War With Ourselves: Sexual Violence In The Military

The prevalence of sexual violence against American women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is a national shame.

U.S. servicewomen today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. At some Veterans Affairs hospitals, over 40 percent of female patients report having been sexually assaulted during their service, and almost one-third are survivors of rape.

Here in the States, a 2006 investigation by the Associated Press found that more than 100 high school-aged women were sexually assaulted or raped by male military recruiters. "Women were raped on recruiting office couches, assaulted in government cars and groped en route to entrance exams," the AP reported. Many recruiters found guilty of sexually assaulting women faced only administrative punishments, while a recruiter who molested teenage boys was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

These horrific statistics don't even take into account the experiences of American women working for government contractors in Iraq. A recent Nation magazine investigation by reporter Karen Houppert told the story of Lisa Smith (a pseudonym), who was gang-raped in Iraq this past January while working for Kellogg Brown & Root, the former Halliburton subsidiary. Houppert writes:

That dawn, naked, covered in blood and feces, bleeding from her anus, [Smith] found a US soldier she did not know lying naked in the bed next to her: his gun lay on the floor beside the bed, she could not rouse him and all she could remember of the night before was screaming and screaming as the soldier anally penetrated her while a colleague who worked for defense contractor KBR held her hand–but instead of helping her, as she had hoped, he jammed his penis in her mouth.

Over the next few weeks Smith would be told to keep quiet about the incident by a KBR supervisor. The camp's military liaison officer also told her not to speak about what had happened, she says.

This brutal crime – and KBR's subsequent cover-up – are far from isolated events. Jamie Leigh Jones, who alleges that employees of KBR/Halliburton gang-raped her in Iraq in 2005, founded a non-profit to advocate for women who were assaulted while working as military contractors abroad. Jones' group is working with 40 victims. And a single Texas law firm is representing 15 women with sexual harassment, assault, rape, or retaliation (for reporting a sexual assault) claims against Halliburton and its affiliates.

Some will look at the breadth of the U.S. military's sexual assault problem and conclude that women should not be serving in combat zones. But that ignores the real and impressive achievements of female soldiers, who've stepped up as never before during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in large part due to the growing obsolescence of the military's ban on women serving at the "front lines." Last month, Monica Lin Brown, an Army medic from Texas, became only the second woman since World War II to receive a Silver Star. During a roadside bombing attack, Brown saved the lives of wounded soldiers, running through insurgent gunfire to shield them from attack.

So how can we respect women's military service while simultaneously helping them fight a culture that puts them at serious risk of sexual harassment, assault, and rape? Here are some practical policy solutions:

  1. Increase the DOD's rate of prosecution of sexual harassment, assault, and rape claims. As Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week, outside of the military, 44 percent of reported rapes result in an arrest, and 64 percent of those arrests result in a trial. But inside the military, only about 8 percent of reported sexual assaults and rapes lead to a court martial. Under pressure, the Department of Defense reluctantly agreed last year to create a Sexual Assault and Response Office. It must be held accountable and given wide latitude to create training programs that change the military's sexual culture. And every sexual assault victim who comes forward should be given an advocate to represent him or her through the process to a court martial.
  2. Repeal Order 17. Order 17, approved by Paul Bremer, exempts American military contractors from being prosecuted for crimes under the Iraqi criminal justice system. As a result, not a single U.S. contractor has been tried for a violent crime in Iraq, despite overwhelming evidence that contractors have committed atrocities against both their fellow Americans and Iraqi civilians.
  3. Pressure the Justice Department to prosecute the crimes of military contractors. So far, the Bush administration has been mostly indifferent to victims of sexual assault in Iraq.
  4. Disallow work contracts that waive victims' rights to civil and criminal complaints. Halliburton and its subsidiaries have required employees to sign contracts that waive their legal rights, and require all complaints against other workers to be filed through a "Dispute Resolution Program." American courts have disagreed about the legality of the program, but no one should feel pressured to choose between employment and their legal rights.
  5. Require that birth control and emergency contraception be available on military bases. Senators Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer, Tom Harkin, Joseph Lieberman, and Frank Lautenberg have introduced the Compassionate Care for Servicewomen Act, which would do just that.
  6. Recruit more female military doctors. One American servicewoman in Iraq was raped by her doctor during a routine gynecological exam. Lisa Smith, the subject of Karen Houppert's Nation magazine expose, only began to come to terms with her rape when she was examined, weeks later, by a female doctor in Iraq. Female medical professionals can be crucial allies for victims.
  7. Foster women's leadership in the military. Research shows that one of the most effective tools for fighting sexual assault in a war zone is a commanding officer who, from the top, signals a zero tolerance policy for misogyny, sexual harassment, and assault. With the proper training, more male officers can implement that goal, but it is only through diversifying the officer corps that the military can truly change its culture into one of intrinsic respect for women.

