united states project

The hidden side of women’s military service: sexual assault

A conundrum for reporters and their sources: How do we cover wrongdoing when soldiers don't want to be labeled as victims?
January 25, 2013

This week’s news that the Pentagon is lifting the ban against women in ground combat is giving many military women cause to celebrate. It recognizes women as equal to men and opens more careers to women throughout the military. Yet the lifting of the ban should bring attention to another, darker side of military service for women: the prevalence of sexual assault–and the conundrum it poses for women, and for journalists trying to expose it.

Women have been in combat for a long time, although it took the media a while to notice. For the first few years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, newspapers and television largely ignored the women among the troops. Once in a while, readers and viewers would see images of a mother in uniform hugging her child goodbye, but other than that, the American public would have been hard pressed to remember that women were fighting. Plenty of documentaries, front-page stories, and even feature films came out about the war, but most had no women soldiers in them. Hurt Locker? Not a woman in sight.

The two big exceptions to this were notorious: Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch, dramatically “rescued” from her Iraqi hospital in 2003 after driving into an ambush; and Private Lynndie R. England, who became infamous in 2005 for leashing and torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. This presented the public with two images of women soldiers: the pathetic blonde in need of rescuing, and the dark-haired, perverted sadist.

Neither image, history has subsequently shown, was accurate. By Lynch’s own account, she was no prisoner in need of rescue, but a patient in an Iraqi hospital, being tended by local doctors trying to keep her safe. As for England, it came out in trial that she was in the thrall of her boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, who was convicted of leading her and several other soldiers in the torture and humiliation of prisoners. At England’s trial, a psychologist testified that she was mentally impaired.

Meanwhile, by 2009, six years into the war, more women had already served, fought, and been wounded and killed in the Iraq War alone than all American wars put together since World War II, including Afghanistan–a fact I never found reported by the major media, even at the height of the Iraq war. By now, some 283,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 1991, some 1000 have been wounded, and at least 150 have died.

Because there is no front line in today’s wars, women are drawn into fighting even if their roles are officially designated as only combat support. If you are driving a truck full of toilet paper when your convoy is ambushed, you must fight back like everyone else.

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Furthermore, because of the shortage of troops in the first years of the war, women were constantly thrust into jobs they were not legally supposed to have, particularly in Iraq. I’ve talked to dozens of women who were gunners atop Humvees and gun trucks, who raided houses alongside the infantry, manned machine guns on watchtowers, guarded police stations and prisons, and worked with the infantry when the chaos of war made their jobs interchangeable. Yet, they were still not being recognized as combat soldiers.

When I began interviewing veteran women in late 2004, I found most of them furious at this invisibility. “I was in Iraq for 11 months getting bombed and shot at, but people won’t even listen when I say I was at war. You know why? Because I’m a female,” said Specialist Mickiela Montoya, who served with the Army in Iraq from 2004-5 guarding a base checkpoint. “We don’t get the recognition men do,” pointed out a female Army sergeant from Oregon, who served in Iraq as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit from 2003-4. It was a sentiment I heard expressed by women many times: nobody waves any flags for us when we come home.

Then, in 2005, a new story about the military emerged: sexual assault. The Denver Post published a series of interviews with veteran women who had been raped by their comrades while serving in the wars before 2003, echoing earlier but forgotten stories about sexual assault and cover-ups in the military academies at Tailhook and Aberdeen.

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?

Dick and Ziering tried to do it by showing how proud their veteran sources were of their service before they were attacked, although some viewers will probably come away with a highly negative view of the military nonetheless. My approach has been to try to persuade my sources that, far from being weak when they speak out about their assaults, they are being strong, for it takes enormous courage to defy the military’s self-protective culture. I explain that criticizing an institution is not turning against it, only trying to improve it. I even say that it is our democratic duty to keep an eye on our institutions and root out corruption. And I try to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim.”

Yet my efforts often seem to fall on deaf ears. The word victim looms too large.
So, we journalists are left with a dilemma: How are we to explore the exploitation and abuse of human beings without calling anyone a victim? Is this even possible? Can we reclaim the word–take the shame out of it and give it dignity? Do we need a new word? Or must we simply be ready to ignore the wish of survivors to be seen as non-victims for the greater good of exposing wrongdoing?

How, in other words, do we take victimhood out of being a victim?

Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, co-written with Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan.