The prevalence of rape in the military
By Hayleigh Gowans
From the American Revolutionary War, all the way to the current wars, women have had roles in the U.S. military. Originally, women were used as nurses, to help heal wounded and sick soldiers. After World War II, the military started to allow women into more active roles. Women are now allowed to fill 91 percent of all military roles. Today, women make up about 14 percent of the U.S. military. In the recent “War on Terror,” about 193,000 women have been deployed.
Although women have played a vital role to the U.S. military from the beginning, they are often not respected for their hard work. According to recent studies, a majority of military women report being sexually harassed, and a significant amount even report being raped.
A study done in 2003 by the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of Iowa discovered that of 556 female veterans surveyed from the Vietnam to Persian Gulf War eras, almost 80 percent of women reported being sexually harassed. Of these women, 30 percent reported an attempted or completed rape, which is twice the rate of rape in civilian women.
Since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, reports of women being raped have shot up by 26 percent.
Still, current figures from the Pentagon say that between 80 percent and 90 percent of sexual assaults against women in the military go unreported.
Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and also the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Benedict found that the culture of the military was vey masochistic and the male bonding in the military is designed to exclude and sexualize women.
“They’re like a bunch of frat boys with guns,” Benedict said. “They’ve been trained to kill, and they’ve been trained to disrespect women.”
She also found that because of the culture of loyalty in the military, many women wouldn’t report being sexually abused because they would be seen as snitches and exiled from the group.
Benedict became interested in the topic of women’s treatment in the military when she was at a meeting for veterans in the Iraq War, where she met her first woman soldier.
“I went up to her and said, ‘Are you a veteran too?’ And she said, ‘Yes, but nobody believes me, and you know why? It’s because I’m a woman,’” Benedict said. “When I asked her about what it was like to be in combat in the military she said, ‘Well the first thing you have to understand is that if you’re a girl in the military, there are three things to a guy that you can be known as: a bitch, a whore or a dyke.’ So when I heard that, I just had to write about it.”
The premise of her book follows the stories of several women who served in the Iraq War. She found that the main problems women faced while in the military were constant inferior treatment by their male comrades, sexual harassment and rape. She also believes that women need to start a web of support for each other because many of them are going through the same thing.
Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAMP) is one of these support groups. STAMP is an organization that Dorothy Mackey started in 1997 as an international group to support people who suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which are psychological effects from sexual harassment and abuse from another military member. U.S. military personnel can call and receive support from STAMP. Mackey’s group has dealt with more than 7,600 cases.
Mackey studied forensics and criminal justice at the University of Akron in Ohio. She went into the Air Force in the early 1980s as a lieutenant through the ROTC and left the military as a captain and tenured officer.
Mackey said that in her nine years in the 1980s and early 1990s of being in the military, she was raped three times. Most of these times, she was under the influence of drugs that were slipped to her by fellow comrades, people whom she said she had trusted.
When she first was entering the military, she was assured by the people at the ROTC that crimes against women, like being raped by other soldiers, were not widespread, and anyone who violated laws against abuse of comrades would be held accountable for their actions. Mackey said this was not the case.
“I went on under a false belief system, which was brainwashed into everyone of us, that this was an ethical and honorable system,” Mackey said. “I walked into the officers’ club where I witnessed young military women who were being trafficked to senior officers … And these guys would have sex with enlisted women on the base. And it was not something that these women wanted.”
Mackey said that in almost all cases where senior officers were found guilty of sexual abuse of women on base, they weren’t punished, only forced to honorably retire. Mackey wasn’t able to leave the military because she was under a nine-year legal contract with them. When she was told that her commander was retiring but not being prosecuted for sexual trafficking of the women on the base, Mackey said she was disgusted.
“I was really quite in shock, but we were forced to march in a retirement for this pervert,” she said. “But he was never really retired. In fact, he was promoted to the Pentagon. Now when I saw that, when I witnessed that, everything in me turned deadly cold. It frightened the hell out of me because I was under contract. And when you’re under contract, you just can’t walk away from the military. It is a legal binding contract. You go AWOL, you go to prison.”
Mackey’s case of sexual abuse while she was in the military has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, but no one has been able to help her prosecute the men who raped her. This is because there are certain laws and acts that give soldiers immunity from being reprimanded when he or she commits a crime. One of these is the Intra Military Immunity doctrine, which states, “Members of the armed forces may not bring an action against the government or armed service personnel for injuries during activity under the control or supervision of a commanding officer.”
However, a recent lawsuit brought to the United District Court of Eastern Virginia may help make it easier to punish someone who has committed a sexual crime on a military base.
On Feb. 15, the suit, brought against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, includes the testimonies of two men and 15 women, who consist of both veterans and active-duty service members, who now suffer from psychological trauma from abuse they received from military personnel. The suit claims that these two men have continued to run military institutions that allow for the abuse of military members by other personnel.
Jessica Kenyon is a former private in the U.S. Army and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Although she was only enlisted from 2005 to 2006, she was assaulted and raped before she even got out of training and then again while on base in Korea. Kenyon’s emotional trauma inspired her to found the organization, Benefiting Veterans, in 2009, and it has dealt with 2,500 cases. It originally started out as an advocacy center for people who suffered from MST but soon grew to include counseling services.
Kenyon said she was one of the first people to actually agree to become a named plaintiff, because others feared retaliation. Kenyon has written a report on how the regulations that are set up in the military are flawed because they allow for loopholes for rapists to not be punished for the rapes they commit while in the military. Although this is not the first lawsuit of its kind, she feels that it is the most thought-out one.
“They made it very clear that there are some legal hoops to jump through,” Kenyon said. “But I expect that when we get our day in court, it will be a long process.”
Hopefully, their suit is successful in cracking down U.S. military abuse against women. However, because current military regulations allow abusers to go unpunished, it will be a rough battle. Women in the U.S. military must be respected and receive the same support from the military as their male counterparts. Supporting these women and being advocates for their cause will help shed light on the corruption that is happening. We cannot go on running a military that “fights for our freedom,” while oppressing its female members.
Hayleigh Gowans is a freshman journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.