Even if every one of these policies were implemented, sexual misconduct would likely continue to be disproportionately high in the military, since the culture values aggression and traditional masculinity over conflict resolution and gender equity. Criminal behavior also increases as tours of duty multiply, increase in length, and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Of course, it isn't just American servicewomen and female contractors who pay the price for the military's sexual malfeasance. In one terrible case, American soldiers confessed last year to gang-raping a 14-year old Iraqi girl and then murdering her and three members of her family. Those soldiers are serving life sentences, and the ringleader of the plot faces the death penalty. But for every sexual assault that is prosecuted, others are never brought to light. Tragically, Iraqi victims have even fewer legal recourses than American women serving in Iraq.

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  • invalid-0

    Women should picket military recruiting offices to let other young women know what goes on in these places. Same goes for the offices of private contractors. Also, it is important that women working for private contractors know that if they commit an act of violence against a rapist in Iraq they are immune from prosecution. This might increase the odds that women working for private contractors will defend themselves if they are attacked.

  • http://fundiewatch.blogspot.com invalid-0

    THANK YOU for not saying “pull women out of these roles.” I know, I’m glad to be among friends here, but constantly being mired in right-wing hate as I am I start to lose touch with who the good guys are (kind of like our people in Iraq, it would seem).

    I’ve heard too many people argue that if women are the victims of sexual violence, we should remove them from the situation. That is absolutely the opposite of what should be done, because it punishes the victims and rewards the aggressors (after all, they’re trying to show women that this is a “man’s job,” aren’t they?)

    If the policies you outlined above were on a referendum somewhere, I’d vote for them. Good piece.

  • invalid-0

    Not enough attention is paid to these problems–women should not be more afraid of their fellow soldiers and co-workers than the so-called “enemy”. It just goes to show how low our standards of selection have become when men who commit these crimes are not punished, and are more likely to be entering the service now because of the moral waivers and difficulty in meeting recruitment goals. You’ve listed good options–good luck finding more female doctors–why would they want to go where they might be attacked by someone they’re trying to help?

  • invalid-0

    While some of your statistics are accurate, some of your assumptions are incorrect. As an expert in sexual violence, and as someone who has worked with the military, I can tell you that rape/sexual violence will not simply stop because of putting women in power. Abu Ghraib is an excellent example. The abuses there towards prisoners, both women and men, occurred under the leadership of a woman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_prisoner_abuse (Lets not forget women such as Lynndie England who helped to perpetrate the abuses.) In the military, the Commander of a unit is always the one responsible for what happened in their unit, and should NEVER be able to use the “I didn’t know” as an excuse. Women should only be put in power because they EARN it, and because they have demonstrated an exceptional ability to lead…no different than the requirements for a man. To put someone in power who is unqualified only makes the military service weaker, and vulnerable. You do not want a weak and vulnerable military, trust me. You’ll soon be living under a different flag and speaking a different language. Leadership must be strong, and capable, regardless of gender.

    If you want to see sexual violence decreased in the military, the following things need to be done:

    1. Discourage alcohol use among all military members (the number one drug used to facilitate rape/sexual assault) (note: in “dry” countries overseas where alcohol is not available… such as Kuwait…, rape/sexual assault among military members VERY rarely occur);

    2. Encourage military men to also be involved in stopping rape and to stand up as strong examples of what men (and women) should be…they should be involved in preventing crime: (most men are not rapists, however most are NOT involved in the process of stopping rape. Women, and/or advocacy groups have too long been the only ones involved in doing this). A program can easily be created within the military that fosters dignified, honorable behavior, and emphasizes the true definition of a “strong” man (one who does not have to hurt the innocent, weak or vulnerable, and who exhibits exemplary behavior.

    3. Encourage the military leaders to pay attention to the fact that this is a VIOLENCE issue, not a women’s issue. Men are also raped in the military, and their numbers are lower in part because they fail to report due to shame/stigma of what it means to be male. Being one sided in terms of gender and rape, shows quite a biased agenda, and loss of the big picture. Looking at the issue with a bit more understanding and knowledge will help make larger improvements: http://www.sapr.mil (Note: men are physically abused more often in childhood than women: what kind of impact does that leave on an adult? How does that influence behavior?: By studying and learning the issues with a team of medical and social science experts the military can design better prevention programs)

    4. The military also needs to build up its health care and forensic programs for rape victims in the military. Their health policy programs are currently under WOMEN’S programs, not Public Health. Men may feel ashamed to report sexual assault because of this. It may also create a misogynistic atmosphere within the military ranks, tearing the structure apart instead of fostering comraderie and trust. Military medical providers and military forensic nursing providers need to be given more forensic examination training and an ability to care for their patients locally, instead of shipping victims and suspects to civilian services where much of the evidence is lost along the way. In addition, ongoing follow-up care and much-needed referrals are more available at local military facilities. If military medical providers are trained ahead of time, they can adequately collect evidence in the field/overseas. As of now, much of the training is just before deployment, and there are no special qualifications required of a medical provider in the military to perform an exam.

    5. Remember that not every sexual assault case is a legitimate case of rape, either There are some false reporters (yes…some people don’t tell the truth), or there is sometimes mistake of fact. Sometimes in cases, not enough evidence is gathered, or it is gathered incorrectly. In some cases, the suspect is neglected to be examined because an examination is not requested by law enforcement. The rationale is because they know they will find DNA if the defense is that of ‘consent’, however, there is always more than DNA evidence that can be recovered that can help a case. In order to prosecute cases better there needs to be more military healthcare providers/forensic nurses trained in how to perform sexual assault exams, and more of these providers involved in participating in expert witness testimony, teaching victim advocates, teaching military commands and installations about the issues surrounding sexual assault, participating in medical and prevention training, and doing more clinical research. Right now, there are only advocacy programs doing this. Much more needs to be done in the other specialties.

    BTW: Emergency contraception is available on every military installation. If there are medical facilities and contraceptive pills are available…then there is emergency contraception. Emergency contraception is simply a more frequent/stronger dose of birth control/contraceptive pills given in a particular regimen. Military health care providers know this, and prescribe accordingly.

    I hope this helps your view some, and will cause you to consider more beneficial areas on this subject that you and others can champion. It would really make a difference. Thanks.


  • invalid-0


    I don’t think at any point the article suggested putting unqualified individuals in leadership positions. It seems that you are simply uncomfortable with the suggestion that there could possibly be circumstances that prevent qualified women from ascending to them, and that more could be done to encourage women’s leadership. Gender equity harms no one. Inequity harms all.

    Also, the existence of a small number of female abusers does not excuse the preponderance of abuse perpetrated by males in the military. Strawman argument.

    I agree that rape of men is also a crime that should be taken very seriously. The fact that men also get raped does not change the fact that the overwhelming majority of rape victims are women (and the majority of perpetrators are men), which does make this a gender issue.

    The overwhelming majority of sexual assault and rape claims are legitimate. Why do we focus so much on the small percentage that are fraudulent? There is no other crime for which we are more suspicious of the victim (instead of the alleged perp) than for sexual crime against women.

