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Sexual Assault in the Military: A Nation's Shame

written by Helen Benedict
on April 05, 2010

When I began talking to female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2006, I thought I'd hear stories about why they had enlisted and what it was like being a woman in combat. I did hear about that, yes, but I also heard other stories, dozens of them, told to me in whispers over long hours in darkening rooms. Stories of degradation, humiliation, assault and rape at the hands of their so-called comrades.

In the press, stories of military sexual assault are usually told in numbers: a Pentagon study says this (two assaults out of every 1,000 service members)1, a V.A. study says that (300 assaults out of every 1,000)2. But numbers don't begin to convey the horror of being violated, degraded and sexually tortured by the very people who are supposed to be your trusted brothers.

The military teaches its members to regard their platoons as family, so sexual assault in the military is like incest — the ultimate betrayal of honor and trust. As in a family, the women and men who are assaulted (and men are assaulted, by other men)3, cannot escape their assailants. They are trapped together on home bases or at war, month after month, year after year. And because most assailants are older and of higher rank than their victims, they often assault again and again, taking advantage of their power and the closed, inescapable conditions.

Anyone who has lived through a nightmare like this is as traumatized and damaged as a torture victim.

Now, a word about those numbers, because they do reveal something about the military's attitude toward this terrible problem of sexual assault. Almost always, the interpretation of the numbers is dominated by the Pentagon's spin. Thus, for example, when the annual count of reported assaults rises, as it just did by 11 percent, the Pentagon claims this reveals a rise in reporting, not a rise in actual assaults. Most of the media lazily reports this as fact.

Yet as anyone who has studied rape statistics knows, it's impossible to tell whether a rise in numbers reveals more reporting or more rapes.

The truth is, the Pentagon's numbers are almost useless because, by its own admission, they only reflect some 10 percent of assaults. The other 90 or so percent are never reported because the military is too intimidating. Anyone who reports a sexual assault in the military is seen as weak, a traitor, a snitch or a liar, out to bring down a man's career and ruin the reputation of her platoon and company. Often, the command will find ways to shut her up, too. The military has long been using threats and punishments to silence and expel women who report sexual violence. Some examples:

In 2005, Army Lieutenant Jennifer Dyer was threatened with prosecution for desertion because she refused to return to post with an officer she had reported for raping her4 .

In 2006, Army Specialist Suzanne Swift was court-martialed for desertion, demoted, and put into prison for a month for refusing to redeploy under a sergeant whom she had reported for repeatedly raping her5.

That same year, Cassandra Hernandez of the Air Force was charged with indecent behavior after she reported being gang-raped by three comrades, which amounted to being accused of her own assault6.

And also in 2006, Army Specialist Chantelle Henneberry told me that she was denied a promotion after reporting a sergeant for sexually assaulting her, while he was promoted almost immediately.

The Defense Department (DoD) claims that since 2005, its updated rape reporting options have created a "climate of confidentiality" that allows women to report without fear of being disbelieved, blamed or punished like this. But the fact remains that all the cases I describe above happened after the reforms of 2005. And even though the DoD keeps updating its reforms, military culture remains deeply antagonistic to anyone who tries to report a rape.

"It's taken me more than a year to realize that it wasn't my fault," an Air Force sergeant who was raped in 2006 while serving in Afghanistan told me. "The military has a way of making females believe they brought this upon themselves. That's wrong. There's an unwritten code of silence when it comes to sexual assault in the military. But if this happened to me and nobody knew about it, I know it's happening to other females as well."

It certainly is. To the military, and our nation's, shame.




1. "Reports of sexual assault in military rose 11 percent in 2009," McClatchy Newspapers, March 16, 2010.

2. Anne G. Sadler et al., "Women's Risk of Rape." See erratum: American Journal of Industrial Medicine 44 (2003): p 110, which corrects rape rate from 28 to 30 percent.

Anne G. Sadler et al., "Gang and Multiple Rapes During Military Service: Health Consequences and Health Care," Journal of American Medical Women's Association 60, no. 1 (2005).

Maureen Murdoch, "Prevalence of In-service and Post-service Sexual Assault among Combat and Noncombat Veterans Applying for Department of Veterans Affairs Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Disability Benefits," Military Medicine 169, no. 5 (2004).

M. Murdoch and K. L. Nichol, "Women Veterans' Experiences with Domestic Violence and With Sexual Harassment While in the Military," Archives of Family Medicine 4, no. 5 (1995): 411-18.

3. "Military Men Are Silent Victims of Sexual Assault," Pilot Online, October 5, 2009.

4. "Army Rape Accuser Speaks Out," CBS News, Feb. 20, 2005.

5. Suzanne Swift's mother, Sara Rich, in several interviews with the author in 2006-7.
Category: Suzanne Swift, Courage to Resist.

6. Erik Holmes, "Woman Who Claimed Gang Rape Faces Trial," AirForce Times, Aug. 19, 2007.

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