Is Anyone Listening to Rape Victims in the U.S. Military?

Does U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have time to tend to a bit of terrorism taking place right in his own shop? Despite occasional scandals and calls for reform, rape and sexual harassment

Jan 1, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Does U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have time to tend to a bit of terrorism taking place right in his own shop?

Despite occasional scandals and calls for reform, rape and sexual harassment continue to ruin lives in the armed forces of the United States — and many perpetrators still get off with little in the way of punishment.

How bad is the problem? Here's one indicator: Soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel keep writing a small weekly newspaper seeking help. The letters have come with a disconcerting constancy since the publication of a story on the new book For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, by therapist Terri Spahr-Nelson of Oxford (see "Military Rape," issue of Aug. 22-28).

Aside from some recruiting stations and a handful of National Guard armories, Greater Cincinnati is not a duty station for a large group of military personnel. Chances are the people asking for help saw the article online and wrote with some sense of frustration at having to seek assistance way off in the Midwest.

The letters are uniformly disturbing:

·"I am a member of the U.S. Navy. I am 19 and I was recently raped by a shipmate. The DA dropped the case and my command is doing nothing.

I live on an aircraft carrier with my rapist and I don't know what to do. If you have any advice, please call my cell phone (number withheld)."

· "I am a wife of an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Our daughter was raped ... on the base. ... She came forward with her gut-wrenching story. We found out who the guy was. And the circus began: making her relive it 20 times and tell it over and over again. Mind you she is 15 ... Anyway it went to trial this week. A jury of six officers let him go, even though there were two other young women that were also raped by this animal."

· "I got out of the army March 23. I need help. I was wondering if maybe there was a support group or something to help females who were sexually harassed in the military. It seems like trying to get help at the veterans' clinic is impossible. I am a single parent of three children. I need to be healthy, but I am not. I am always afraid now ... I was chaptered from the military because I swallowed a bottle of anti-depressants. ... I don't want to feel like this anymore, worthless and afraid. I don't know what to do anymore. Please, if you know of anyone that can help me ..."

· "My wife was raped by an officer ... Can you help?"

· "This document was prepared and distributed by the friends and family of (name withheld), who are only interested in seeing that an innocent wife and mother is not re-victimized by a military justice system that apparently does not recognize or prosecute most sexual assaults committed against women in the military. ... If proper military discipline had been followed and if officers had lived up to their code of conduct, this Christmas would have been a much happier time of celebration for all the families involved. As it stands today, it is simply one of the saddest experiences any of us has ever had to face."

Spahr-Nelson has generously taken time to respond to all inquiries forwarded to her. A decorated military veteran, she encourages victims of rape and sexual harassment to get confidential help from counselors, noting that the best assistance might be outside the military. She also refers military personnel to the National Rape and Incest Information Network and a group called Survivors Taking Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel.

The past year has focused outrage on sex crimes perpetrated — and covered up — by clergy of the Catholic Church. When will national indignation demand the U.S. military safeguard its members from similar abuses?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.