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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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"The one notable exception to this pattern," Mumola says, "is sex assaults, including rape."

The Veterans' Health Administration has adopted the term military sexual trauma (MST) to refer to severe or threatening forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault sustained in military service.

Their records for 2007 show that 22.2 percent of female veterans and 1.3 percent of male vets (from all eras) who used the agency's health services screened positive for MST. That represents a daunting increase of about 65 percent for both men and women over the agency's 2003 data.

And the small percentage of men is somewhat misleading; the 2007 percentages translate into 45,564 women and 47,719 men whose injuries forced them to acknowledge their victimization and to seek help from the VA.

Some of that increase can perhaps be attributed to a 2005 congressional directive requiring the VA to improve its rate of screening returning soldiers for MST, but given that almost 90 percent of veterans don't (or can't) use VA health care services, it seems safe to assume that the actual numbers are considerably higher.

Those are just the numbers for veterans.

In 2008, the Pentagon received more than 2,900 sexual assault reports involving active-duty service members. That represents a 9 percent increase from 2007, a 26 percent increase in combat zones. Almost a third of those reports involved rape, and more than half involved aggravated sexual assault.

In a dazzling display of unapologetic spin, the increase was called "encouraging," an indication of more reports rather than more assaults. It offered no evidence to back up that interpretation, save that the department "encourages greater reporting to hold offenders accountable for this crime."

That seems an unlikely incentive given that only 10 percent of the 2008 complaints led to a court-martial (compared to a civilian rate of 40 percent). The rest received minor punishments, almost half were dismissed, and the report acknowledged that 90 percent of sexual assaults in the military aren't reported at all.

Rape occurs almost twice as frequently in the military as it does among civilians, especially in wartime.

When a 2008 House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee subpoenaed Kaye Whitley, director of the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), to explain what the department was doing to stop the escalating sexual violence in the military, her boss, Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, ordered her not to appear.

Only after the department was threatened with a contempt citation was Whitley made available to the committee. She then sought to reassure the members that DoD is conducting a "crusade against sexual assault," and itemized all of the heroic measures the agency was planning to implement in the very near future -- efforts that somehow, despite explicit directives and deadlines from Congress, the agency had not managed to launch at the time.

Tia Christopher, women veterans coordinator at Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, holds Dominguez, not Whitley, responsible for flouting congressional directives.

"I heard him claim that the reason sexual assaults are so high in the military right now is the hip-hop influence. I don't need to spell out why I found that so offensive. I fault Dominguez for not recognizing that it is a leadership issue."

Christopher loves the military and calls it "a really beautiful machine" when it is working correctly. But she is a rape survivor, and she feels doubly betrayed by her superiors in the Navy. "They can respond to other situations, why not to sexual assault?"

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