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Recruiter Sexual Abuse: Friendly Fire at Home?

A typical poster in the new Army Strong campaign shows three soldiers in full battle gear, faces grim and determined. The middle soldier is a woman.

More money than ever is being spent to convince girls to join the military. I was one of them. The promise of school tuition and job training was attractive to me at the time, but it was just a small part of what it meant to enlist in "this man's army."

To girls seeking a future, recruiters present themselves as a father/friend/guide. But as I, and many other girls discover, these confidants cannot be trusted. Girls become victims of sexual assault at the hands of recruiters even before they take their military oath of allegiance.

But this isn't a story about a few unlucky recruits and a couple of sickos in an otherwise healthy recruitment process. There is a deeper problem of widespread abuse and a system that protects the criminals.

Recently, the Marine Corps announced a court settlement in a suit brought by two Ukiah, Calif., teenage girls who were raped by recruiters during a 2004 military-sponsored event.

The recruiters, Sgts. Joseph Dunzweiler and Brian Fukushima, were court-martialed and demoted but nevertheless acquitted of serious wrongdoing.

According to press reports, the recruiters got the underage girls drunk before the attack. The court settlement has two requirements. First, there must now be female supervision at slumber parties with female recruits. Second, recruiting stations throughout Northern California must post the contact information for confidential advocates available to abused female recruits.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that in 2005 one in 200 frontline recruiters were punished for harassment and abuse. The Army alone had 722 recruiters accused of rape and sexual misconduct in the last decade and called for a recruitment stand down day in 2005. After widespread reports of rape, unwarranted jail threats, cheating drug tests and falsifying documents, thousands of recruiters were ordered to attend ethics training.

In California, Megan's Law has made it easier to track convicted sex offenders. Communities sometimes use this data to run sex offenders out of town, as in the case of Carey Verse.

Yet, military recruiters who commit the same sexual offenses are rarely convicted in military or civilian courts. They are most often given administrative punishment such as reduction in rank or forfeiture of pay. Compare this with highly publicized abuse cases involving Catholic priests. Priests convicted of sexual crimes appear in the Megan's Law database. Recruiters given administrative punishment do not. Ironically, priests aren't fixtures in most public schools but military recruiters are.

Recruiters have unprecedented access to girls (and boys) thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act which demands that public schools turn over student contact data to military recruiters so they can "work their market." In addition, the majority of school districts in the country have relaxed rules that allow recruiters to come and go at will. As a result, more young people have personal and sustained contact with recruiters.

In the wake of severe cuts to extra curricular activities and counseling in high schools, recruiters have filled the void and become a regular part of the school day. With the school's blessing, they give career advice in classrooms, take students on field trips, volunteer during football games and teach physical education. Recruiters can overcome a young person's hesitation to join the military in wartime based on the strength of their long-term relationship -- and this relationship most often begins at school.

Once trust is established, recruiters often take students off-campus to events like the recruitment station slumber party at which the Ukiah girls were brutalized. According to the AP report, sexual misconduct almost always takes place in recruiting stations, recruiters' apartments or government vehicles.

I was once a 17-year-old Army recruit ill-prepared to navigate the male-dominated recruitment system. As I experienced, recruiters wield immense power over teens with their promises of special favors for choice assignments and the authority of their uniform. No one warned me that my comrades in arms might themselves be an enemy. When I was subjected to what can only be called an inappropriate gynecological exam at the downtown Oakland recruiting station, I was too intimidated to speak up for myself.

The Marine Corps settlement is a start. But is doesn't go far enough. A piece of paper posted on a wall in a few recruitment centers won't solve this problem. Female enlistment, making women now 20 percent of the entire military force, is likely to grow.

Unfortunately, the abuse in the recruitment system is prescient of military service, where a third of women who serve will be raped by fellow soldiers. It's high time that girls courted by military recruiters are kept out of harm's way here at home.

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