Our second group of writers will be blogging about Women and War. Journalists, experts, female soldiers and veterans share their experiences and discuss issues including women in combat, sexual assault in the military and inadequate benefits for female veterans. What do you think about women in the military? Share your thoughts, raise a question and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
I've been in the Army for nearly 15 years: I enlisted in the mid-'90s when there were still Vietnam Vets on active duty, the wounds from Somalia still bled and the lessons from Desert Storm were still being learned. I joined like many young women today: straight out of high school, looking for something to do while I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. The Army helped me figure out that I was a pretty good soldier. I am grateful for all the opportunity the Army has given me, but please understand, I am not speaking for the Army, nor am I speaking for any other woman who has served. I am speaking only for myself. I am not the same naive private I was 15 years ago. The officer I am today is not the same as the non-commissioned officer I once was.
But I am who I am today because of the Army.
So when I read articles like the one featured at The WIP: "Perceived as Bitches, Sluts or Dykes: 1 in 3 Military Women Experience Sexual Abuse," or The New York Times' "The Women's War," I worry about the message the media is sending into our living rooms. The articles cite examples of female soldiers who had significant issues while serving in the Army. The WIP article includes a quote from a former sergeant, who states that because "women are categorically denied infantry service," they are therefore "second class citizens ripe for abuse" and that the "greatest danger that military women in Iraq and Afghanistan face is from their male peers and officers." The New York Times also recently ran "A Peril in War Zones: Sexual Abuse by Fellow G.I.'s," an article that focuses almost entirely on the sex lives of female soldiers, rather than on the perpetrators of the crimes.
Articles like these in the mainstream media makes it sound like in every unit, every female is a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, or that we female soldiers have all, at one point or another, been pinned into a corner with penises shoved in our faces. The reporters imply that there is a sexual predator in every squad and that female soldiers are dragged behind barriers every five minutes in Iraq. After nearly 15 years in the Army, I have never been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, yet the media is reporting that female soldiers are nothing more than marginalized second class citizens in a military that would rather screw us than promote us.
Before you dismiss me as being protected by the privilege of my rank, please understand that although I have spent most of my career as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) or an officer, I came into the Army as a young, uneducated private, and I went to Germany — raw, fresh and naive — straight out of training. The first person I met in my unit was Sergeant First Class (SFC) Diane Eaton, my new squad leader. She sat me down and explained to me what I could expect as a female in the barracks. She told me that everyone there was going to be knocking on my door and they were not there to just be friendly. She warned me about the sergeants who would gladly spend the night with me, and then talk about me like a dog the next day. It was SFC Eaton who first taught me how to keep from being taken advantage of as a young soldier. I followed her advice, conducted myself accordingly, and in the years since, have never encountered sexual harassment or assault. Has my rank also protected me from sexual assault? I don't know. But I do believe that my attitude, my confidence, and my knowledge that I am not a victim has set the tone for me throughout my military career. My experience is also not the exception one might think it is. The 2008 Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services report on women in the military states that dealing with stereotypes in their military careers is a bigger problem for female soldiers than dealing with actual sexual assault or harassment. Those stereotypes exist, of course, but from the moment a female soldier walks into a unit, by and large, she controls how she is treated and she sets the tone for how she is going to be received. All of us who serve simply want to do our jobs to the best of our abilities, be part of the team, and not be thought of as a potential victim first, soldier second.
Every article that focuses on negative aspects of women in and around the military, focuses on gender, sexuality and sexual behaviors. There are countless articles about rape and punishments for pregnancy, yet rarely do we hear about the female engagement teams in Afghanistan, making inroads with Afghan women and helping save soldiers' lives. Or if we do, the story is buried, because it's not "sexy" enough. Similarly, most people haven't even heard of the Marines' Lioness Program: it's rarely written about because the female soldiers in the program haven't been sexually assaulted while they're out searching for Iraqi women and training female Iraqi guards. But if, in the future, there's an assault to one of the Lioness women? I'm sure it'll be a major media event.
When the media makes it sound like every female soldier is a victim, a slut, a bitch, a dyke, or some other negative stereotype, it negates the positive impact that female soldiers are having within our military. Stories that focus on rape and sexual assault perpetuate the myths that women are unable to serve their nation with the same pride and distinction as our male counterparts. In the Army I serve, women and men are treated based on their performance and how they carry themselves. The media claims that nearly one-third of service women have experienced sexual abuse. This percentage is certainly higher than anyone should find acceptable, but those who suffer abuse are still in the minority. The media points to the outlier and claims that it is the rule, rather than the exception.
I am not dismissing sexual assault as a trivial problem, nor am I minimizing the impact that sexual assault has on victims The numbers do not lie: there is a problem. The Department of Defense reports that in 2010, there was an 11 percent increase in sexual assaults reported across the military, including a 16 percent increase of assaults reported in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the sexual assaults reported, most involved 18-25 year olds and alcohol. This is the same demographic as college students, and the number of sexual assaults in the military are reflective of sexual assaults that occur in society, even when taking into consideration that most sexual assaults go unreported. This is not to say that the problem in the military should be dismissed, nor that it's okay because it's happening elsewhere. I am simply arguing that the media focus on sexual assault makes it seem like a bigger problem than it actually is, and unfairly stereotypes women in the military as victims. The media continues to focus on female service members' victimization, while the same crimes happen, arguably with greater frequency, on college campuses, while the media remains largely silent.
Sexual assault is a problem the military is working hard to correct, and the military is 5 years in it its current prevention program. The Department of Defense says that it takes 8-10 years before a concerted effort to change behaviors actually brings about the desired change in behavior, and believes it will be another 3-5 years before we begin to see a decline in the number of sexual assaults in the military.
The Army I serve in is a flawed organization, made up of human beings who are fallible. Can we do better at dealing with sexual assault within the ranks? Absolutely. Will we do better? Yes. We continue to push sexual assault awareness training every 90 days, and this training reinforces to our young soldiers that rape is unacceptable in our organization. We are encouraging victims to seek help and, if they choose, report the crime. The number of prosecutions for sexual assault are also on the rise.
Sexual assault in our ranks, however, does not mean that the military as a whole is misogynistic, or treats women wholesale as second-class citizens. Women hold some of the highest positions in the military. There are women who are in charge of logistics operations for the thousands of miles of terrain in Iraq and Afghanistan as Expeditionary Sustainment Commanders. Female company commanders lead convoys on military police missions and resupply Warfighers in Forward Support Companies. The service records of women soldiers also speaks for itself. Women have earned the Combat Action Badge, once only worn by men in the combat arms. These decorated women include women like 1st Lieutenant Tamara DaSilva, who successfully led her fuel platoon during an 9 hour ambush in Afghanistan, or Captain Christina Lewis, who commanded a Forward Support Company in Mosul and did not lose a single soldier, despite the violence that still hung on in Ninewah Province. These women, who have served in combat and served well, will mentor the next generation of commanders. These women and thousands of other women serve with distinction and honor and pride. They are not victims. We are not marginalized. We are a critical part of the team. We are soldiers and spouses and sisters and mothers and wives and daughters. We are not just victims, bitches, sluts or dykes.
To the mainstream media: please stop telling America that's all we are.
Army First Lieutenant and Author
Final Thoughts on Women and War »
Women in the Military: What do Women Get from the Military? »
Mothers in the Military: Punishing Mothers Who Serve »
Sex and the Military Woman: Female Soldiers Are Not Just Victims »
Women in Combat is a Moot Point »
Introductions: On Not Being a "Nasty Female" in the Marine Corps »
Introductions: Why I Had to Write About Women and War »
Introductions: How We Came to Make "Lioness" »
The Combat Ban and How It Negatively Affects Women Veterans »
Women in Combat is a Moot Point »