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Spc. Jeremy D. Crisp/AP

US Female Soldiers Raped by Male Comrades Have Trouble Seeking Justice

April 17, 2009 06:30 PM
by Kate Davey
“The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq” interviews female veterans of conflict zones who were sexually assaulted or harassed by male soldiers. Reports of these assaults often go unheeded by officers.

Female Soldiers Must Protect Themselves Against Comrades

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According to Helen Benedict, author of “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” U.S. female soldiers are not only in danger from the enemies they are fighting, but also from fellow U.S. soldiers.

While researching her book in 2007, Benedict wrote a feature for Salon in which she discusses some of her interviews with U.S. female veteran soldiers. She writes that rape by fellow soldiers is such a well-known problem in the military that officers often tell women soldiers to use the showers and latrines only with other women.

Spc. Mickiela Montoya, 21, explained to Benedict that she carried a knife for protection, but not against the Iraqis: “It was for the guys on my own side.”

Another soldier reported that her friends who were assaulted and tried to report the assault were not given access to a counselor, nor did they find support. “These women are turning perpetrators in and they're not getting anyone to speak on their behalf.”

The case of U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift

U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift was coerced into a sexual relationship with a superior officer and sexually harassed during her training in Kuwait as well as in Iraq and at Fort Lewis in Washington. Two days before she was scheduled to be redeployed, she went AWOL (Absent Without Leave), returning to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. After being arrested by the army and imprisoned, Swift became a symbol of the difficulties associated with reporting sexual assaults and harassment in the army. Garry Trudeau dedicated several of his Doonesbury comic strips to Swift’s case, and a recent episode of the Fox TV show “Lie to Me” incorporated a similar story into the plot.

In December 2007, Swift received a summary court martial. She pleaded guilty to “missing movement” and was demoted to private and imprisoned for 21 days, including Christmas. An April 2007 Times of London article reported that for Swift “to receive an honorable discharge, Swift was duty-bound to complete her five-year enlistment,” which ended in early 2009.

Suzanne Swift is not alone.  According to the United States Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2008 Annual Report, 2,908 sexual assaults were reported in 2008. Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Defense as “intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. It includes rape, nonconsensual sodomy (oral or anal sex), indecent assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling), or attempts to commit these acts.

In response to rape cases in the military as well as domestic violence cases, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has introduced H.R. 840: Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act, to reduce “sexual assault and domestic violence involving members of the Armed Forces and their family members” through education, preventative programs as well as enhanced reporting systems and greater ability to prosecute assailants. The bill is currently in committee.

Reference: Reporting sexual assault in the military

In 2004, the Department of Defense set up Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR); its mission is to prevent sexual assault through training and education programs, offer treatment and support to victims and ensure system accountability.

If someone is sexually assaulted while in the military, SAPRO recommends that survivors call their hotline to speak with a counselor. The Web site explains the two modes of reporting an assault: restricted and unrestricted reporting. Restricted reporting, which is limited to those currently serving, allows survivors to “confidentially disclose the details of his or her assault to specified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling, without triggering the official investigative process.” Unrestricted reporting, which is also available for veterans and civilians, is for those “who desire medical treatment, counseling and an official investigation of the crime.”
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