WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--In another world, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski might have been a heroic reformer for women in the U.S. military.
Over more than a quarter century in the Army, Karpinski--the 52-year-old former commander of Abu Ghraib who was the highest-ranking official to lose her job in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal--overcame what she describes as a pervasive culture of sexism in the military and rose through the ranks to become one of a select few female brigadier generals.
In the half-year since her book, "One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story," was published by Hyperion, she has pushed for equal treatment for military women in promotional events around the country.
But some activists working to curb sex assault within the military say Karpinski could undermine their work with her latest allegation: that her male colleagues covered up the deaths of several female soldiers--including a master sergeant--in Iraq to avoid negative publicity.
Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Arlington, Va., says Karpinski's story lacks credibility and appears to be an attempt to strike back at a system that sacrificed her while sparing superiors. "She's really angry," Manning said. "She feels like she was left to hang out to dry by her bosses."
If Karpinski's allegations are proved to be false, politicians may be less willing to investigate other claims of violence against women in the military, Manning added.
Karpinski also has champions.
Marjorie Cohn, a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, praises Karpinski as "the highest-ranking official who's willing to say anything." A criminal defense attorney who has spent hours interviewing Karpinski, Cohn says Karpinski has not revealed the tell-tale sign of a liar: inconsistency.
"Every time she tells the same story," Cohn said. "It sounds to me like there's really something there."
In August 2005, Cohn's interview with Karpinski appeared on Truthout.org, a left-leaning Internet news site. The story was circulated over the Internet, but was largely ignored by the dominant print and broadcast media.
In January, Karpinski alleged that a medical doctor had briefed her and other military colleagues about female soldiers in Iraq dying of dehydration because they refused to drink water in the afternoon. Their reason: to avoid using the latrines at night, when they might be sexually assaulted or raped.
Karpinski said Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski ordered those at the briefing to suppress the details of the women's deaths because "it doesn't look good."
Karpinski made the allegations before the International Commission of Inquiry On Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, a mock court staged in New York by the peace activist group, Not in Our Name.
The military denies the charge. "There is no evidence to substantiate Colonel Karpinski's claims," Army spokesperson Crystal Oliver said.
Female members of Congress who regularly advocate for equal treatment for women in the military have been silent on the issue.
T-Shirt Contests, Unsafe Showers
Citing incidents ranging from a wet T-shirt contest at an army-base pool to an armed assault at a shower unit, Karpinski said she routinely warns aspiring female soldiers that they are "either going to be sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or they're going to be raped" if they enter the military.
"I think particularly women need to go into this career field with their eyes wide open--not starry-eyed--and understand that . . . the military still has a long, long, long way to go," Karpinski told Women's eNews in a recent phone interview.
The most recent large-scale survey of active-duty military populations, conducted in 1995 by the Department of Defense, found that 78 percent of women and 38 percent of men in the armed services reported incidents of unwanted sexual attention. Those numbers are higher than in the military reserves, according to a congressional report released last September. It found that 60 percent of women and 27 percent of men in the military reserves and National Guard experience some form of sexual assault or harassment during their service.
After a military investigation of the prison abuse scandal, Karpinski was relieved of her command and demoted to colonel before she retired in July 2005. An alleged shoplifting incident at an army-base store in Tampa, Fla., involving a bottle of moisturizer contributed to her demotion; Karpinski says she owned the item. She accepts some blame for the torture scandal but maintains she was made a scapegoat.
Anita Sanchez, spokesperson for the Miles Foundation, an organization in Newtown, Conn., that combats violence against women in the military, called Karpinski's allegations about the cover-up of the deaths of female soldiers "questionable at best."
Poking Holes in Testimony
Sanchez and Manning pointed out several holes in Karpinksi's testimony.
Citing figures released by the Pentagon, Sanchez said no female master sergeants have died in Iraq. Of the more than 50 women who have died there, only two have died from illness, she said. The rest of the deaths arose from hostile fire or a variety of other causes including vehicular accidents, accidental gun discharge, possible suicide and other injuries.
Manning also noted that dehydration is not likely to cause death within a single day, even in a climate as hot as in the Middle East. But it can cause urinary tract infections, she noted, a problem that has caused discomfort for many female troops in Iraq.
Manning added that Karpinski's testimony is based entirely on one unnamed source: a medical doctor who has not come forward to corroborate Karpinski's allegation. Karpinski says she cannot recall the doctor's name.
Karpinski said the discrepancy between her account and the death records could be due to incomplete or falsified medical reports or the failure to mention dehydration as a contributing factor in a woman's death. In addition, assignments for female soldiers were often disguised to circumvent laws banning women from serving in combat positions, which could have led to inaccurate death reports, she said.
She denied that she was seeking reprisal on military superiors and said she simply wants to reveal what women face when they enter the military.
"If you want to explore this, go over to Baghdad and explore it yourself," Karpinski tells her critics. "Don't sit in an armchair in front of a computer and criticize people who have been there and lived through it and survived . . . You can't take this awful situation of sexual assault out of the environment and understand it in the same way. You can't. You have to talk to people who have walked the ground. And I did."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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For more information:
Abu Ghraib General Lambastes Bush Administration:
Department of Defense
"1995 Sexual Harassment Survey"
Department of Veterans
"Military Sexual Trauma Among the Reserves"