Around the same time as the Post series came out, I was conducting interviews with more than 40 women who had served more recently, in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and I, too, was hearing stories of rape, sexual assault, and harassment. The abuse was so relentless that it was driving some women out of the military altogether, while leading others to homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. And my findings were backed up by the statistics being compiled by the military itself and by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The most recent study by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, released in 2011, shows that one in three military women report having been sexually assaulted while serving, the majority by comrades. That means about 52 women a day.
In 2007, I published an article in Salon about my findings called, The Private War of Women Soldiers. In it, I quoted women telling me that they were more afraid of their own comrades than of the enemy, that they carried knives to protect themselves from other soldiers, and that they were afraid to go the latrines on their bases at night for fear of rape. I also reported several studies from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicating that women who are raped or harassed while serving can suffer rates of PTSD higher than those of men in combat. That article inspired the 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, which was just nominated for an Oscar. My book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, came out in 2009, and helped fuel a class action suit against the Pentagon (and against Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates) on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military. In the book, I describe a military culture that blames the victims of sexual assault, while supporting commanders who punish and threaten those who try to report it—thus silencing the majority of victims and burying the issue. (The Department of Defense estimates that some 80-86 percent of victims never report their assaults.)
The film and class action suit, along with a series of sexual assault scandals within the military, resulted in so much press attention—here, here, here, and here, for example—that, at least until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent move to allow women in ground combat, the public had been hearing more about female soldiers in the context of sexual assault than in almost any other.
And herein lies a problem, for although this attention to the epidemic of sexual abuse is badly needed, it puts female troops in an uncomfortable and, to some, untenable position: they feel as if they are being depicted as victims rather than as warriors—and that is the last thing any soldier wants.
Thus, some of the very women—and men—who braved the oppressive, victim-blaming culture of the military to speak out about sexual assault, even as they knew it could get them ostracized and punished, come to regret having spoken out at all. They want to be seen as proud of their service, as successful soldiers, as brave and tough and uncomplaining, not as helpless and weak.
This puts not only the soldiers themselves in a dilemma, but any journalists trying to expose the abuse. How do we cover wrongdoing when nobody wants to be labeled its victim?
When I speak at conventions for veterans about sexual assault in the military, I am often faced with this conflict. Some survivors thank me for exposing the problem. Others speak out in furious defense of the very platoons and culture that victimized them. Some veterans scream that I am anti-military. Others fight among themselves over whether journalists like me are helping or hurting women, or whether journalists even have a right, as outsiders, to write about the military at all—a reflection of the institution’s insularity. Some simply turn inwards, so torn between being a whistleblower and a proud soldier that they can’t say anything at all.
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the makers of The Invisible War, say they faced a similar dilemma. The veterans in their documentary, all of whom were brutally raped by comrades while serving, only agreed to participate on the condition that the film not come across as anti-military. In short, they wanted to expose the way they had been victimized by military culture without being seen as victims. They wanted to be critical of the military without being seen as anti-military.
How can journalists navigate these dilemmas?