Moral Low Ground

Society

Rape Epidemic Plagues U.S. Military

by Brett Wilkins

This week, a group of 17 US military veterans who were victims of sexual assault while on active duty filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Defense. These victims claim “the military’s repeated failures to take action in rape cases created a culture where violence against women was tolerated” and hope their lawsuit will change the way the military handles sexual assault cases. That’s a lot to expect when you examine how pervasive sexism, macho attitudes  and violence are in military culture. After all, we’re talking about an organization whose purpose is the achievement of objectives through the use of organized violence.

Misogyny runs rampant in our nation’s armed forces; sexual harassment is a daily fact of life. Worse, sexual assaults have been increasing year after year. There were 3,292 reported cases in 2010 alone and the Pentagon knows that around 80% of military rapes are never reported. A 2003 study by Dr. Anne Sadler of the Iowa City Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center concluded that 30% of female veterans were sexually assaulted while serving on active duty.

Women are violated in every stage of their military experience. Marine Corps recruiters have raped drunken underage girls, telling them they had to have sex if they wanted to become Marines. Military gynecologists have performed lewd examinations, sometimes without wearing surgical gloves. Dorothy Mackey, a former Air Force officer, was sodomized during a visit to her OB-GYN.

Other women are attacked while living in close quarters with men, vastly outnumbered, on combat deployments. There are signs in many American camps in Iraq warning females not to go to the toilet or shower at night without a “battle buddy” or risk rape. Colonel Janis Karpinski, she of Abu Ghraib infamy, testified that several female soldiers have died of dehydration in their sleep at Camp Victory near Baghdad because they refused to drink water late in the day, even in 120 degree heat, out of fear of being raped in the dark of night on their way to the latrines.

These assaults are usually committed by male superiors, a crime female soldiers call “rape by rank.” The powerful prey upon the powerless and the tough-guy culture of the armed forces makes it difficult for victims of sexual assault to report the crimes. Most commanding officers with discretion to press charges are men, many of whom either refuse to believe victims or refuse to prosecute perpetrators. Less than ten percent of cases end up in court-martial. This sad fact only leads to further sexual assaults, as many military men correctly perceive that they can rape with impunity.

Many victims who report rapes are treated like they’re the ones who’ve committed a crime. Some are threatened, like highly decorated Gulf War veteran Sharon Mixon who was drugged and gang-raped by six of her fellow soldiers. They threatened to kill her if she opened her mouth.

Occasionally the rapists do more than just threaten. Twenty year-old Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach was eight months pregnant when she was murdered by Cesar Laurean, a fellow Marine who had raped her and then found out she was going to report him. Laurean beat Maria to death with a crowbar before burning her and her unborn child in a fire pit in his backyard.

Military training reinforces misogynistic behavior that can lead to sexual violence against women. Marching cadences can tell us a lot about the military mindset. They range from the mildly perverse:

“This is my rifle, this is my gun [pointing to genitals]; one is for killing, one is for fun.”

to the shockingly graphic:

“Who can take a chainsaw,
Cut the bitch in two
Fuck the bottom half and give the upper half to you…”

The Air Force has been hit particularly hard by a rape scandal involving cadets in training at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. One in eight female cadets there were victims of rape or attempted rape in 2003; seven out of ten women reported sexual harassment. Many women were punished for reporting rapes while the perpetrators usually got off scot-free. The Air Force, aping the standard military response when faced with atrocities, initially blamed the rapes on “a few bad apples.” But once the sheer number of victims was recognized, the Academy took corrective measures and the number of sexual crimes decreased.

What’s often overlooked when examining the epidemic of military rape are the back stories of the rapists themselves. Two studies published in the journal Military Medicine found that half of all men who enlist in the Army and Marines were themselves physically abused as children. One in six suffered sexual abuse. These troubled young men are more likely to engage in sexual violence against their fellow troops. This problem was further compounded when recruitment standards were lowered, enabling many violent criminals to enlist.

What the US military is facing is nothing short of a rape epidemic amidst its ranks. Some serious steps have been taken to fix this shocking problem. In 2005 the Defense Department implemented a sexual assault prevention and response policy that better addresses the needs of victims. A victim support hotline will soon be launched that will allow troops to obtain support from anywhere in the world. And a Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database is in the planning stages. The Pentagon hopes it will improve victim case management when it is introduced sometime in the next year.

This is all well and good, but in order to curb the rampant rape epidemic in the military, it will be necessary to change the very mindset of the male soldier. This will undoubtedly prove a far more difficult, if not impossible, task. But it must be done. “Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are a plague upon the United States military,” Anuradha Bhagwati of the Service Women’s Action Network told ABC News. “A pervasive climate of sexual violence and intimidation threatens our national security by undermining operational readiness, draining morale, harming retention and destroying lives.” And that’s bad for our troops, it’s bad for our military and it’s bad for our country.

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