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Female Soldiers Treated 'Lower Than Dirt'

The case of Suzanne Swift reveals that women deployed in the Middle East are facing rape, abuse and sexual harassment -- from their own comrades-in-arms.
 
 
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U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift will spend her 22nd birthday tomorrow confined to the Fort Lewis base in Washington, where she is awaiting the outcome of an investigation into allegations that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by three sergeants in Iraq.

Swift says the sergeants propositioned her for sex shortly after arriving for her first tour of duty in February 2004. She remained in Iraq until February 2005. "When you are over there, you are lower than dirt; you are expendable as a soldier in general, and as a woman, it's worse," said Swift in a recent interview with the Guardian.

When Swift's unit redeployed to Iraq in January 2006, she refused to go and instead stayed with her mother in Eugene, Ore. She was eventually listed as AWOL, arrested at her mother's home on June 11, sent to county jail and transferred to Fort Lewis.

"She's miserable and isolated," says Sara Rich, Swift's mother. "It's not good to have an idle mind while you're dealing with PTSD and sexual trauma. I want them to release her so I can get her the care she needs. I'm tired of waiting."

A colonel outside of Swift's chain of command is investigating the case, but Rich says she has been given little information with no time frame. "I believe they're trying to break her down using fear and intimidation."

Midnight phone calls

While Swift's case has gotten a fair amount of national and international attention, the overall issue of sexual assault committed by military personnel in the Middle East has been largely ignored.

"Regrettably, Suzanne Swift is not the first," says Anita Sanchez, communications director of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides services to victims of military violence. "There have been several young women who have been declared AWOL for seeking treatment due to sexual assault, but most of them are too scared to speak out."

Since the fall of 2003, the Miles Foundation has documented 518 cases of sexual assault on women who have served or are serving in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Qatar. The foundation has counselors on staff around the clock and often receives midnight phone calls from service members or their family members. After counselors and attorneys help the women access medical care and explain the reporting process, they try to transport them to a safe place for care and treatment.

"Because they're in a combat situation, we've had to develop protocols. We can't just send a chopper in there for them. We have to get their permission to contact military authorities to get them moved," says Sanchez. "If you were at Fort Drum, we wouldn't have to tell anybody, but if we need to move you out of Baghdad or Kuwait, then we have to get your permission to contact the military and say, 'We need to move Joanna Jones because this has transpired.'"

Sanchez says a counselor recently received a call in the middle of the night from a young woman who was raped in the Green Zone in Baghdad. "She said, 'I was raped, and I've only got 10 minutes on my phone card. What do I do?'" The woman was helicoptered out of the Green Zone, sent to Kuwait and then Germany, and eventually returned to the United States.

Another recent case involved a young American woman who was raped by a coalition partner in a rural area. Sanchez says it took two weeks to get to a one-room medical facility in Kabul. "They had no facilities to do a rape testing, so they couldn't test for pregnancy or HIV. An American doctor literally handed her high-dose antibiotics and told her, 'This will kill anything you've come in contact with.'" The young woman is now recovering in the states.

Sanchez says another woman was told she would receive the morning-after pill a few days after she was raped, but received birth control pills instead.

No official documentation

While these cases aren't officially documented with the government, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense both conduct general studies of sexual assault, but the findings can be difficult to obtain.

Last year, Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., the ranking Democratic Member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, criticized the Bush administration for failing to release a Veterans Affairs study on military sexual trauma among the National Guard and Reserve. It found sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape is 60 percent among females and 27 percent among males. The estimated prevalence for rape among females is 11 percent and 1.2 percent among males.

The report, which was originally due by March 2001, was released last September. In a statement, Evans said, "The women and men who have suffered military sexual trauma deserve our respect, compassion and commitment to provide them with ready access to counseling and treatment. I am releasing the report, which I have obtained through other sources, to shine a light on a serious problem that the White House wants to hide in the shadows."

In 2003, Congress began requiring the Department of Defense to report the number of sexual assault cases on file. In 2005, military criminal investigators received 2,374 allegations of sexual assault involving members of the armed forces worldwide. "That number is a 40 percent increase from 2004. The '04 number is a 25 percent increase from 2003, so that's a 65 percent increase in two years. That's substantial," says Sanchez.

While there has been an increase in sexual assault in reports, Sanchez says there hasn't been an escalation in the number of prosecutions. "Of those cases, only two to three percent go to court-martial, and those who are convicted get only a year in jail."

Former victims turned advocates

The majority of people working as advocates for women who've been assaulted in the military are former victims themselves. Colleen Mussolino, co-founder of Women Veterans of America (WVA), an advocacy group for women veterans, served as a cook at Women's Army Corps headquarters in Fort McClellan, Ala., from 1965 to 1967. "I was gang raped, beaten and left for dead," she says. "I was taken by the criminal investigation team and treated like a prisoner of war for six weeks, with threats. I finally signed a paper promising that I wouldn't prosecute, so I know how the system works."

WVA estimates that nine out of 10 women in the military have been either harassed or assaulted. "Look at the numbers that have been presented. You have to realize there are far more that have not come forward," Mussolino says. "When I counsel women and help them with medical benefits, I find most were too scared to report the assault. It's such a horrible thing that you just keep it to yourself for years."

"The military is closing its eyes," she adds. "They don't want to deal with it. They may be battle-ready, but when it comes to assaults on women, they don't know how to handle it."

Rev. Dorothy Mackey, executive director of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAMP), was raped and assaulted while serving as a U.S. Air Force Captain and Commander from 1983 to 1992. Her cases were never prosecuted after a Justice Department attorney said they "could not bring this case to trial for national security reasons; to do so would be contrary to good order, morale and discipline in the military."

"If a woman is raped overseas, she better pray she has a good commander who has the clout to get her medical treatment and then get her out," she says.

STAAMP's toll-free number for sexual assault victims in the military has received 5,200 calls since 1997, including many from women and men now serving in the Middle East. "These kids are trying to figure out how to survive. The system is shutting down on them and putting them at risk," Mackey says. "We've been able to get some of them out of the military by going directly to the Pentagon and saying, 'We are telling you about a criminal incident. Here are the people who are raping and abusing. We are now putting you on notice that if anything else happens to this person, we will expose you,'" she says.

Mackey says Specialist Suzanne Swift should be commended for speaking out, knowing what the consequences would be. "It's not easy because you're either told to keep your mouth shut or threatened," she says. "This administration justified going to war because we said we wanted to stop Saddam's rape rooms. This administration said we can't afford to have priests raping, and yet in the same breath and lack of action, our own military leadership are free to rape at absolute carte blanche. This has been going on for too long. We must hold the government accountable for refusing to deal with this issue."

Saturday, July 15 marks a national day of action to call for Suzanne Swift's honorable discharge. Protests will occur at the gates of Fort Lewis at noon, followed by a press conference at 3 p.m. A separate protest will be held at the Federal Building in Eugene, Ore., at noon. Supporters are also encouraged to sign a petition calling for an honorable discharge.

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who is writing a book about her road trip through the " red states ."