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Rape in the Ranks, the U.S. Army’s Dirty Secret

NEW YORK, Feb 15 2011 (IPS) - 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.”

A police officer guards the military recruiting center in New York's Times Square. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

A police officer guards the military recruiting center in New York's Times Square. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

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.

Colonel Charles P. McDowell: The "Permission to Rape" Checklist

In the early 1980s, retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles P. McDowell developed a "rape allegation" checklist, which he developed and distributed for decades during his service. In simple terms, the checklist is designed to "reduce the number of successful prosecutions of rape in the military."

McDowell made the unfounded claim that over 60 percent of rape allegations were false. This idea has been debunked by the FBI, which reports that only 2 percent of all rape claims are false.

According to Pack Parachute, the checklist is meant to verify the accuracy of allegations by asking the victims over 50 questions for which their answers are assigned a quantitative 'score'. Questions include: Does victim report her assailants as being from a different ethnic group? Does victim report anal sex? And so on. The checklist is then scored in the following way: 0 – 15: Ambiguous or doubtful, 16 – 35: Allegation Probably False, 36 – 75: False Allegation, 76 + up: Overkill

Accordingly, "victims would have to score less than 0 in order to be judged to be telling the truth, meaning there would be no way for the assault to be judged as actually taking place."

Although the military officially abandoned the Checklist in 1997, advocates claim a version of it is still is use.

The use of such mechanisms continues to reverberate for victims and veterans.

"There is a different evidentiary standard that the DoVA imposes when a service member or veteran is filing for disability benefits based on PTSD caused by assault by another service member, rather than by enemy combat," Park told IPS.

"In general MST results in a variety of different conditions beyond PTSD, so we are looking for more information on how those types of disability claims are handled," she added.

"On a very fundamental level the lawsuit is seeking information on what kind of records are actually kept by the military; and we'll try to ascertain whether the DoD even has formal records and whether this very basic information could be shared with service members who are claiming disability benefits."

Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in partnership with the Service Women’s Action Network, filed a complaint against the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DoVA) using the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as their platform.

According to ACLU attorney Sandra Park, the Pentagon’s failure to respond to the FOIA complaint has now prompted the plaintiffs to file a lawsuit.

“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.

Cyclical Violence?

Alongside of the ACLU-SWAN lawsuit, Susan Burke, head of a litigation firm that specialises in class action lawsuits, is filing a separate class action lawsuit against the DoD on behalf of over 90 servicewomen, demanding damages as well as lasting change within the military. The lawsuit will be filed simultaneously in three federal districts this spring.

Burke already has an excellent track record of bringing sexual offenders to justice – in 2004 she led a series of charges against the private security forces that tortured prisoners in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib. She also sued the firm Blackwater on behalf of Iraqis killed and wounded in the 2007 attacks on civilians in Baghdad.

Her past work, and her current crusade, strongly highlights the structural and cyclical nature of brutality within the U.S. military.

Retired U.S. army colonel and current advocate for abused servicewomen and veterans, Ann Wright, told IPS, "First you have to recognise that the institution of the U.S. military is a violence-oriented organisation. Its sole purpose is to be violent toward other people on order."

Wright added, "Soldiers, who are directed by the national command authorities of the United States, are expected to turn off this violence so that it doesn't occur towards anyone except 'designated enemies', who they are instructed to wound and maim and kill."

"However, human nature being what it is, that's a very difficult thing to turn off. Once people start being violent toward others, start using weapons against others, start using their fists on others, it's very easy to translate that onto people who have nothing to do with the national security, or the war, or the reason why the soldiers were trained to kill in the first place," Wright concluded.

Often reports of rape are ignored, or improperly investigated by the military, which then prepares fallacious reports on the rate and incidence of sexual abuse, the group says.

“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.”

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  • J Jay

    The FBI did not “debunk” McDowell’s research. The FBI 2% false reporting statistic that is repeatedly touted by victim advocates as the “real” number only accounts for local agencies that close a case as “false.” Many agencies don’t even have a category for such a thing. A case is closed either “unfounded” or “inconclusive” or its “inactivated”. Their data is garbage in garbage out. My agency case load reflects the false allegation rate at about 40%.