Do the the Armed Forces Have a Rape Culture?


US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced quagmires of crime, corruption and abuse, beginning with the torture of prisoners, the creation of offshore penal colonies, and repeated airborne attacks on shepherd boys, wedding parties, TV crews and allied troops — and ending with atrocity-producing chauvinism, bigotry, night-time home invasions and indefinite detention without charges. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of dollars in unaccounted CIA cash pay-offs go to everyone from presidents to warlords. We don’t so much spread democracy as shred a mockery.
The war system has produced epidemic suicide rates, boot camp fatalities, plane and copter crash losses, friendly fire deaths, “green-on-blue insider” attacks by Afghan trainees, combat wounds and amputations, PTSD and several unknown or undiagnosed syndromes — most of which are permanently debilitating. The abuse and even murder of spouses are on the rise among returning vets but sexual battery, abuse, assault and rape have reached staggering rates.
The Pentagon estimates there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year, up from 19,000 in 2011. You know that sexual predators are rampaging through the military when the president calls the its rape statistics “shameful” and “disgraceful,” when Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel calls the chronic outrages a “betrayal” and a “scourge that must be stamped out,” and when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey says, “We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve ...,”
Why would Gen. Dempsey admit such a thing? Because, according to Kirby Dick, director of the film “The Invisible War,” less than 1 percent of the 26,000 cases resulted in a court-martial conviction. Kirby’s documentary reviews the scandal of military commanders — not prosecutors and judges — deciding whether to prosecute “embedded serial sexual predators.” The director wrote in a recent op/ed that “500,000 uniformed men and women have been assaulted since 1991” (the year of the Tailhook sexual assaults in Las Vegas), and fewer than 15 percent were ever reported. In 1996, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland was the site of infamous sexual assaults on female recruits. In 2003, it was the Air Force Academy in Colorado that represented the military’s rape scene.
The problem of unreported and unprosecuted sexual assaults in the military is notorious. Of the estimated 26,000 cases last year, the Pentagon said May 8 that only 3,374 were reported. Tens of thousands of victims keep quite out of fear of retribution by superior officers and a distrust of the military court system. One such case came to light June 1 when the Naval Academy announced that three of its football players were under investigation for the serial rape of a female midshipman in 2012. The victim’s lawyer, Susan Burke, has said that after reporting her attack the sophomore was harassed and taunted by other midshipmen and ostracized and retaliated against by the Naval Academy community. While still under investigation, the three perps were allowed to play football while the victim was disciplined for underage drinking.
On May 2, the Air Force said it disciplined five former commanders for not reporting sexual assault allegations at Joint Base San Antonio-Lakeland in Texas — where 18 sexual assault trials have taken place and 32 basic training instructors are under investigation for assaulting recruits. On May 14, Sgt. Michael McClendon at West Point was charged with secretly videotaping a dozen women in the school’s showers. Last In December, the Pentagon warned that sexual assaults reported by students at its three prestigious military academies jumped 23 percent in one year.
Three new cases, beyond being too ironic for words, telegraph just how pervasive the culture of male sexual violence is in the military, and how unlikely it is to be abolished by committee. First, an Army Lt. Col. who coordinated a sexual assault program at Ft. Campbell, Ky. was removed from his position after a fight with his ex-wife for which he was arrested. Second, an Army Sgt. who served as a sexual assault prevention and response coordinator at Ft. Hood, Tex. is now alleged to have forced a subordinate into prostitution and sexually assaulted two others. Third, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski — who until May 7 was chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response branch in the Pentagon — was arrested on a charge of sexual battery for allegedly groping a women after midnight in a parking lot near the Pentagon.
The case of Virginia Messick who was raped at basic training in Texas is grimly representative, although her assailant, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, went to prison last July for raping 10 trainees. Messick didn’t initially report being raped. She was staggered by the dilemma that the rapist was the same officer she was supposed to inform.
Under pressure from Pentagon brass, Congress rejected a bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would have given military prosecutors, not commanding officers, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try. Without fear of retaliation, the law would have increased the number of reported crimes, but the generals objected, saying it would negatively affect “good order and discipline.” Sen. Gillibrand, D-NY, didn’t buy the cliché. She told military officials at a senate hearing in March 2012, “I don’t know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order.”
— John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin.