|FEATURE | fall 2008
What will it take to protect U.S. servicewomen from sexual assaults and their subsequent cover-ups? Congress, the parents of raped-and-murdered soldiers and embattled military women themselves are desperate to know.
Army Private LaVena Johnson, just 19 years old, was found dead on her military base in Balad, Iraq, in July 2005.
At first the Army initiated a homicide investigation, then suddenly, without explanation, closed it and ruled her death a suicide by an M-16 rifle. Yet her parents said she had been calling home every day, always sounding happy and healthy.
When her father, John Johnson, a veteran of the Army himself, viewed his daughter’s body at the funeral home, he noticed several suspicious factors. Her face was bruised, the gunshot wound did not match the description in the autopsy and white uniform gloves had been glued onto her hands. He later gained access to photographs that showed abrasions to her face, a broken nose, burns on her hands, signs of sexual abuse and more burns to her back and genital area. He also learned that she had been re-clothed after her death, dragged across the ground and set on fire inside a tent. Johnson and his wife believe that their daughter was raped, murdered and burned to cover the evidence.
The Johnsons have been pressing the Army to reopen the investigation ever since, but so far have been stonewalled at every turn.
Of the sexual assaults reported and recorded by the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2007, half were met with no official action, a third were dismissed as unworthy of investigation and only 8 percent of those investigated were referred to Court Martial. Of those few military men found guilty of rape or sexual assault, the majority received punishments so mild they amounted to slaps on the wrist, conveying the message that men can do what they want to women in the military with little consequence.
In 2007, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs reported that 20 percent of female veterans seen at its facilities nationwide said they had been raped or sexually assaulted while serving. Other veteran studies put the incidence of rape at 30 percent: nearly one-third of all women in the military force. Furthermore, the DoD admits on its website that 80 percent of rapes in the military are not reported because women (and the men who are raped, too) fear ostracism, punishment and loss of careers. The rate of sexual assault and rape in the military is at least twice as high as it is among civilians.
As Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.) put it in testimony last July, “Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”
In fact, the atmosphere in the military makes it a fertile ground for sexual assault and rape. Women are routinely degraded from boot camp on with obscene insults, relentless staring, sexist rhymes, pornography and sexual harassment. Servicewomen face the most retrograde attitudes imaginable, while at the same time finding themselves trapped in a rigid hierarchy that paralyzes their ability to seek justice and punishes them if they try. “Rape is the only crime where the victim must prove [her] innocence,” as Ingrid S. Torres, a Red Cross nurse who was raped by an Air Force doctor while she was on duty in Korea, testified at the July hearing.
This is not to say that no progress at all has been made. Since Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and others demanded reforms in the military in 2005, rape evidence kits, anonymous reporting, victim advocates and training aimed at preventing assault have been brought into the military. But these measures are so irregularly implemented that they have failed to change the dismal picture for women in any significant way.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” says John Johnson of his daughter LaVena’s case. “I figure the person who did this to my daughter has rank and prestige and the Army wants to cover this up to spare themselves the embarrassment. And now so many people have compromised their careers by participating in this cover-up.”
Rep. Harman and Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) have introduced legislation urging the Secretary of Defense to encourage and increase investigations and prosecutions of sex crimes in the military. Rep. Slaughter also reintroduced her previously defeated bill, The Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act, which would create counseling and treatment programs throughout the Veterans’ Administration, among other things.
But all the well-meaning reforms, meetings and rules issued in Washington D.C will never have much effect as long as military culture remains unchanged. So far, the behavior of the Department of Defense and the Pentagon has only demonstrated, as many a soldier has said to me, that the military is more concerned with protecting their men from scandal than their women from rape.
The full text of this article appears in the Fall issue of Ms., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.
HELEN BENEDICT is a professor of journalism at ColumbiaUniversity who won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism in 2008. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War Of Women Serving In Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009).