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Iraq Brings War Trauma Into Our Homes

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This Veterans Day should be a time to connect the dots between warfare and domestic violence, says Nicole Sotelo. Military families suffer much higher levels of family violence as traumatized soldiers bring the battlefield home.

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This Veterans Day should be a time to connect the dots between warfare and domestic violence, says Nicole Sotelo. Military families suffer much higher levels of family violence as traumatized soldiers bring the battlefield home.
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Nicole Sotelo

(WOMENSENEWS)--This Veteran's Day, if we are serious about supporting our returned military and their families, then we must start by declaring peace in Iraq. The longer we are at war, the more violence we will see on U.S. soil in the form of domestic violence.

Friends and families of returning U.S. soldiers know that many veterans bring the war home with them in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to an extraordinary number of domestic violence cases.

It's the principle of the Golden Rule in action. The United States is giving and therefore getting violence in return. The battlefields of Iraq become the battlefields in our homes and neighborhoods in the shape of domestic violence.

When Veterans Day rolls around Nov. 11, let's connect the dots between what our soldiers are witnessing and experiencing beyond our immediate field of vision and how that afflicts the most intimate circles in our own society.

Let's take it as a time to reflect: A war doesn't end on the battlefield, it comes home and invades our living rooms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, arises when a person has been exposed to violence and the constant threat of death. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional changes and, very often, the unleashing of domestic violence. Being in a war zone naturally exposes people to violence and can lead to psychological injury that can result in PTSD.

While a number of Americans may recall the four wives who were murdered by their military spouses within a six-week period at Fort Bragg near the beginning of the Afghanistan invasion, this only caught media attention because the murders took place in one location within a limited time frame.


Pervasive Violence

But this family violence is common and pervasive.

While many U.S. military families, of course, are as happy as any others, studies indicate that military families have a domestic violence rate three to five times higher than the general U.S. population.

This finding goes beyond the U.S. military. It pertains in any situation of internal or international violent conflict.

Recent studies from various global conflicts point to a correlation between the rise of war and increased levels of domestic and interpersonal violence. The increase of interpersonal violence is not only limited to wartime, but is also seen in the build-up to war and in its aftermath.

In the majority of cases, this war-correlated violence targets women and children and may include physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It is still unclear exactly how much of this violence occurs: interpersonal violence is known to be underreported and understudied, especially during wartime.


Focus on Ending Conflicts

Nonetheless, the emerging statistics are horrifying--see below--and should prompt international cooperation for a peaceful end to the war in Iraq and other conflicts and the deployment of support services.

Recent reports from Congo reveal a country in civil tumult and an epidemic of rapes that are part of the violence. Last year the United Nations reported 27,000 sexual assaults in just one province of the country, and those are just the ones that have been recorded. It is believed that some of those responsible for the sexual atrocities are the same men who were involved in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Estimates vary but UNICEF reports approximately 150,000 sexual assaults during the 100-day genocide in Rwanda.

The International Action Network on Small Arms reports that in one study in Cambodia nearly 75 percent of women had experienced domestic violence after the war, often hurt by guns that men had brought home with them. In the first months of the war in the former Yugoslavia, it is estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 Muslim women were raped.

While many believe rape and other interpersonal violence to be solely the result of an individual's choice, interpersonal violence during war is often tied to group socialization or even direct military orders.


'Socialized Rapists'

Research documents that while most men are not rapists, in certain violent settings they become "socialized rapists." Some researchers believe this socialization through male-bonding groups--and the view of women it engenders--provides the strongest indicators of rape.

Soldiers, militiamen and others who are affected by the violence of war turn against women and children they would normally not attack.

A soldier, trained to fight against "the enemy," will often turn instead against civilians in the country of war, against their own fellow soldiers and against their families upon their return home because of the trauma and socialization toward violence they experience.

The U.S. war in Iraq has produced numerous reports of U.S. male soldiers assaulting both Iraqi women and fellow U.S. female soldiers. These soldiers are not assailants by nature, but have been traumatized by the violence of war and now act out that violence against the innocent in Iraq and in the United States upon their return.

We may think that the war is being fought only on Iraqi soil, but it is also being fought in the living rooms and kitchens of those who have brought the war home.

What we are doing unto others now is being done unto us.

Nicole Sotelo holds a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is author of "Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace" (Paulist Press, 2006) and is contributing to "Weep Not for Your Children: Essays on Religion and Violence" (forthcoming from Equinox, 2007).

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

National Organization for Women, "Women in the Military" resources:
http://www.now.org/issues/military/referral.html

Women to Women International:
http://www.womenforwomen.org

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