Report: Sexual assault of women soldiers on rise in US military

By , csmonitor.com

In the online magazine Salon, Helen Benedict reports that every female veteran she interviewed for a book she is writing on women in the US military said that "the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection." Ms. Benedict also reports that some women soldiers started carrying knives to protect themselves, not from Iraqis, but from their male peers in the military.

Although no comprehensive statistics have been compiled on the number of women soldiers raped in Iraq, rumors of the problem were so prevalent that in 2004 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld created a task force to look into the issue. Although the findings were never released publicly, the military created a website to deal with potential sexual assault in the military and also initiated classes on preventing sexual assault and harassment. The number of reported military assaults rose from 1700 in 2004 to more than 2300 in 2005.

But Benedict says, as with most sexual assaults, the actual number is vastly underreported. This situation in Iraq is compounded because often those committing sexual assaults are senior officers or members of a woman's unit. There is also the problem of widespread availability of hard-core pornography on US military bases in Iraq, which helps create an atmosphere of sexual tension. Women who have reported sexual assaults, Benedict alleges, have often been ignored or treated as pariahs by fellow soldiers. Also, as she points out in the Salon article, there's a long history of such allegations.

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Rape, sexual assault and harassment are nothing new to the military. They were a serious problem for the Women's Army Corps in Vietnam, and the rapes and sexual hounding of Navy women at Tailhook in 1991 and of Army women at Aberdeen in 1996 became national news. 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.

In Iraq, the problem has allegedly grown worse. Col. Janis Karpinski (who was demoted from brigadier general for her role in the Abu Ghraib scandal) alleged last year that three women died of dehydration in 2003 because they were afraid to go to the latrines at night for fear of being sexually assaulted, and so did not drink any water late in the day. The Army calls the charges "unsubstantiated." Colonel Karpinski, however, is sticking to her charges.

In an interview with radio program Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, Iraq veteran Mickiela Montoya talked about why she carried a knife in Iraq to protect her safety.

SPC. MICKIELA MONTOYA: No, safe from the other soldiers. I never intended on using the knife for an Iraqi. I had my M-16 for that. But my knife, I always just kept it for another soldier, because any time I would have any type of strong sexual harassment words spoken, I just mainly felt a little bit more secure, and it was visible, too, to the other soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: Did anything specifically happen to you?

SPC. MICKIELA MONTOYA: Yeah. That's why I would carry the knife. I remember it was really late, and over there they don't have electricity, so we run off generators, and if you scream or if you were to yell for help or anything like that, nobody could hear you, because you're not going to shoot a comrade, because these are your supposed battle buddies. So I would just use the knife as, I guess, a scare tactic, and it worked for me, because after that I never really had a problem.

Benedict reports in the above article in Salon that the most egregious case of sexual assault in the US military concerns Spc. Suzanne Swift. Ms. Swift alleges that she was sexually assaulted by a commanding officer, and harassed by two others, in Iraq in 2004. When Swift finally "broke ranks and told" of her situation she was treated as a "traitor" by her fellow soldiers. During a leave at home she went AWOL rather than return to face the soldiers that she said had allegedly assaulted her. The Army court-martialed her, stripped her of her rank, and said she needed to spend two more years in the military, during which she may be redeployed. Benedict says that Swift's assaulters received only "a reprimanding letter."

Swift's mother has set up a website called "Free Suzanne." More than 6,800 veterans have signed a petition of support, while more than 100 have described their own sexual assaults while serving in the US military.

In response to a request from the NPR show "Day by Day" for comment on Benedick's allegations, the US military issued a statement that said it takes reports of sexual assault in the military seriously, and describes the measures the military is taking to deal with such reports.

Sexual assault is a crime and is incompatible with military values. It inflicts incalculable harm on victims and their families; it tears at the very fabric of civilian and military communities; and it destroys trust among individuals and faith in our institutions.

Our policy has three major components: prevention through education and training; enhanced treatment and support of victims to speed their recovery; and accountability measures to ensure system effectiveness.

Finally, The Boston Globe reports that the US military is considering installing surveillance cameras in recruiting stations across the US in order to address a rise in misconduct allegations against recruiters. Those allegations include charges of sexual assault by military recruiters.

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