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Does Military Service Turn Young Men into Sexual Predators?

"Everyone has the potential to be a sex offender. It depends on how they have been conditioned."
 
 
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Every day, for four years as a West Point cadet, Tara Krause lived and worked alongside the men who had gang-raped her.

Still, she managed to graduate in 1982. She served as a field artillery officer during the Cold War and was attached to the 518th Military Intelligence Brigade during the Gulf War. In what she calls "an act of incredible self-destruction," she married a three-tour Vietnam vet in 1985 and, for the next eight years, lived "the private hell of his PTSD."

"Suicidal behavior, violence and degradation were common threads of daily life," she told me. She survived only because when he put his gun to her head one day, it finally gave her the courage to flee. "Like Lot's wife," she says, she struggles not to look back.

It's been almost 30 years since the rape, and Krause says she still "dance(s) the crushing daily struggle" of her own PTSD: "The nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, cold sweats, suicidal thoughts, zoning out, numbing all emotion and desperately avoiding triggers (reminders) -- I have become a prisoner in my own home."

Krause is rated 70 percent disabled by the Veteran's Administration and has been in treatment at the Long Beach [Calif.] VA for the past six years.

For all the work she has done to heal her own injuries, she still has no answer for the question: "How do you get a group of Southern white teenagers, all of whom were Eagle Scouts, class presidents, scholars and athletes, to be capable of raping a classmate?"

The question deserves an answer, and not a simplistic one. A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the Gulf War found that almost 8 in 10 had been  sexually harassed during their military service, and 30 percent had been raped.

Yet for decades, in spite of the terrible numbers, the military has managed with astonishing success to get away with responding to grievances like Krause's with silence, or denial, or by blaming "a few bad apples." But when individual soldiers take the blame, the system gets off the hook.

And it can be shown that the patterns of military sex crimes are old and widespread -- for generations, military service has transformed large numbers of American boys into sexual predators.

So it seems reasonable to ask if perhaps there is something about military culture or training or experience that can be identified as causative, and then, perhaps, changed.

The correlation is difficult to dismiss. The majority of veterans behind bars today are there for a very specific type of crime: violence against women and children. That fact has held true since the first Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveys of veteran populations in the nation's prisons in 1981, and there is evidence that those surveys only identified a much older problem.

The orgy of demonization, however, that both fueled and justified the disgraceful neglect of veterans in the aftermath of Vietnam makes this an especially fraught issue to take on.

But -- without making any excuses for behaviors that cause irreparable harm to those who are victimized -- there is little hope of change unless the tacit complicity of military institutions and culture is acknowledged. And that complicity most certainly did not begin recently.

World War II is remembered as a crucible and a coming-of-age ritual for the baby-faced boys it turned first into men and then into the "greatest generation."

The butchery, the civilian atrocities, the summary executions, the appalling racism and the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been largely erased from communal memory. And so have the rapes perpetrated by American soldiers on our female enemies and allies alike.

 
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