Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

For Female Soldiers, Sexual Assault Remains a Danger

According to the Pentagon, there were 2,374 reported cases of sexual assault against women in uniform over the past year. But as the saga of military police officer Suzanne Swift shows, numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

"I fear that she will kill herself. I fear that she will never have a happy life because she's been so damaged by all of this," said Sara Rich of Eugene, Ore.

Sara Rich's daughter, Suzanne Swift, is the internationally known American military police officer facing a possible dishonorable discharge for going AWOL. Swift, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), did not want to rejoin the superiors who sexually harassed and assaulted her. As a result, she has been charged by the U.S. Army with being absent without leave and missing movement for not being present with her company when it left for Iraq in January of 2006.

Swift, 22, was sexually harassed by one sergeant and coerced into a sexual relationship by another sergeant while on duty in Iraq. After she was arrested at her mother's home last summer, Swift was stationed at Ft. Lewis in Washington, where she was sexually harassed by another commanding sergeant.

Swift was offered a "deal" but decided to complete her court-martial and served 30 days in prison and was stripped of all her rank. She was released Wednesday. According to Sara Rich, "The deal was that Suzanne stay in the military for her remaining 19 months, no reduction in rank, a summary court-martial, no assurance she would not be redeployed and here is the kicker, Suzanne would sign a statement saying she was not raped in Iraq."

According to reports released by the Department of Defense, within the last calendar year, there were 2,374 reported cases of sexual assault. This includes about 400-plus cases in which the victim was a civilian and the alleged offender was a military personnel.

"Over the two-year period of time in which Congress has been requiring this mandated reporting to the Armed Services Committees, it's about a 60-percent increase," said Anita Sanchez, of the Miles Foundation based in Newtown, Conn., a private nonprofit organization that provides services and research on interpersonal violence within the military. "And our offices have received over 500 reports of sexual assault in the central command area of responsibility [Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Bahrain]."

Women and men confront particular challenges when faced with sexual assault and harassment in the military. Unlike in the civilian world, it is illegal to have a consensual relationship while on duty in the military. It's called "fraternization." And unlike many parts of the United States, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy reigns supreme. It is illegal to be gay and/or have same-sex relations while serving in the military. This, combined with the fact that the military does not adhere to rape shield laws, makes reporting one's sexual assault case particularly difficult.

"If you go into a court-martial -- whether you're heterosexual or homosexual -- it doesn't matter. Your sexual history, your relationship history even, can come into view," said Sanchez. "The military continues to be behind the rest of our society in revising our sexual assault statute."

The Miles Foundation worked to get Congress to pass revisions to the rape statute Article 120, but those don't go into effect until October of 2007. The time frame is to ensure the Manual for Courts Martial, essentially the rules of evidence in the military, will also be revised. The revisions include the recognition of a variety of types and severity levels of sexual assault. Previously, the only changes made to the statute were in 1992: the recognition of same-sex sexual assault and the recognition of marital rape. Before that, the Uniform Code of Military Justice hadn't been revised since 1950.

"Once you report, your career is at risk for taking a different path," said Kathleen A. Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice in D.C. "It's almost as if you're guilty until proven innocent because everyone is saying, 'Well, before I take this as a real case, the victim and the accused generally know each other. Has this come to light because of their own misconduct?'"

In addition, if you're a woman, and your case is brought before a military jury, the probability is very high that it will predominantly be made up of male officers. The sheer number of men in the military outdo the number of women who become senior enough to serve on courts-martial.

Very often, many women are also encouraged not to file a formal report that will go into the file of the accused. She's told often, "You don't want to ruin a good officer's career, do you?" As a result, many women agree not to file formally; or are transferred by their command; or the accused perpetrator is transferred; or nothing is ever done.

Maricela Guzmán, 29, still hasn't told her family or her ex-husband, about the sexual molestation she experienced eight years ago while serving in the military. She just started coming out to fellow activists she's met through her counter-recruitment work in Los Angeles, Calif. She just began to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with PTSD.

"It's not that I'm afraid of telling [my family]," said Guzmán. "I'm afraid that they're going to get hurt because I'm Mexican-American and for my family -- if that happens to a woman, a daughter or a sister -- it's going to be hard for them ... especially for my father. I know that he would feel like he did something wrong by supporting me and not saying anything when I joined the military."

Guzmán was 21 when she joined the U.S. Navy as an information system technician from 1998-2002. She was sexually molested by a commanding officer during boot camp; Guzmán had never had any sexual experiences prior to the molestation. She was on night watch and dispersing laundry when the molestation occurred.

"The corner was very dark and everybody was sleeping, and I walked through that area and he got me into a corner," said Guzmán. "I knew he was one of the [superiors] because he had the special badge ... But I knew he wasn't our direct commander because he was much taller and definitely thinner. He grabbed me and he molested me. I was so scared I kept very quiet. After it was done, he left through the back door. I just remembered closing my eyes and not looking at him. I don't even have a name or a face. I think I was trying to cope with what was happening to me at the time."

The next day, Guzmán was reprimanded because she didn't follow the proper procedures the night before. She doesn't remember how many times she was instructed on how to do the proper procedure before she was able to again. From then on, until the completion of her boot camp, Guzmán remained silent.

"It was hard because I needed somebody to talk to and I didn't have that space. And because I didn't follow proper procedures, I didn't feel comfortable enough to talk to [my superiors.] So, I just stayed quiet ... And whenever a commander from a different division came, I would always look down because I didn't want to recognize him ... I didn't want to make it real."

Guzmán immersed herself in her work and does not recall much about the rest of her boot camp experience. But she does remember sexual assault being a normal way of life for many women the duration of her military experience, and that many did not report them. Many women do not report their assaults because they hear it through the grapevine the negative results other women have received for trying.

Guzmán has recently come to terms with how her PTSD affected her four-year marriage. While she was married she suffered bouts of depression, PTSD moments, and did not want to engage in sexual intimacy. Since her divorce, she has been in one relationship, on and off for about a year. But after two major PTSD moments with the person she was dating, her partner ended the relationship.

"Some women do fairly well while they're in the military and don't fall apart until after they've been discharged," said Callie Wight, a psychotherapist who has been treating trauma survivors, including veterans, for 16 years. "Some women can't hold it together while they're in the military because of the PTSD they've begun to experience, and so begin to fall apart while they're in the military ... PTSD symptoms are a normal reaction to an abnormal experience."

PTSD is often associated with mental symptoms: inability to sleep, extreme nervousness, anxiety, and the ability to be easily startled. Wight has found from her work over the past 10 years with female survivors of sexual trauma, that many women also suffer physical symptoms, especially when they don't seek medical help for their PTSD.

"She's desperately trying to forget about what happened to her, get over it and get back to what was her normal style of functioning," said Wight. "But what happens with psychological trauma experiences is unless that trauma is really dealt with consciously, in a therapeutic way, all of those attempts to put it behind her only serve to suppress the information, not eliminate it."

Physical symptoms can include chronic pelvic pain and irritable bowel syndrome. Some women also become bulimic, compulsive eaters, and abusers of drugs and alcohol -- their attempts to "self-medicate" rather than seek professional help.

"Frequently Latinas are less sure that psychotherapy may be useful. And many times women from a working-class background where family and friends may not have gone to college. Often there is the association that anyone who goes to therapy is crazy," said Wight.

Susan Avila-Smith, director of Women Organizing Women based in Seattle, Wash., has been helping survivors of military sexual trauma across the country for 12 years get their VA benefits. Avila-Smith served in the U.S. Army from 1991 to 1995. She suffered sexual assault while at a military hospital having surgery. Her husband, who was also a member of the Army, battered her. It was when she sought services at the Seattle VA that she realized many women are sexually assaulted in the military.

