News: Military Rape

The ugly secret in the American armed forces

Women in the U.S. armed services are increasingly at danger — not from foreign terrorists, but from men in the U.S. armed services.

The deaths of four Army wives in six weeks this summer at Fort Bragg, N.C., allegedly at the hands of their soldier husbands, might be an aberration. But the number of rapes, sexual assaults and sexual harassment against women soldiers in the military has reached the level of an epidemic, according to Terri Spahr Nelson of Oxford, Ohio.

The author of For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, Nelson documents a problem that ought to give pause to women considering a military career.

"It is estimated that two-thirds of female service members experience unwanted, uninvited sexual behavior in the military," she writes. "To exemplify the magnitude of this problem, consider what would happen if the U.S. armed forces were faced with a problem that affected two-thirds of the male service members. One would hope that there would be an immediate call to action, a stand-down and nationwide attention to the problem."

Rampant abuse
Sexual harassment by servicemen is not a new problem. In the 1990s the Tailhook scandal — in which drunken Navy pilots formed a kind of sexual molestation gauntlet — and widespread sexual abuse reported at the Aberdeen Proving Ground brought the issue national attention and promises of reform.

But the problem has not gone away. Indeed, there's reason to believe it's gotten worse in recent years, according to Nelson.

"The problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the U.S. military are epidemic," she writes. "Reports of abuse continue to flood in as the problem continues to emerge. Surveys of women in the military tell a story of rampant sexual abuse and harassment by their male counterparts amid concerns that the issues are being minimized or ignored by military leaders."

Some of the most damning data comes from the Department of Defense itself. Although the first-person accounts in For Love of Country are gut-wrenching, perhaps the most poignant parts of the book are the raw numbers. A 1995 study by the Defense Department found 47 percent of women had received "unwanted sexual attention."

Nor are women the only American soldiers being victimized by their comrades in arms. The same study found 30 percent of men in the armed forces also had received "unwanted sexual attention."

That attention isn't limited to the ass-pinching and boys-will-be-boys humor celebrated by popular shows such as M*A*S*H. In just one year, the Defense Department found, large numbers of American troops were attacked — by fellow American troops.

"Specifically, 9 percent of women in the Marines, 8 percent of women in the Army, 6 percent of women in the Navy and 4 percent of women in the Air Force and Coast Guard were victims of rape or attempted rape in one year alone," Nelson writes.

As in the society at large, Nelson finds social and institutional hurdles that prevent many cases of rape and sexual victimization from ever being reported. Many suffer in silent shame.

But even worse, when women report attacks by fellow soldiers, the official response by military authorities is often less than supportive. When prosecution does result, almost all the accused perpetrators walk away free.

A study by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense measured conviction rates for rapes reported to military criminal investigation offices in 1994-96.

"Another startling fact is that over 95 percent of the accused rapists in the Navy and Marines in 1992 were found not guilty of the alleged rapes and not convicted of the crimes," Nelson writes.

Iron bars aren't enough
Nelson isn't interested in diminishing the armed services; she's a decorated Army veteran. But neither is she one to allow an injustice go unremarked.

A mental-health therapist in Oxford, Nelson stood virtually alone in 1996 in facing down the superintendent of the Talawanda School District, publicly demanding he be investigated for conducting a smear campaign against an Oxford school-reform activist. That scandal eventually led to a $135,000 settlement on behalf of the activist.

Last September's Al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York reawakened U.S. patriotic fervor, and military service is once again popularly regarded as virtuous. With a national debate underway over a possible second war on Iraq, For Love of Country comes at a time that makes Nelson's cry of alarm inconvenient.

But she is unabashed in demanding the nation act to protect its soldiers from rape and sexual assault. She describes the severity of the problem at a U.S. Marine base, where male soldiers kept climbing through barracks windows to attack women Marines.

"Yes, the United States Marine Corps issued metal bars (just like they issue boots, M-16 rifles and helmets), one per room to the women in the barracks," Nelson writes. "Presumably, the metal bars were not intended to be used as weapons for self-defense, although we wonder how marine leaders would have responded to an unconscious male marine on a woman's bed with a bump on his head and his skivvies around his ankles."

What accounts for the intensity of the problem?

"This is a complicated and controversial issue," Nelson says.

But her own training as a therapist suggests an answer. Rape, she reminds us, is a function of violence — not sex.

"What distinguishes a person who rapes from someone who does not?" Nelson writes. "The single characteristic that is most often linked to convicted rapists is a greater tendency to express rage and aggression through violence."

Perhaps it bears remembering that the military trains people to kill — that, in fact, is the chief mission of the military. Is it any surprise that such an institution has a high rate of sexual violence?

Of course, the problem is more than rape.

"Of all the types of abuse, the incidents of family violence in the military are particularly high," Nelson writes. "For example, a 1996 study by the Pentagon found that from 1991 to 1995, more than 50,000 active-duty service members had hit or physically hurt their spouses."

Rape has been associated with war for centuries. Rape was one of the reasons for the execution of Sir Peter von Hagenbach in the Holy Roman Empire in 1474, after what historians consider the first-ever war-crimes trial.

But only in 1998, after the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia, did an international court formally recognize rape as a form of genocide, alongside forced deportation and the murder of civilians.

Nelson's book makes strong recommendations for a serious national response to rape and sexual harassment within the U.S. military. Her book studies the emotional and financial costs associated with the problem.

But in the end, she argues, the crisis must be addressed because justice demands it.

"It is time to confront rape and sexual harassment in the military if for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do," Nelson writes. ©