The Nation: The Plight of Women Soldiers

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Spc. Monica Brown

hide captionSpc. Monica Brown received the Silver Star Medal at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan in March 2008. Brown is the second female since World War II to earn the Silver Star award for her gallant actions while in combat. Pentagon policy prohibits women from serving in front-line combat roles, in the infantry, armor or artillery, for example. But the nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no real front lines, has seen women soldiers take part in close-quarters combat more than previous conflicts.

U.S. Army, Sgt. Jim Wilt/HO

Army specialist Mickiela Montoya was standing silently in the back of a Manhattan classroom while a group of male Iraq war veterans spoke to a small audience about their experiences as soldiers. It was November 2006, and she had been back from Iraq for a year, but was still too insecure to speak out in public. Anyway, the room was full of men, and Montoya had learned that a lot of men aren't much interested in listening to military women.

"Nobody believes me when I say I'm a veteran," she said that day, tucking her long red hair behind her ears. "I was in Iraq getting bombed and shot at, but people won't even listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I'm a female."

Montoya, who grew up in a Mexican family in East Los Angeles, served in Iraq for eleven months, from 2005-2006, with the 642nd Division Aviation Support Battalion. She was only 19 back then, but by the time she turned 21 she was as bitter as any old veteran, not only because of the lack of recognition she was receiving as a combat vet but because of the way she had been treated as a soldier—by her comrades, the army and by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many female veterans share Montoya's anger. They join the military for the same reasons men do—to escape dead-end towns or dysfunctional families, to pay for college or seek adventure, to follow their ideals or find a career—only to find themselves denigrated and sexually hounded by many of the "brothers" on whom they are supposed to rely. And when they go to war, this harassment does not necessarily stop. The double traumas of combat and sexual persecution may be why a 2008 RAND study found that female veterans are suffering double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for their male counterparts.

Not many people realize the extent to which the Iraq War represents a historic change for American women soldiers. More women have fought and died in Iraq than in all the wars since World War II put together. Over 206,000 have served in the Middle East since March 2003, most of them in Iraq; and over 600 have been wounded and 104 have died in Iraq alone, according to the Department of Defense. In Iraq, one in ten troops is a woman.

Yet the military—from Pentagon to the troops on the ground—has been slow to recognize the service these women perform, or even to see them as real soldiers. Rather, it is permeated with age-old stereotypes of women as passive sex objects who have no business fighting and cannot be relied upon in battle. As Montoya said about her time as a soldier, "The only thing the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military is a bitch, a ho, or a dyke. You're a bitch if you won't sleep with them, a ho if you even have one boyfriend, and a dyke if they don't like you. So you can't win."

The pinnacle of this derogatory attitude toward women is the Pentagon's ban on women in ground combat, which it reaffirmed in 2006 despite being perfectly aware that in Iraq women are in combat all the time. (Speculation is that President Obama may finally reverse this ban, but it stands as of now.) Because the US military is so short of troops and Iraq's battlefields are towns and roads, women are frequently thrown into jobs indistinguishable from those of the all-male infantry, cavalry and armor divisions, often under the guise of "combat support." They "man" machine guns atop tanks and trucks, guard convoys, raid houses, search and arrest Iraqis, drive military vehicles along bomb-ridden roads, and are killing and being killed. In Afghanistan, too, women find themselves in these positions.

Yet even though more than 2,000 women who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have been awarded Bronze Stars, several for bravery and valor in combat; more than 1,300 have earned the Combat Action Badge; and two have been awarded Silver Stars, the military's top honor for bravery in combat, the official ban continues. This makes it difficult for women to be taken seriously as soldiers or advance in their careers, let alone win respect.

The Pentagon justifies the ban by blaming civilian attitudes. American society, its policy statement says, believes that femininity is incompatible with combat, and will not tolerate the killing and mutilation of its mothers and daughters. Likewise, it argues, soldiers are more troubled by the sight of women being wounded and killed than of men, so will put themselves at extra risk trying to protect women in battle. And finally, women in combat would endanger men because of their lesser strength.

These arguments have been made for decades by conservatives too, but ironically a 2005 Gallup Poll, reported by the military itself, belies them: 72 percent of the public favored women serving anywhere in Iraq, and 44 percent (and here I quote the military's own report) "favored having women serve as the ground troops who are doing most of the fighting."

Not one of these arguments against women in combat has been borne out in Iraq. Any sign of public or media outrage over how many women soldiers are being killed and wounded in Iraq has been conspicuously absent; rather, the press has focused the bulk of its war stories on men, as if female soldiers barely exist, and the same applies to feature films and documentaries. Far from protecting women, many men are attacking them, as discussed below. Studies have long shown that some women's strength matches that of some men, and that women use ingenuity instead of strength where necessary. And there is no evidence that women soldiers add to the danger of men in any way. On the contrary, it is women who are in more danger than before, both from being in battle and from those very men who are supposed to feel so protective of them.

The fact is that military women want equality, and even though not all will choose to join a ground combat unit, just as not all men do, they want the choice to be theirs, not the government's. "War doesn't give a damn what your job is, we're getting killed anyway," said Miriam Barton, an army sergeant from Oregon who served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit. "We're getting blown up right alongside the guys. We're manning whatever weapons we can get our little hands on. We're in combat! So there's no reason to keep us segregated anymore."

