Abuse of women GIs: Good men must check bad ones

Claims of sexual abuse in the military by a US Army specialist show a need for progress.

In January 2006, US Army Specialist Suzanne Swift went absent without leave (AWOL) from her unit, the 54th MP Company, rather than return to Iraq.

She claimed to have suffered repeated sexual harassment and abuse, and blamed a chain of command whose members variously refused to stop it, participated in it, and accused her of bringing it on herself. She was arrested on June 11.

Now, an Army investigation is under way to determine the merits of her allegations and whether she should be punished for going AWOL. Meanwhile, she has been assigned to another unit and is largely restricted to Ft. Lewis, Washington.

Not surprisingly, Specialist Swift's case is attracting attention from the antiwar left. But this case is different. Unlike another Fort Lewis soldier, 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who has refused to go to Iraq on the grounds that the war is illegal and immoral, Specialist Swift claims that her refusal to return to Iraq is based upon the harassment and assault she suffered on her first deployment.

Her lawyer, Larry Hildes, a member of the left-leaning National Lawyer's Guild Military Law Taskforce, is seeking an honorable discharge for Swift, along with full veterans' benefits for the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) allegedly caused by the abuse.

At one level, this case is nonsense. Swift has no legal right to refuse service in Iraq or anywhere else because her fellow soldiers may have committed crimes against her. If her emotional state is such that she can no longer function as a soldier, she should be honorably discharged and receive appropriate treatment and compensation.

But at a deeper level, Swift's case suggests that it is time for the US Army – for all the services – to answer one question: Must American servicewomen continue to regard sexual harassment, assault, and rape as part of the price they must pay for serving their nation in uniform?

When conscription ended in 1973, the services began taking more women (currently 15 percent of the military). With their generally better test scores and behavior, they would make up for all the high-quality men who weren't joining (and are not joining now). But the services expected women to remain second-class support troops even while moving them ever closer to combat.

This profound hypocrisy left women vulnerable. Good men could not depend upon them in a fight, jerks felt free to disrespect and harass them, and predators felt free to prey upon them. All too often, the command structure seemed more concerned with keeping them in their place or getting them out than with either justice or military effectiveness.

This is changing. Since September 2001, more than 146,000 servicewomen have gone to war. Many air and naval combat specialties were opened to women in the 1980s and '90s, due to sustained assault by an antimilitary feminist movement. But now, as a matter of military necessity, women are serving with small infantry and special operations units from which they are still legally barred. Full equality under arms isn't quite there yet. But it's happening.

Further, servicewomen now seem more likely to report sexual harassment and rape, while the military, having made a sustained and serious attempt to reduce sexual harassment, is now doing the same for sexual assault.

But the solution isn't merely strict enforcement of the laws against sexual harassment and assault. It's certainly not sensitivity training, because these criminals are sensitive to other people's pain: they like it. The solution is for the brothers – of all ranks – to inform the perpetrators and their collaborators and sympathizers: "If you do this to our sisters, you're not our brother." The brothers must insist that their chain of command back them when informal censure and shunning aren't enough. Every unit has its share of criminals and dirtbags. The issue is, who sets the tone? It's time for the good men to set the tone.

I have seen this happening in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, where men kept an informal guard over the only all-female shower at Camp Junction City. I saw it in Afghanistan, where an infantryman warned me that he and his buddies had heard a serial rapist was operating down at Bagram Air Field and they hoped to find him. And I saw it in America, where a National Guard colonel who had problems with male troops from another (badly led) unit intruding upon his female troops in their shower told those soldiers, "You are armed. Buttstroke these men, and I will back you."

American servicewomen do not need more rules and regulations. They do not need the support of a feminist movement that, since 2001, has ignored their valor. They need the respect they have earned from their brothers, and the mutual protection that soldiers owe one another.

Erin Solaro is the author of "Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military," which will be published in August.

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