Just in time for Veterans Day, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made a long-overdue institutional commitment to addressing the needs of veterans who are survivors of sexual assault occurring within the military. The VA will open a treatment center next month specifically targeting and addressing the needs of female sexual assault survivors. According to Cynthia Smith, spokesperson for the Pentagon, the center will track cases of sexual assault and, through training, ensure a "consistent level of care and support for victims of sexual assault." Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, stated, "We have a moral obligation to provide these [survivors] with the support and care they need."
In 2005, the Department of Defense instituted a system whereby sexual assault survivors could make complaints that would allow them to access counseling and medical attention without triggering an official investigation, and Department does have an office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. But, as Sara Corbett wrote in the New York Times in March, noting a forty percent increase in crimes reported from 2004 to 2005,"While victims may be feeling more empowered to report sexual assault, it appears that the number of assaults are not diminishing."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported over several months that rates of sexual assault in the military are rising, with astonishing increases of up to twenty percent in a single year. And nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted last year, says the Post-Dispatch.
It's hard to sustain excitement about the VA's new treatment center when you read the personal accounts of women who suffered sexual assault and harassment in the military. Their offhand remarks –
So then you're in Iraq, driving down Highway 1 with an M-16 in your hand. You have those doubts people had about you in the back of your head. You're thinking 5,000 things at once, trying to be everything everybody wants you to be. And you still have to take the crap from the men. You're 20 years old and growing into your own body, having an actual sex drive. But you've got 30 horny guys propositioning you and being really disgusting about it.
as says Abbie Pickett, a combat-support specialist with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, or
They basically assume that because you're a girl in the Army, you're obligated to have sex with them.
as says former Army specialist Suzanne Swift –speak to the profound and still intractable problems of gender and power in the military. All the treatment centers in the world don't address the root of the sexual assault epidemic in the military — that lies within the soldiers who perpetrate these crimes, and the troubled psychological imperatives fostered by our nation's military institutions.