Today, a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than killed by enemy fire.
If you have ever read articles about violent behavior in the military’s subculture, you may have found yourself questioning whether or not it is true. Let’s get to the root of why that is. Most writers and researchers are not generalizing that the entire military is made up of offenders; they are drawing attention to a dysfunction within the military subculture that often leaves victims without justice and leaves perpetrators without accountability.
Let’s challenge our internal biases about our nation’s heroes and get to the root of the problem: military sexual trauma (MST), a lack of accountability, and biased investigations of commanders in sexual assault cases.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
Military sexual trauma is not just rape: it can be sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, relationships that are coerced, and verbal/sexual abuse from other military members outside of the workplace. MST is defined best by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as “experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a Veteran experienced during his or her military service.”
Warrior Renew informs us that “those with MST had been found to have three times the rate of depression, twice the rate of substance abuse, more obesity, smoking, myocardial infarctions, and hysterectomies before age 40 than those without MST.”
It is also important to remember that not every survivor chooses to report their trauma nor do they choose to seek care, so the datum is not always representative of actual sexual assaults and abuses. Also, some survivors do not experience immediate effects of trauma, the onset of trauma becomes problematic many years after the incident.
In regards to MST, it is important to point out the vast differences in command climates across military branches: the Marine Corps has a population of barely 7% females and combat MOS’s severely limit the presence of females. Please keep in mind that Army, Air Force, and Navy experiences may differ and some may have better reporting strategies and accountability in regards to sexual assault than others.
According to sociological theories, the military (all branches) is a subculture; a subculture is a culture within a broader culture. Members of the military share meanings, share identities, share values and share specialized vocabulary (all of those acronyms!). I am sure that each branch has similar subcultures but there are vast differences in traditions. They each have their own values, practices, beliefs and norms.
A military subculture is a place where violent behaviors are widely accepted and un-checked; rape culture is prevalent, even in its foundational stages (rape jokes, homophobia, sexist attitudes, etc). Rape culture is not military culture, but rape culture is present in the military subculture. When rape culture is the foundation of a subculture, and it is not addressed, behaviors escalate to such levels that abuse is normalized and almost widely accepted.
In the military subculture, survivors are often discouraged from reporting or getting help when it comes to notifying a fellow servicemember or a superior because it may hinder the mission. We were always taught: mission first.
Testimonies from MST Survivors
Let’s see what MST looks like from the eyes of active duty personnel. All survivors gave permission and wanted to share their stories with us:
The Marine Recruiter
She had an experience with a male Gunnery Sergeant (E-7 GySgt) that made comments about her appearance that were sexual in nature and when she reported, she was duped. In her own words:
“I finally told my Captain about this GySgt, and he made me talk to our SgtMaj to file a complaint. Our SgtMaj was the victim advocacy billet holder (I can’t remember the exact title). When I spoke to the SgtMaj, the sympathy was so fake. He gave me the option of an opened or a closed complaint. Basically, one complaint means that I am seeking military judicial action, and the other means, I will let him (the SgtMaj) deal with the complaint “in house”. He pressured me into making a closed complaint. All that happened was that the GySgt was instructed not to talk to me or go near me. I suffered severe panic and anxiety attacks every time I had to walk by his office (I suffered from anxiety prior to working there, and this made it flare up again).
I found out that the SgtMaj and the Gy were drinking buddies and hung out with each other on the weekends. It explained why I was pressured to make a closed complaint. I left recruiting duty with absolutely no closure from this incident, and I later found out that this SgtMaj would talk about me with all the SNCO’s on the weekends during a get-together. I was labeled an “alligator”, and someone that male Marines needed to stay away from.”
Her full story can be found here.
Repeated Rape = End of Military Career
“My first rape, I was told not to report it because it would ruin my career and they’d make me out to be a slut…so I didn’t’. The stalker was a 1st Sergeant who wound up being transferred. The attempted assault, which I reported ended with the assailant pulling guard duty in my room.
The second rape was in Iraq by 3 comrades while I was semi-comatose. After reporting them, my friends were told not to speak to me, I was forced to work beside them and to sit through a sexual harassment class after being “interrogated” for 6 hours. My company tried to scare me into dropping charges. “You will have to stay here with them instead of deploying home unless you drop the charges.” 20 minutes before my unit went home, they told me to pack my things and I would in fact be leaving. I would eventually fly back to Iraq for the court proceedings where I was not allowed to be privy to.
I spent time sitting in a room until I was called to comment. Needless to say, there wasn’t enough evidence and they got away with it. When I requested to be in a different platoon upon their arrival back home, I was moved to another unit entirely since “I was the problem.” My military career was officially over.”
Her full story can be found here.
What happened when I posted an article about the realities of violence in the military?
I do some writing for a small news/social media site. They work with Google and are gaining some traction. I focus on politics – mostly how politics affect military training – and I write about MST. The articles pull in three dollars each and if they get over 150 views I start getting more revenue, but that rarely happens. I enjoy informing and just getting the word out about what is going on so I share most of my articles in military and military family forums.
The dilemma started when I shared an article about sexual assault, animal abuse, and other violence in the military on a military/veteran and milspouse forum. The article specifically addressed North Carolina. A number of responses from members of the forum either avoided addressing the negative behaviors of sexual assault and animal abuse. Some even flat-out blamed the victims. My credibility was even questioned because of the news forum for which I write.
The first thought that came to my mind after reading those reactions was “hero-worship.” Hero-worship is something that we may allow to cloud our judgment, especially when we are reading about the actions of those who wear a military uniform.
Why is active-duty hero-worship clouding our perceptions?
Hero-worship is an extreme admiration for someone—people often imagine what a military person SHOULD be (honorable, brave, and honest) and that perception becomes so real that any accusation indicating dishonorable behavior is considered outlandish and hard to believe. People become shields for military members and shoot down anything that may go against their hero perceptions.
I have to make it clear that not all survivors of rape or sexual assault are women and not all perpetrators are men—but, hero is a gendered word. We do have a term for women: heroines, but we usually use hero as a catch-all when referring to our military members. So naturally, when a hero is accused of less than honorable behavior, we almost always see knee-jerk reactions blaming victims.
In fact, after I posted my article, one spouse’s only reaction was to inform us that her husband prosecuted a case where the victim (in this case, a female) made-up false allegations of rape. Just for perspective: Out of every 1,000 reported instances of rape, almost 994 rapists walk free without being charged—this is civilian-sector data. Numbers in the military are likely higher as cases are often mishandled and most service members do not officially report. Recent military news articles indicate that there is an increase in reporting sexual assaults, but keep in mind convictions still remain extremely low in comparison to the numbers of reports.
Why was this woman’s initial inclination to blame the victim? Her response tells me that many people are still misinformed about sexual assault. That they have a difficult time believing that their friends or the friends of their spouses have engaged in acts of violence against their own military brothers and sisters. After all, these are people who they have invited into their homes, people to whom they have sent care packages, people who serve next to their husbands or wives.
The same spouse also informed us that in one case a victim up and left her command. What part of our internal biases automatically tries and defends rapists and assumes that victims have it easy, that they can just up and leave their commands? I mean, no one is saying that everyone in the military is violent, so why is it so shocking when someone tells the truth about what goes on behind closed doors in some cases? The answer: Hero worship.
Knowing what the environment is like for service members who seek help from their command after reporting is key in understanding why it can be difficult to get help; unfortunately, as helpful as some spouses can be and as much as many spouses are appreciated, they cannot completely understand what an active-duty servicemember goes through, not even when that experience is shared via their active-duty spouse.
For many commander’s spouses, the active-duty spouse was not the victim, but the judge. In fact, many legislators and advocates like myself are fighting to remove the power of commanders in cases of sexual assault. They are unqualified, untrained, and often, biased. So, when I hear a personal story about how a commanding officer handles such a case, you will have to excuse me if I do not care because most of them lack training in how to deal with victims and rape cases and are incapable of coming to an educated solution.
Get involved: resources for survivors and families for healing
The bottom line is that we have a problem that needs major policy reform; so instead of dividing, we should be tackling this together in a unified front. Our women and men who wear the uniform do not deserve command climates with dishonorable working conditions.
“Make the Connection” shares video testimonies from survivors of MST by era, gender, branch, and other categories. These videos may be triggering for some, so as an alternative, here are some additional resources for military families and for veterans/active duty:
- Sexual Assault Response Resources for Military:
- The VA
- Real Warriors