"You can't sue the government. So, what I try to do is get veterans their benefits, which includes medical and emotional support, and money to stabilize their futures," said Avila-Smith. "I focus on what I can do, not what I can't do."

The Feres Doctrine prevents anyone from suing the government for damage that's been done to them while serving in the military. In addition, the McDowell Checklist includes 57 questions that victims of any crime are required to answer according to the service they are working for. There is no way to complete the Checklist truthfully without being accused of something. The questions include: Did you wake up during the assault? Did the assailant wear a mask? There are also five laws of immunity, which protect the accused perpetrator, making it difficult for a victim to legally acquire justice over the perpetrator or the system.

In order to file a claim and receive monetary compensation for a sexual assault suffered in the military, what's often referred to as a "service connection," the victim needs to show that her/his illness is related to or connected to her/his work during service. According to Avila-Smith, you don't have to present hard evidence to the VA that you have experienced some kind of sexual assault because it is common knowledge that many assaults go unreported and files are often cleansed of evidence. As a result, the VA accepts Article 15s and other "soft signs" of traumatization, which they refer to as "markers." Often, when a soldier reports an assault, s/he is accused of adultery or under-aged drinking, gets reprimanded, and then receives an Article 15, which may also result in the loss of rank or pay.

Apart from filing a case, veterans can walk into any VA facility, and are entitled to the counseling and medical benefits they need related to the types of trauma they have experienced. The VA does not provide abortions but does treat STDs. Based on the 650-plus cases Avila-Smith has filed, many veterans do not know they can receive medical benefits for their sexual trauma.

If female veterans have any trouble receiving their VA services, another resource is the women veterans program manager (WVPM) at their Veterans Health Agency (VHA). Every major VHA has a WVPM. She is usually a nurse practitioner who manages women veterans' care as well as advocates for women veterans' within the VHA system.

Avila-Smith's cases have included a Vietnam veteran from Puget Sound, Wash., who was gang-raped during a mock prisoner war camp exercise by his entire unit. He then received ridicule and harassment when he became a she and went to receive her VA benefits. Photos of her genitals were attached to the front cover of her medical file. Avila-Smith has been working with her since 1997.

Avila-Smith has filed three cases in 2005 and 20-plus cases in the 1990s of veterans, who while serving in the military, were sexually assaulted or harassed because of their race.

A case of justice

Sexual assault is the most underreported crime, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Sixteen percent of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement authorities. The reporting rate for the U.S. Armed Forces in sexual assault cases is 22-23 percent, substantially greater than the reporting rate within the civilian community.

April Fitzsimmons, 38, was 17 when she enlisted in the Air Force to be an intelligence analyst. The oldest of six kids, living in Montana, she didn't see any other options for her future. Her roommate was working the night shift when she awoke one night to find a fellow soldier she thought she knew fondling her. She screamed at him to leave and spent the rest of the night crying.

"I wasn't 1000 percent sure of who it was, so I kept quiet," said Fitzsimmons.

A few weeks later a military police officer who was a friend of hers advised her to use the deadbolt at night because a male soldier had the key to the women's dorm rooms and was letting himself in. He also told her he had three suspects. April asked if the man she thought fondled her was one of the suspects and the officer answered in the affirmative. She went on to file a report and the perpetrator went to trial, was found guilty, and shipped off the base.

Fitzsimmons considers herself lucky, and spends a lot of her time advocating other soldiers who have experienced sexual assault to come out. She performs a one-woman show entitled, "The Need to Know," every Wednesday night in Los Angeles, Calif. She's been performing it for four years; she wrote the play after Sept. 11.

But Fitzsimmons is still debating whether to seek VA benefits for her PTSD. Her commander in the Air Force encouraged Fitzsimmons to receive therapy, but she did not think it was necessary at the time.

"I don't know if I will," said Fitzsimmons. "I don't know if I want the government's money to be honest."

Celina R. De Leon is a contributing writer for WireTap magazine, and interviews editor at Feministing.com. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

 
See more stories tagged with: