"Never met a wilderness she did like."
January 2007 Issue
Shortly after arriving in Iraq in April 2003, Sergeant Kelly Dougherty was stunned to find herself in an argument with her squad leader about pornography. She’d just walked into the common tent shared by her ten-member military police squad to find two lower-ranking guys watching porn, which is against the rules but ubiquitous in Iraq. She told them she didn’t want to see any of it. One of them apologized, but her squad leader overheard the exchange and stepped in.
“He wanted to argue with me, so I was forced to defend why I didn’t want them looking at women engaged in acts of sex when I’m in the tent,” Dougherty says.
If she hoped for help from the platoon sergeant in charge of her squad, she was soon disappointed. He watched porn in the tent, too.
It was a minor incident during a year of service in Iraq in which the Colorado native came to understand what it means to live as a woman in a decidedly masculine environment. From the moment she set foot in Kuwait, where she and other women were warned never to walk to the showers alone, she had the uneasy feeling that she wasn’t safe among her fellow soldiers.
The danger faced by female troops is not in dispute. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are common enough in the military that the Veterans Administration has a new acronym. “Unwanted, uninvited sexual experience during military service” is officially known as Military Sexual Trauma, or MST. It’s a blanket term that spans a wide range of experience, from off-color jokes to rape.
A VA report dated October 2003, never officially released but leaked by a House staffer in September 2005, estimated that among military reservists, 60 percent of women and 27 percent of men had experienced Military Sexual Trauma. Given its broad parameters, that might be easy to explain away, except that the same study found the prevalence of actual sexual assault—“unwanted sexual contact of a physical nature”—to be 23 percent among female reservists.
Some commanding officers recognize the reality. Once installed at Tallil Airbase near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, American servicewomen were instructed to go on their daily run in pairs because someone had been raped on the base. At night, Dougherty found the camp an unnerving place. To get to the showers or the telephone, she walked past “row upon row of tents full of people you didn’t know.”
Female soldiers, she soon learned, were called “bitches,” “sluts,” and “dykes.” A friend in an all-male unit related a story in which an obligatory equal opportunity class devolved into a rant against servicewomen, who “always” said they’d been raped after regrettable drunken liaisons. A woman in Dougherty’s unit who stayed behind the initial deployment because she was pregnant showed up in Iraq four months later after an abortion—and was congratulated by the platoon commander on getting “the first confirmed kill in the unit.”
Dougherty never spoke up about the blatant sexism around her. Few women did. No one wanted to stand out.
“I feel guilty now,” she says, “because it’s that environment where if you let the small derogatory comments or pornography go, it contributes to that larger atmosphere that leads to the harassment and rape of women.”
“There’s huge pressure not to complain” about sexual harassment or assault in the military, says Clark University professor Cynthia Enloe, author of Does Khaki Become You? “There is intense pressure to prove you’re part of the team.”
The pressure on female troops to preserve their place on the team is even greater during war, when it’s a matter of survival. At the same time, the pumped-up atmosphere of the combat theater seems to be giving women more reason than ever to fear.
Amy Street, a clinical psychologist with the VA working on treatment methods for Military Sexual Trauma, is cautious about making the link between war and sexual harassment.
“There’s never been as many women in armed conflict as there are now, and units have never been as gender-integrated,” Street says. “We don’t know for certain, but we suspect those things might have an impact on incidents of sexual assault.”
Women now make up 15 percent of the active duty force. Some 130,000 women have been deployed since 2001 into two combat theaters where the conflicts are dragging on, seemingly without end.
Carol Burke, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies cultural change in the military, says the alternating pattern of boredom and stress among troops in Iraq and Afghanistan makes for trouble.
“There’s hostility and anger toward the enemy, and sometimes that gets displaced onto the female soldiers who are there,” she says. “I would call it a particular version of friendly fire.”
Since 2002, the Pentagon has logged 546 cases of sexual assault in Central Command (CENTCOM), the administrative territory encompassing Afghanistan and Iraq. The real figures are very likely much higher. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime. In the military, filing a report for it is perceived as a career killer.
Two years ago, following a public outcry over media reports of rape in CENTCOM, the Pentagon sought to correct that with a policy change: Victims of sexual assault would be able to seek treatment without filing a formal complaint.
