

Lonelysoldier 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.

Related reading: this post on the Ms. Magazine blog discusses the case, and mentions The Lonely Soldier and another Beacon Press book, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture