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Thursday, February 11, 2016
- In his commencement address to cadets at West Point Military Academy last year, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed, “In the 21st century our women in uniform play an indispensable role in our national defence. Time and again they have proven themselves to be role models, not only for our daughters but also for our sons.”
He pointed out that this year was the first time in the Academy’s history where female candidates earned the two top awards for academic excellence.
But while honouring female service members, Obama omitted a fact that critics say is being deliberately concealed from the public – namely, the staggering rate of sexual abuse within the U.S. military.
In 2007, the Department of Defence (DoD) reported 2,200 cases of rape in the military. In 2009, the figure jumped to almost 3,300. One in every three women in the army has experienced some form of sexual assault, from harassment to rape; 37 percent of victims are raped multiple times, 14 percent are gang raped.
Overall, the rate of rape within the military is twice that of the civilian population.
Even more rampant than the abuse itself is the climate of impunity in which these crimes are taking place. According to a two-part investigation published by Al-Jazeera in 2010, over 50 percent of reported cases are dismissed for lack of ‘proof’ or adequate information, and of the 10 percent of perpetrators who are actually prosecuted, most suffer nothing more than a small pay cut or a reduction in rank. Eighty percent of those accused receive an honourable discharge.
“We’re looking at the extent to which the U.S. government is fulfilling its duties to its service members and veterans who have suffered, and continue to suffer, abuse from within,” Park told IPS. “And we need to know how both the DoD and the DoVA respond to sexual assault in their own ranks.”
An Impenetrable Bureaucracy
Though the ACLU has had a long and successful history of utilising FOIA as a powerful tool in its advocacy work, the layers of red tape wrapped tightly around the Pentagon have thus far been impenetrable.
Countless mechanisms have been in place for decades to stymie reporting, recording and redress to victims of sexual violence.
According to Pack Parachute, a charity specialising in providing need to veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), the system is both hostile and archaic, serving and protecting the perpetrator over the victim.
“What we have heard repeatedly from service members is that there is a definite culture of silence around rape,” Park told IPS.
“When women experience sexual assault from another solider they are forced to report it through their chain of command, which basically amounts to zero confidentiality because their commander, and quite likely several others, will immediately be aware of the woman’s situation,” she said.
She added, “The system is set up such that complaints about sexual abuse reflect poorly on the commander’s performance evaluation, so there is a real incentive on commanders’ parts not to document or address the complaint at all because it stains their own record.”
“When women come forward, they are either dismissed by their superior, or worse they face direct retaliation for having made the complaint in the first place,” Park concluded.
Pack Parachute’s executive director, Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, highlights the notorious Feres Doctrine, a piece of legislation enacted in 1950 that makes it virtually impossible to sue the military for negligent investigating without “the military’s prior and explicit written consent”, as one of the biggest obstacles to justice.
“If this were taken up by Congress the military would be exposed for operating against the Constitution by denying victims their first amendment rights,” Mountjoy-Pepka said. “The military always has their own investigators investigate these cases, and that doesn’t seem like justice to me.”
There are huge implications to the lawsuit beyond simply obtaining information. Scores of organisations working in the service of veterans have been struggling to secure funding for treatment of MST, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from sexual abuse. In the face of such underreporting, it is virtually impossible for non- governmental organisations to ascertain the severity of the crisis.
Neither the DoD, nor the DoVA, provides consistent disability compensation to ex-soldiers struggling to come to terms with abuse and rape.
In his book “Sex and War”, retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff discusses the disastrous impacts of the “military’s propensity to absorb, conceal, and sidetrack interrogations into its outrageous institutional misogyny.” Drawing on experience from his decades in the service, Goff discusses with chilling foresight the impact of rape culture within the U.S. military on U.S. society as a whole.
“Before we say that military men sexually assault women, we have to concede that men sexually assault women,” Goff said.
According to a report from the National Victim Center, an average of 1,871 women in the U.S. are raped every day. Victims’ advocates say these are not numbers that should be read lightly; rather they should lead us all to question the inevitable, brutal and lasting effects of an increasingly militarised country on its population.
According to the ACLU, however, this is not a trend that is immediately evident in the attitudes of female service members.
“What these women want is to be able to do their jobs,” Parks told IPS. “They wanted to serve in the military and have done so voluntarily, they aspired to long careers in the military and they believe in the mission of the military. But because of their experiences, they have resigned or retired earlier than they might have done because they did not get redress for their suffering. Many women believed that this was their life’s work and are truly disillusioned by the military’s response.”