I was at a dinner party with a bunch of friends not long ago when the subject of rape in the military came up.
“It doesn’t happen,” said one guest, a National Guardsman, who was sitting next to me. I’d met this gentleman for the first time that night, and he knew I’d been in the Navy but didn’t know the reason why I was in a wheelchair.
His words and dismissive tone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention, like Jack’s do when he senses danger. I was about to rattle offa list of horrifying statistics and stories for this guy when I saw my hostess’s worried face. So I quietly replied, “You and I, sir, should not have this conversation.”
It was shocking to me that after so many tragic stories and information had surfaced in the news in recent years about sexual abuse in the military, there were still people—even those inside the military—who denied that it happens or refused to see it. Or they attempted to downplay or make excuses somehow.
“Marines don’t rape one of our own,” one member of the Corps said to me a few years ago. “Sure, we’ll rape a whore in another country. But not here, and not one of our people.” As if being on a foreign land with a stranger makes it okay?
“Rape is not an occupational hazard,” I told this Marine. Yet no matter how hard I tried to convince him of how inhumane and irrational his thinking was, he couldn’t get it through his thick skull that it’s never okay to rape: not if the victim is a prostitute or dressed “sexy,” not if you or she are drunk at a party, and not if you are in the military where they make up their own rules . . . never.
I’ve talked to hundreds of women in the military about this, and to meet an enlisted woman who has not been sexually assaulted in some way is a rarity.
At the end of 2013, a Pentagon summary showed that reports of sexual assault in the military had increased sharply in the previous year: 3,553 sexual complaints were reported to the Department of Defense from October 2012 through June 2013— a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier— and the numbers continued to rise after that.
Some thought these statistics meant that incidents of rape had suddenly increased, but I think the stats jumped because more women (and men) are coming forward, and this is good news. The rates of sexual assault were always high, but the military kept us silent; it’s impossible for us to ever know the number of rapes in the past that went unreported. But I feel a new awareness brought on by the media, like the 2012 documentary The Invisible War, has made an impact. That film helped victims, myself included, feel more comfortable with speaking out. And the only way change is going to happen is if we all talk about it; numbers make change happen.
One change that needs to happen is for the United States Congress to take the power of justice out of the military ranks. We can’t expect an entity like the military—where the crimes of war are a normal part of everyday life—to judge a crime like rape (and in my case, attempted murder as well) in a fair way. The nature of the job doesn’t allow for a clear and impartial assessment of the crime or the punishment.
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