The majority of military men do not look down on women as inferior soldiers or sex objects, of course, but there are still too many who do. "A lot of the men didn't want us there," Montoya said about her time in Iraq. "One guy told me the military sends women soldiers over to give the guys eye-candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don't have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead."

Some soldiers and commanders show their hostility by undermining women's authority, denying them promotions, or denigrating their work. Others show it through sexual harassment, assault, and and rape (of which there is a shockingly high rate in the military). These problems occur throughout the military, on US bases all over the world, as well as at war.

In 2003, a survey of female veterans found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving. And a 1995 study of female veterans of the Gulf and earlier wars, found that 90 percent had been sexually harassed.

The Defense Department shows much lower numbers, but that is because it only counts reported rapes—and, as the DoD admits itself in this year's annual Pentagon report on military sexual assault, some 90 percent of rapes in the military are ever reported at all. Nonetheless, that same report showed that in 2008, reports of assault increased by 8 percent military-wide, and by 26 percent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For many women soldiers, the result of all this persecution is that instead of finding camaraderie among their fellow soldiers, or being able to rely on comrades to watch their backs in battle, they feel dangerously alone. As specialist Carlye Garcia, who was sexually harassed throughout her service with the Army Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04, put it, "It got so I didn't trust anybody in my company after a few months. I didn't trust anybody at all. I still don't." The hostility and rejection can run right up through the ranks, too, as women commonly find when they try to report an assault. Some examples: when Lieutenant Jennifer Dyer refused to return to post with an officer she had reported for raping her, the army threatened to prosecute her for desertion.

When Specialist Suzanne Swift reported her sergeant for repeatedly raping her over months and then refused to redeploy under him, the army tried her by court martial for desertion and put her in prison for a month.

When Cassandra Hernandez of the Air Force reported being gang-raped by three comrades at her training acadamy, her command charged her with indecent behavior for consorting with her rapists.

When Sergeant Marti Ribeiro reported being raped by a fellow serviceman while she was on guard duty in Afghanistan, the Air Force threatened to court martial her for leaving her weapon behind during the attack. "That would have ruined by career," she said. "So I shut up."

All the men who were accused in these cases went unpunished. Several of them even won promotions.

The Defense Department claims that since 2005, it has instigated reforms that have created a "climate of confidentiality" that allows women to report without fear of being disbelieved, blamed, or punished like this. As Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), said at a press briefing at the Pentagon this past March 17, "The numbers have gone up and I reiterate, this does not mean sexual assaults have gone up, this means the number of reports have gone up, which we see as very positive as we're getting the victims in to get care."

In fact, nobody knows whether an increase in reported rapes means more rapes or more reports. And all the cases described above happened after the reforms of 2005.

Even when the military does accept a report of sexual assault, the consequences to the perpetrators tend to be negligible. Of the assaults reported and recorded by the Defense Department in the fiscal year 2008, 49 percent were dismissed as unfounded or unsubstantiated—meaning there wasn't enough proof of assault, or that the women recanted or died—and only 10.9 percent resulted in court martial.

Even those few men who are found guilty of sexual assault or rape tend to receive absurdly mild punishments, such as suspension, demotion, or a scolding letter for their file. In 2008, 62 percent of offenders found guilty received mild punishments like this. This amounts to a tiny fraction of the men accused of sexual assault. One particularly grotesque example of this sort of justice is the 2006 case of army sergeant Damon D. Shell, who ran over and killed 20-year-old Private First Class Hannah Gunterman McKinney of the 44th Corps Support Battalion on her base in Iraq on September 4. Shell pleaded guilty to drinking in a war zone, drunken driving and "consensual sodomy" with McKinney, an underage junior soldier to whom he had supplied alcohol until she was incapacitated. Having sex with a person incapacitated by alcohol is legally rape, and using rank to coerce a junior into a sexual act is legally rape in the military, too. Yet a military judge ruled McKinney's death an accident, said nothing about rape, and sentenced Shell to thirteen months in prison and demotion to private. Shell was not even kicked out of the army.

The military's retrograde attitude towards rape gets even more sinister. More female troops have died in Iraq of non-hostile causes than have been killed in battle, and several of those deaths have either been labeled suicides or been left unexplained by the military. Four of those women had earlier been raped, and at least sixteen others died in such suspicious circumstances that retired Army Colonel Ann Wright and Congressman Ike Skelton have called for Congress to compel the military to reopen the cases and investigate, so far to no avail.

One of the most shocking of these cases is that of 19-year-old LaVena Johnson, whose dead body was found on her base in Balad, Iraq in July 2005. Her father, who has pictures of her body, said her face was battered; she had been stripped, raped, burned, re-clothed, dragged across the ground bleeding and shot in the head. The Army initiated an investigation, then suddenly closed the case and labeled her death a suicide. Her father and Colonel Wright have been trying to get Congress and the Army to reopen the investigation ever since, but so far the Army has declined to cooperate.

The Defense Department has made some effort lately to improve its dismal record on military sexual assault. After a set of Congressional hearings on military sexual assault in July and September 2008, and again in January 2009, the army announced fresh programs designed to educate the troops on the prevention of sexual assault, and the hiring of more litigators to prosecute it. The other military branches, too, are revamping the sexual assault prevention classes that every new recruit must attend.

Whether these changes will make any difference is soon to be put to the test. The collapsing economy is driving numerous new recruits to the military, 16 to 29 percent of whom are women, depending on the branch of service. It remains to be seen whether these female troops will be as isolated, harassed or abused as their predecessors, or finally given the respect they deserve.

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