That may have helped shed light on a dark corner of military life. Last year, the Pentagon received reports of 2,374 rapes or attempted rapes from all of its bases worldwide, about 40 percent more than the year before. But that’s probably just a fraction of the real number. One reason the crime still goes unreported may lurk in the annual report: Last year, just seventy-nine servicemembers were court-martialed for sexual assault. Why bother reporting if nothing will happen to the perpetrator?
Many members of the military subscribe to an outmoded and simplistic definition of sexual coercion. No one argues that a woman who was ambushed, beaten, and forcibly penetrated was not raped. But the subtler ways in which a power imbalance distorts sex between two people may be lost on the average nineteen-year-old recruit. If there’s no skin under her fingernails, the more common thinking goes, she wasn’t raped.
Jennifer Machmer knows too well the Army’s inability to discern degrees of coercion. Machmer, an Army captain and West Point graduate, was assaulted in Kuwait in March 2003 by a noncommissioned officer whom she’d known for two years. Machmer described to MSNBC’s Deborah Norville how the man, who was driving her to and from the airport on the day of the assault, tried to kiss her, how he unbuckled her seatbelt and fondled her as they drove down the road, and how he grabbed her as she was getting out of the vehicle afterward, saying, “Let’s go somewhere.”
“And I said, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere,’ ” Machmer recalled. “And the car was turned off. He made the conscious decision to turn the car back over and drive behind a bush and continue to assault me. . . . I told him numerous times, ‘I do not want this, you know. This is not what I want at all.’ ”
Machmer reported the incident immediately, and to its credit the Army found sufficient evidence to move forward with the case. But five months later, when an exhausted Machmer was asked to choose between a court-martial and letting the brigade commander handle the case, she chose the latter. The commander wrote her assailant up and docked his pay. Machmer was given a medical discharge for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In Machmer’s account, her assailant is astonishingly oblivious to her fear and disgust, pausing several times to ask her what was wrong and implying that they might get together on another night. There is a dazzling array of places to lay the blame for this mindset: crappy television, bad schooling, pervasive neglect of boys’ emotional development. It’s perpetuated in the military, where even some in the leadership continue to deny what is going on.
“They don’t want to understand the gray area,” says Enloe. “If they really took seriously that there is a wide variety of forms of misogyny, harassment, and outright assault, then they would have to spend time thinking about it. But this is not why they got their promotions. This is not the sort of thing that makes them feel like real commanders.”
Suzanne Swift is facing jail time and a dishonorable discharge following her ordeal, which has left her with a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that civilian doctors have diagnosed but the Army won’t. The twenty-two-year-old was arrested in June for desertion after refusing to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty. She later said she couldn’t face the sexual harassment and coercion she’d experienced on her initial tour.
First, it was a platoon sergeant coming on to Swift, then nineteen and a lowly specialist in a military police unit. The sergeant was four ranks above her. She reported him to the equal opportunity officer, but the complaint went nowhere. That was in Kuwait.
In Iraq, things got worse. Her squad leader, another sergeant, started behaving toward her in a proprietary way, warning her away from the company of other soldiers. One night, he hit on her. She didn’t like him, but she didn’t think she had much of a choice.
“[He] literally singled me out to be the person that he was going to have sex with during the deployment,” Swift told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “And, you know, I did. I was nineteen. I fell for it, and for months I was like his little sex slave, I guess. It was disgusting and it was horrible, and I didn’t know what to do.”
The term for this all-too-common phenomenon is command rape, because the victim agrees to sexual relations out of fear of retribution by a superior officer. After Swift broke it off, the squad leader punished her with write-ups, humiliations, and special workouts for minor infractions. He was finally rotated out, to Swift’s relief.
Once stateside, there was a final episode. A sergeant told Swift she was to report for duty “on [his] bed, naked.” This time, when Swift notified her superiors, the man was reprimanded and reassigned.
But it is Swift who is awaiting court-martial in early January for going AWOL last year.
Her mother, Sara Rich, angry and worried about her daughter’s declining mental health, told The Progressive: “They allowed her to be sexually used and abused. They’re just going to throw her away.”
Traci Hukill is a freelance writer in Monterey, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.