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Front Page > Issues > 2003> January

Confronting rape and sexual harrassment in U.S. military

By S.M. Berg

I’m sure it’s no shocking revelation to Portland Alliance readers that there is widespread sexual abuse in the armed forces. The Tailhook Convention in 1990 is infamous, and this summer’s murders of four women in six weeks by Fort Bragg soldiers will probably linger for some time, but in between the splashy incidents that make headlines live the untold stories that are a daily occurrence in the US military. Decorated veteran T. S. Nelson has written a compelling documentary on the silence in between the occasional media frenzy by incorporating her knowledge as a sexual trauma specialist with official military reports and victims’ testimonies. There are many books on sexual assault and many books on the military, but Nelson’s research dramatically juxtaposes facts with personal accounts in a way that vividly brings out the heartbreaking reality of this ongoing problem. First, some facts:

• The Minneapolis Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center found that attempted or completed sexual assaults were 20 times higher than rates for other government workers.
• Navy spokesman Lieutenant Jeff Davis reported in 1998 that “Navy figures recorded nearly seven rapes and more than eight sexual assaults each month in the Pacific Fleet’s region since December 1997.”
• According to a 1995 Department of Defense study, in the previous 12 months, 86 percent of female Marines reported sexual harassment or assault, as did 82 percent in the Army; 77 percent in the Navy;
• 74 percent in the Air Force; and 75 percent in the Coast Guard. 39 percent of males in the Army reported sexual harassment in the past 12 months, as did 37 percent of men in all other branches of service.
• An Army survey obtained by Time magazine found spousal abuse to be twice as high in the Army than in civilian life and concluded, “Each week someone dies at the hands of a relative in uniform.”
• Women are discharged from the military for homosexuality three times more often than men, with accusations of lesbianism often coming after servicewomen refused sexual come-ons.

And now some of the testimonies that put a human face on the above statistics:

• “There is no way I would have reported what happened to me, not after I saw what happened to other women who came forward. I wanted to support them, but I felt I had to keep quiet to protect myself.”
• “Command ordered me to ‘drop it and never accuse anyone of rape again or I would live to regret it.’ Life was hell for me in that unit after that.”
• “The raping of my career by the Air Force I loved was far worse than the rape of my body.”
• “He [the doctor] told me that my command had asked him to kick me out [of the service] anyway he could.”
• “Can anyone explain the thought process behind punishing rape with a letter of reprimand?”

Nelson approaches the solution by addressing what she sees as the main avenue for improvement in the armed forces: effective leadership. Military life is a top-down affair, and where leaders have been serious about confronting sexual abuse in their ranks there have been large improvements. Unfortunately, it is still more common to find commanders willing to ignore (or actively participate in) sexual violence than ones willing to take charge for ending such abuses.

If poor leadership is the clearest way to approach this problem, outside accountability is a large part of the answer. A chain of command more interested in saving face is not one working in the best interests of sexual assault victims. As former Navy officer Carl Nyberg writes,

A finding that the command has a climate of sexism or racism will damage, probably irreparably, the careers of the officers in the chain of command. Therefore, supervisors desire investigations, especially of sexual misconduct and incidents with racial overtones, to be handled “in house,” where results of an investigation can be controlled. Telling investigators to rewrite investigations until the right conclusions are reached is one of the more heavy-handed methods of command influence. The chain of command, up to the secretary of defense, also benefits when local commanders minimize adverse publicity.

If military leaders won’t promote changes in the system of handling sexual crimes for the sake of the servicepersons involved, they might be persuaded to do something about stopping sexual criminals from victimizing civilians. In the two years from 1995 to 1997, U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa murdered 34 people, of which 23 were women and girls, in what amounts to more than one murder every month. Most of these men received light sentences considering the severity of their crimes. A constant theme throughout the victims’ anecdotes is rage and disbelief that men convicted of rape were given mere verbal reprimands and otherwise discharged from service without further punishment for their violent assaults against fellow workers. That the military releases known sexual offenders into society should be cause for greater concern, but the few persons sounding the alarm are mainly victims who came face to face with this astonishing ethical breach. I’ll let them have the final word:

• “Although he was transferred to a new job, it was as supervisor of a clinic [a promotion] and a few months later he was given another female to supervise.”

• “He was allowed to retire early with only the loss of one filthy stripe, thereby maintaining his retirement pay of chief.”

• “Sure, they discharged him, but now he’s a civilian free to rape other women. No one will know about his history in the army. I’m sure his discharge papers are not stamped RAPIST, but they should be.”

S. M. Berg is a local activist, writer and Alliance volunteer.


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Last Updated: November 14, 2004