Thursday, July 31, 2008

Who Defends Those Who Defend Us?

When I was a high school senior over a decade ago , I took the ASVAB test. I hadn't seriously considered joining the military, but the test meant I got out of a class I didn't like. And to be honest, I was nerdy enough that I enjoyed taking (and acing) any type of standardized test. Despite the fact that there were things on the test I had never seen, I ended up scoring in the 98th percentile. Needless to say, I became quite popular with recruiters. Over the next few months, there were numerous phone calls and visits. I was offered scholarships that included full tuition, room and board and a monthly allowance. Upon graduating with my degree, I would be required to spend four years in the military. For a seventeen-year-old girl who was anxious to get away from her hometown and seemingly overprotective mother, it sounded like a sweet deal. In fact, the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I could go to college for free, do some traveling, defend my country and be free to live my life by my 27th birthday. I could also make my father, who spent 40+ years in the military, extremely proud.

There was one small roadblock--my mother.

Momma was immensely unhappy when the recruiters started calling. If she answered the phone, she didn't let them speak with me and often resorted to rudeness if they were insistent. She told my father not to encourage me and to instruct his "buddies" to leave her baby alone. To me, she insisted that the military is no place for a woman and that she would stop at nothing to dissuade me from joining. She swore that if I joined I'd be sent off to some Third World country where I'd be captured, tortured, raped and/or killed. I was young and invincible and assured her that she was overreacting. There were quite a few heated discussions and probably a few fights. In the end, I didn't accept the scholarships, and I didn't join the military.

As it turns out, I graduated from college in May of 2001, just months before the attacks of September 11. I sometimes wonder what the last few years of my life would have been like if my mother hadn't absolutely put her foot down and squashed my ambitions of being some sort of G.I. Jane.

I started thinking about this today after reading an article on about sexual assault in the military. Turns out that enemy soldiers aren't the only thing about which my mother had to worry. At a VA Hospital in L.A., 41% of the female patients said they were victims of sexual assault or abuse while serving in the military. Twenty-nine percent said they were raped. Jane Harman, a Democratic Representative from California, said to a House panel this week, "Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq." According to Harman, only 181 out of 2,212 reports of military sexual assaults, or 8 percent, were referred to courts martial in 2007. Sadly, it's believed that many sexual assaults remain unreported.

I found this article at that includes interviews with several women who were raped while serving. Many of the attackers went unpunished. The victims were often treated like criminals themselves. The article was written in 2005; you can read it here:

To be honest, much of this is not the least bit surprising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 1.4 million people on active duty; about 80% of them are male. For the most part, the men who serve our country are honorable and brave. But with that many people serving, it's inevitable that they won't all be decent or moral or even mentally stable. I've known quite a few men in the military and for the most part they were good, solid men. But I've also known a few who I personally don't think should be allowed to handle heavy artillery due to rage issues, latent alcoholism or mental illness (or a combination of two or three of these). And to be frank, I have little trouble picturing these guys in situations where they would sexually assault a woman,, especially if there's alcohol involved.

It doesn't surprise me that women are raped in the military. It doesn't even surprise me that women who report rapes are often treated so badly. It does anger me, though. Many of these women are risking their lives on a daily basis to serve their country. As of 2005, 15 percent of those on active duty were women; 16,000 of those were single mothers. These women have to leave their children in order to give them a better life, and some of them are not only having to protect themselves from enemies but also from the very men who are supposed to have their backs. I've read stories of female soldiers urinating in cups at night to avoid going to the bathroom in the dark. Others talk about carrying knives to protect themselves from unwanted advances. I know there's not really a way to prevent these crimes from happening, but these women must be protected if they come forward and admit to being raped. The men who assault these women must be prosecuted. Perhaps if more of these soldiers are punished, then others will less likely to assault other women.

In a way, my mom was right. She used to say, "There are things that can be done to a woman that they can't do to a man." There's some truth in that. A woman can be beaten, but bruises and bones heal. Yes, there's emotional damage, but not the type that is inflicted when a woman's own body is used against her as a weapon.

In January of this year, the VA opened its 16th inpatient ward that specializes in treating victims of military sexual trauma. Obviously, the government realizes that there is a problem. I'm thankful that there is treatment for these poor people, but what actions are being taken
to prevent this from happening in the first place?

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