female military soldier

(WOMENSENEWS)– Imagine this: Three women apply for jobs in a particular workplace because they need the money, will get to travel, or believe they will be treated with respect and as equals to the men in that workplace. In the job interview, the employer says, "We’ll hire you. Just sign here on the dotted line. Welcome to our workplace. Oh, by the way, did I mention that one of you will be sexually assaulted here? And that if you are one of the tiny number who are brave enough to report the assault, you will be punished, but the perpetrator will not? In fact, your life will be ruined and the perpetrator will get off with a hand-slap and might even be promoted."

How many women would take that job? How many men would take it if told the same thing except that one in 100 of them would be sexually assaulted? But those are the probabilities for the American military, and after decades of the victims bravely speaking out in Congressional hearings, in films such as "The Invisible War" and "SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home," on news programs, in books, and at rallies, as well as becoming plaintiffs in lawsuits, the rates of assault remain essentially the same, two-thirds of victims who report the assaults are subjected to retaliation, perpetrators are almost never brought to trial and those brought to trial are rarely punished in any substantial way.

On Dec. 8 the nonprofit organization Protect Our Defenders announced a national campaign asking President Obama to "declare that after 20 years of ‘zero tolerance,’ a year filled with news of retaliation against victims, and survey estimates showing no progress, it’s time to change the military justice system."

Photographs and stories of 12 survivors of sexual abuse in the military are attached to the campaign, which Protect Our Defenders’ Co-Chair and CEO Nancy Parrish describes as necessary because many Americans wrongly assume that victims "have access to a fair system of justice" in the military.

They point out that this is not true, because "in the military, the rapist’s commander has the power to decide if the case goes to trial and, what the charges will be and can hand-pick the jury. The current military justice system is not fair and it is not impartial." Protect Our Defenders asks Americans to sign the to President Obama, to ensure "that rape is not ‘an occupational hazard’ for Americans serving in the military."

Frightening Facts

The frightening facts are these: Each year, at least 26,000 service members report being sexually assaulted, but only a tiny fraction of the perpetrators is ever disciplined, and almost never is one discharged from the military because of committing an assault.

The military, which has made some strides toward reducing sexism in its ranks in other respects, has largely failed over the decades in making significant changes to decrease the frequency of sexual assaults and increase the frequency of appropriate punishment of those who commit them. Instead, too many–though not all–officials in the chain of command try to silence the victims in order to protect the reputation of their unit, protect their buddies who committed the assaults (and sometimes the officials are themselves the perpetrators), or both. One sexual assault victim who understandably continues to feel devastated many years after being attacked described the horror of not only seeing the perpetrator escape all discipline but actually be named the most valuable member of their unit.

One of the most common mechanisms used to silence victims and render them powerless is psychiatric diagnosis.

A woman–or man–who is sexually assaulted and experiencing the natural, intense upset that results from such assaults understandably seeks help and support from a military therapist. Often, the victim’s upset is used to "prove" that she is mentally ill. I would say this happens usually or nearly always, but the absence of data about diagnoses makes it impossible to quantify the harm.

It’s so easy to label victims with a mental disorder, because the deeply human effects of being a victim of violence reside in the official handbooks of mental illness under the title "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder."

Having served on two committees that wrote the diagnostic handbook in which PTSD first appeared, I can attest that there is absolutely no justification for calling such upset a mental illness. Doing so causes harm of which most Americans are totally unaware.

Harmful Labelling

To receive such a label–rather than being described accurately and non-pathologically as experiencing trauma or betrayal trauma (after all, you were assaulted by someone who was supposed to have your back, even in life-and-death situations in combat zones)–often leads the labeled person to lose custody of a child, lose a job or fail to get one, lose or fail to get security clearance, lose the right to make decisions about their medical or legal affairs, or be discharged from the military because of allegedly being mentally ill.

Importantly, when it comes to reporting sexual assault, once the victim is labeled mentally ill, she loses credibility as a witness. In this way, the effects of the assault– being terrified, sleepless, or numb, feeling powerless and betrayed–are recast as the causes of allegedly false or exaggerated accusations when she tells the truth.

As Parrish points out, "Last year, President Obama said that he had victims’ backs. He gave the Department of Defense one year to show progress. But last week, showing that estimates of sexual assaults are at the same level they were four years ago. And the rate of retaliation against victims, 62 percent, is the same it was last year. The news over the past 12 months has been filled with one scandal after another involving retaliation against those who report sexual assaults."

Many service members have intensely positive experiences in the military in a wide array of other ways, but they have the right to be forewarned about the major risks related to sexual assault in they enlist, in the same way that people going to work in an environment with high rates of exposure to toxic chemicals should be forewarned. The practice of forewarning them should immediately be made a standard part of recruitment interviews in all branches of the military.

The Pentagon issues official statistics about sexual assault, but that is woefully inadequate, given the military’s vigorous advertising campaigns that focus only on positive images of the armed forces.

In calls attention to a part of the Pentagon’s Dec. 4 survey showing that two-thirds of those who reported being victims of military sexual assault were subjected to retaliation. The paper put its weight behind

the legislation that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) proposed, which would end the requirement for victims wishing to report such attacks to do so to people above them within their chain of command.