  • invalid-0


    1. No, the article didn’t mention unqualified leaders, just the assumption that there should be more female leaders. I’m not uncomfortable with there being female leaders. Some of the best leaders I’ve known are female, however no one respects a leader (regardless of gender) if they didn’t earn their way there. Trying to say that more female leaders will remedy the problem is an error. Despite being simply available to fill a billet, they still need to be qualified in order to lead. Female leaders will not stop rape. Good female leaders, as well as good male leaders, may help circumvent the problem.
    2. I’m not excusing the number of men in the military that are abusers, what I’m saying is that since there are a majority who do not, they should be actively involved in prevention.
    3. When this issue is considered primarily a “violence” issue, and when we look at the real reasons why rape occurs, that will help prevention programs do their job. Cultivating an intolerance of violence against others in the military, regardless of gender, age or military status is what is desired in order to make improvement. To make it solely a “women’s issue” without considering men (who VASTLY underreport compared to women, so you have no ideas of the true numbers) creates inner service hostilities. Yes, it’s a problem, the big picture needs to be viewed in order to improve things.
    4. There is not a “focus” on the fraudulent reports in my previous statement, only the mention that they do occur, and as someone who works with the military and has been part of the investigations, I have seen false reports. I have also seen cases that have had poor evidence collection, and cases that seemed to have good evidence, but didn’t end up in a conviction, and cases where the evidence was very poor and yet military men have gone to prison for 12 years and had their names put on a sex offender list for the rest of their lives…despite the existence of ‘reasonable doubt’.
    5. Alcohol is a problem for a wide variety of reasons, and discouraging its use would be of benefit. It is often used to excess, and it is a substance that is often glamorized and made part of daily life in the military. Alcohol is a tool (drug) of people/criminals that wish to take advantage, and adults (male and female) who have a history of child sexual abuse are more likely to become victims again when using it.

    Regardless of the points you tried to make, there still needs to be better education of military medical providers, there needs to be military forensic nurses, military medical training needs to be funded and updates maintained in a central office (it is not a central medical training for clinical forensics as of now) and there needs to be better education and training within the system. Military men need to be involved in helping to stop rape, as well as women, and there needs to be some serious examination as to what prevention measures in programs, (and evaluation of programs) are being done. Alcohol needs to be discouraged from use by military members, especially those greatest at risk (18-25 years old). Detracting from recognizing the real interventions that WILL make a difference in preventing sexual assault will not help service women and men. As an expert (over 15 years experience) in program development, Public Health and sex crimes, I know. Looking at the program critically, understanding that many of the men and women who are enlisted in the military often come from abusive homes to begin with, and encouraging the military to approach the issue from a variety of angles, will be the most beneficial. Training military forensic nurses and medical providers, will also help.


  • http://www.tsnelson.com invalid-0

    Thank you for addressing this issue and bringing up some important points and recommendations. I would like to add a few other points as someone who has worked in this area for several years (as a civilian and military veteran).

    As “Q” noted, yes, emergency contraception should be available at every military installation where birth control is available. If someone finds out otherwise, they should contact the Dept of Defense SAPR(sexual assault and prevention)Office as they are the now central oversight of issues relating to sexual assault within DoD.

    Also, “Q” made an important point re: alcohol as many of the aquaintance rape cases involve alcohol. Any trainings on alcohol or sexual assault prevention should be combined because they are so often linked.

    Finally, with regard to the issue of false reporting: Yes, of course it occurs (rarely)–but let’s not forget that a woman or man who was sexually assaulted is significantly MUCH LESS likely to report the crime (to anyone–police, counseling, medical…) than to make a false report. Victims already fear that they will not be believed and cite this as one of the top reasons they DO NOT report. If we spent more time addressing the barriers to reporting, maybe more victims would come forward and more offenders would be prosecuted.

    Much of my work (and comments here)comes from my research and direct contact with military vicitms of sexual assault as noted in my book, “For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the US Military” (based on a five-year international study with a focus on victim perspectives about rape and s.h. in the military).
    DoD has come a long way with their new SAPR program, but still has miles to go with regard to victim care and offender accountability. However, the momentum was started in 2005 with the new SAPR policies, but we need to stay focused and keep attention on this issue to ensure that the these policies are in fact being followed AND Commanders are held accountable if they do not follow the policies. Then, maybe, we’ll see some lasting changes.
    Terri Spahr Nelson

  • http://vigrxplus-reviews.com/ invalid-0

    There are lot of people argue that if women are the victims of sexual violence, we should remove them from the situation. Personally I think this is absolutely the opposite of what should be done, because it punishes the victims and rewards the aggressors, it’s not fair…