You’re a soldier. You’re flying a plane, operating a piece of war machinery, mapping a battle plan, supporting your squad, or in the middle of combat. You’re on guard for the enemy. The night before you fought off a sexual assault. Or maybe you tried but couldn’t.
You’re sore, shocked, and suffering. Who did this — not an adversary, but someone wearing the same uniform you do. Now you have an extra concern on top of all your others. You not only have to look out for the foe you expected, but also one you didn’t whose acts can be as lethal to your safety, concentration and focus as a sniper.
That you must be on guard against a sexual attack in the midst of other risks is an obscene reality for many in our military. This is an unnecessary, outrageous hazard. It has gone on too long.
If what I’ve written sounds exaggerated, then watch The Invisible War, a searing, award-winning documentary about sexual assault in the military. Or, pick up the news of the recent few weeks and you’ll read about reports of rising sexual assaults in the military, of counselors who attack those they are supposed to protect, and of sexual assaults at Annapolis that reference earlier incidents at the Air Force Academy. Research the early 1990s and you’ll learn about Tailhook, a ritual of sexual hazing and assault. And as The Invisible War explains, there’s a sordid history of such assaults and rapes that goes back even further. They affect males and females and leave permanent, devastating scars. The deepest wound is on the honor of our outstanding military, which has defended our freedoms for 200 years.
I did not serve in our armed forces. I have great regard and respect for those who have and do. What I have read and heard from friends and colleagues is that military units perform best when there is unit cohesion. This occurs when members of a unit work together to fulfill their mission. They build bonds of trust and the most basic form of mutual respect.
At least some of those who have been assaulted – or fear that they might – suffer just a bit less trust and concentration than if that wasn’t one of their ongoing concerns. There must have been critical times when such distractions have affected their attention and judgment. Surely, there are hospital beds and graves filled by soldiers who relied upon comrades that lacked peak concentration or their very best judgment after suffering a brutal, criminal assault. These individuals, though not directly attacked, also paid the awful price for the sexual assault.
Some say that that is part of the problem – those who are currently victimized have to report up through their chains of command; victims have reported that their attackers were the very people to whom they were required to report attacks. A related problem with this system is it may cause complaints to be ignored or dismissed and the claimants ostracized or retaliated against.
No doubt this reporting and enforcement structure needs to be evaluated and likely changed to encourage complaints and provide for sure and just penalties and complainant protections. But solving this problem requires far more than rewriting processes or other procedures.
Most importantly, we have to change elements of military culture that condone sexual assault by minimizing it, ignoring it, protecting the offenders or treating it as a problem too trivial to address in the broader imperatives of warfare. Ultimately, sexual assault and rape and even less outrageous conduct leading up to it must be viewed as unprofessional, unethical, vile, and criminal. It has also got to be seen as a military hazard caused by purposeful behavior, in a sense, comparable to sabotage whose purpose is also often to undermine unit and mission effectiveness.
Our military leaders need to recognize sexual assaults as a threat to operational success and the safety of our troops, and not just as an attack to the individual who will, no doubt, suffer lasting damage. They then must to take the necessary steps to prevent this grotesque, outrageous, and damaging conduct from happening again.