Hansel and Gretel at the Recruiter’s Office

Military recruiters might feel these days like Hansel and Gretel’s “wicked witch,” fattening up the children to eat them. Between sexual harassment and assault, combat fatalities, burning wounds, disabilities and disorders leading to service-related suicides, what recruiters sell these days looks like a horror show.
After talking with Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, Stars and Stripes put it this way Dec. 15: “Suicides have not dropped off the radar, despite increased focus on combating sexual assault.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told the Washington Post, Nov. 7, “I don’t think we’ve hit the top yet on suicides.”
Between the chance of being sent into shooting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia… on one hand, the likelihood of being sexually assaulted on the other, and the epidemic of suicides among active, returning and Reserve soldiers, you have to wonder how recruiters get anyone in the door. Maybe newbies don’t read the papers. (All four active duty services, and five out of six reserve components, met their recruiting goals in 2014, according to the Pentagon.)
For members of the Reserves and the National Guard, suicides climbed 8 percent between 2012 and 2013 (from 203 to 220). Since 2001, more active-duty U.S. troops have killed themselves than have been killed in Afghanistan, The Washington Post said. Last April, the AP reported that suicides in the Army National Guard and Reserve in 2013 “exceeded the number of active-duty soldiers who took their own lives, according to the Army.”
In a Dec. 15 report, Stars and Stripes said the suicide rate among Marines and soldiers was particularly high. Active-duty Marines and soldiers had a suicide rate of about 23 deaths per 100,000 service members in 2013, compared with 12.5 suicides per 100,000 overall in the US public in 2012, the most recent rate calculated by the Centers for Disease Control. The suicide rate among sailors also has increased this year, the CDC found.

Even if you never saw combat

An Army study that covered records of almost a million soldiers, published last March, reported not only that suicides among soldiers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than doubled between 2004 and 2009 (to over 30-per-100,000), but that the rate for those who never spent time in war zones almost tripled over the same five years (to 25-to-30-per-100,000). While many expected military suicides to decline when deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were cut back, it has not happened, the Washington Post found. CostOfWar.org says, “Thirty-eight-per-100,000 of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans using VA health care have committed suicide, compared with 11.5-deaths-per-100,000 for the general public.”

Sexual violence still increasing

Meanwhile, the “increased focus on combating sexual assault” has been declared a short-term failure. A 1,100-page Pentagon report released Dec. 4 found that reports of sexual assault in the military increased 8 percent in 2014. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY (who has fought to remove jurisdiction in sexual assault cases from commanding officers), responded to the news saying, “I think this report shows a failure by the chain of command.”
Trying to spin the news as if the problem was not growing worse, Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel had trouble finding the right words. He said, “After last year’s unprecedented 50 percent increase in reports of sexual assault, the rate has continued to go up. That’s actually good news.” Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO, claimed the report showed “great progress”, although she admitted, “We still have work to do on curbing retaliation against victims.”
The study found 62% of women who reported being sexually assaulted said they’d suffered retaliation, mostly from colleagues or peers. Former Marine Corps Captain, and director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Anu Bhagwati told the New York Times, “[T]he climate within the military is still a dangerous one for victims of sex crimes.” SWAN.org notes, “A culture of victim-blaming, lack of accountability, and toxic command climates is pervasive throughout the U.S. Armed Forces, preventing survivors from reporting incidents and perpetrators from being properly disciplined.”
A case in point is the light treatment given Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair last March after he pleaded guilty to maltreatment and adultery. As with most sexual assault cases, Sinclair’s lawyers spent months retaliating, re-victimizing and attacking the credibility of the accuser, an Army captain. Sinclair was sentenced to a rank reduction, full retirement benefits and a $20,000 fine. The convictions could have carried a life sentence and registration as a sex offender. The captain alleged that Sinclair had threatened to kill her if she disclosed their relationship.

For help regarding sexual harassment or sexual violence in the military, contact Protect Our Defenders at <info@protectourdefenders.com>; the S.W.A.N., at 646-569-5200; or the Veteran’s Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-8255. For help regarding though of self-harm or suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255.

- John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin.