Breaking the silence on rape within the military

Men and women marines stand in formation at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Men and women marines stand in formation at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

It was the fall of 1999, and I was serving as an active-duty enlisted member of the U.S. Navy Presidential Ceremonial Guard. Stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the White House Communication Agency, and Marine One, the approximately 100 members of our command stood in formation while the district admiral paced back and forth in front of us.

Several days prior, one of the members of our command had been raped at knifepoint in our barracks. A number of other sailors had stood outside the room while it happened, and had allowed the rapist, one of our own, to escape when he was done.

The admiral’s message was clear: We were not to talk to anyone about what had happened — not to our families, not to our friends and not to the press. We simply could not afford to have this kind of thing leaking to the public. After all, this was a presidential support unit. What would people think?

Over the course of the next several months, I watched my once-proud shipmate become a shell of her former self. Rather than rebuild her sense of security, strength and trust, our command began to treat her like an invalid and a delinquent. Her status as a victim was concretized when our superiors assigned her to light limited duty, which entailed spending her days engaged in menial tasks such as polishing brass and pulling weeds. She was ostracized by many of the other sailors in our command, with rumors quickly spreading that she had “always liked rough sex” and had “asked for it.” Traumatized by her experience, out-grouped by her peers, and her faith in our superiors shattered, she began to suffer from depression. The response was swift. She was prescribed a cocktail of medication and — with her once-promising career in tatters — she was unceremoniously discharged.

Throughout my four years of military service, I watched these dynamics play out time and time again. I was to learn that these were not isolated incidents, but rather part of a larger epidemic of historical abuse that continues to haunt the military today. Stories of sexual assault among our ranks were so common that they began to feel normal. On multiple occasions, I watched superiors use their authority to commit overt and explicit sexual harassment. I watched a fellow sailor get hospitalized for three days after a hazing incident so traumatic it left him temporarily unable to walk. And throughout it all, the message from above was always the same: We were to keep our silence.

U.S. military interpersonal and intragroup violence follows unfortunately predictable patterns, most infamously demonstrated in 1971 by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the experiment examined the behaviors of ordinary university students playing the roles of prison guards and prisoners. They quickly devolved into sadistic behavior, demonstrating that personality and behavior are highly subjective, and that power and privilege are linked with oppressive behaviors. Originally intended to last for two weeks, Dr. Zimbardo, the experiment’s principal investigator, called off the experiment after only six days.

Once a person joins the U.S. military, they enter a culture of abuse, often under the guise of unit cohesion and discipline. The cost of this culture is high. The Department of Defense estimates that at least 26,000 U.S. military members were sexually assaulted in 2012 — with approximately 53 percent of those assaults happening to men, and less than three percent of those cases prosecuted. According to a 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 28 percent said they were raped while in the military. As Newsweek reported in 2011, women in the U.S. military have a higher chance of being sexually assaulted than killed in combat.

The long-term effects of this culture of violence often follow people well beyond the military. The suicide rate for U.S. military veterans is more than double the suicide rate of civilians, regardless of whether they have experienced combat or not. Meanwhile, too many of our nation’s youth are forced to face a gauntlet of Military Sexual Trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, Moral Injury, and other military-related trauma and disease.

This culture of abuse spreads far beyond the military, while remaining inextricably linked with it. I’ve worked alongside blue- and white-collar civilian workers who have chosen to compromise their personal values by working in the drone industry because it was the only way for them to put food on their families’ tables. Meanwhile, people who are not even associated with the military are forced to suffer the consequences of the fact that the U.S. military is the worst polluter on the planet, responsible for egregious amounts of greenhouse gases, radiation and chemical pollutants.

There is one clear and plausible solution to this untenable situation: Our nation must collectively convert from a war to a peacetime economy. Our nation has spent well over $6 trillion on the military over the last 10 years, which many believe has actually contributed to further military insecurity and social unrest. Many economists agree that no industry is less efficient than the military. Just image the scale of positive social change, both foreign and domestic, we could have supported if we had spent that money on equitable and just economic development.

People on both the left and the right agree: It’s time for massive, meaningful social change. Our culture of abuse must be transformed before it devours us all. Accepting the status quo is no longer an option. Shallow patriotism is no friend to our country’s soldiers, sailors or airmen. We will be silent no more.

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