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Why Are Women Still Treated Like Second-Class Soldiers?

More women have fought and died in Iraq than in all the wars since World War II combined. Yet the military continues to treat them as inferior.

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In 2003, a survey of female veterans found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving. And a 1995 study of female veterans of the Gulf and earlier wars, found that 90 percent had been sexually harassed.

The Defense Department shows much lower numbers, but that is because it only counts reported rapes--and, as the DoD admits itself in this year's annual Pentagon report on military sexual assault, some 90 percent of rapes in the military are ever reported at all. Nonetheless, that same report showed that in 2008, reports of assault increased by 8 percent military-wide, and by 26 percent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For many women soldiers, the result of all this persecution is that instead of finding camaraderie among their fellow soldiers, or being able to rely on comrades to watch their backs in battle, they feel dangerously alone. As specialist Carlye Garcia, who was sexually harassed throughout her service with the Army Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04, put it, "It got so I didn't trust anybody in my company after a few months. I didn't trust anybody at all. I still don't." The hostility and rejection can run right up through the ranks, too, as women commonly find when they try to report an assault. Some examples: when Lieutenant Jennifer Dyer refused to return to post with an officer she had reported for raping her, the army threatened to prosecute her for desertion.

When Specialist Suzanne Swift reported her sergeant for repeatedly raping her over months and then refused to redeploy under him, the army tried her by court martial for desertion and put her in prison for a month.

When Cassandra Hernandez of the Air Force reported being gang-raped by three comrades at her training acadamy, her command charged her with indecent behavior for consorting with her rapists.

When Sergeant Marti Ribeiro reported being raped by a fellow serviceman while she was on guard duty in Afghanistan, the Air Force threatened to court martial her for leaving her weapon behind during the attack. "That would have ruined by career," she said. "So I shut up."

All the men who were accused in these cases went unpunished. Several of them even won promotions.

The Defense Department claims that since 2005, it has instigated reforms that have created a "climate of confidentiality" that allows women to report without fear of being disbelieved, blamed, or punished like this. As Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), said at a press briefing at the Pentagon this past March 17, "The numbers have gone up and I reiterate, this does not mean sexual assaults have gone up, this means the number of reports have gone up, which we see as very positive as we're getting the victims in to get care."

In fact, nobody knows whether an increase in reported rapes means more rapes or more reports. And all the cases described above happened after the reforms of 2005.

Even when the military does accept a report of sexual assault, the consequences to the perpetrators tend to be negligible. Of the assaults reported and recorded by the Defense Department in the fiscal year 2008, 49 percent were dismissed as unfounded or unsubstantiated--meaning there wasn't enough proof of assault, or that the women recanted or died--and only 10.9 percent resulted in court martial.

 
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