Gender in the Ranks

April 19th, 2008 - by admin

Maya Schenwar / t r u t h o u t | Report – 2008-04-19 23:11:12

(April 9. 2008) — Unlike many of the other panels at Winter Soldier, the one devoted to gender and sexuality in the military featured no gory videos. The testimonies included many secondhand accounts, especially when the subject came around to rape and sexual assault. And though it was the only panel in which none of the speakers divulged personal acts of violence, it was one that, at times, betrayed a raw sense of shame.

At one point, a panelist broke from her testimony, biting back tears, and muttered, “I hate to be the girl.” Another panelist, Jeff Key, later noted the significance of this: Even within the supportive walls of the peace movement, “this idea that men are beings devoid of feeling and compassion, and that women are weak and just a ball of emotion,” pervades.

Tellingly, the gender and sexuality event was also the only panel that took a little struggle to get on the schedule. Panelists mentioned that, when the idea for a gender panel was first suggested, some veterans dismissed it, calling the topic irrelevant.

However, as National Guard veteran Margaret Stevens noted, gender issues pervade every topic discussed at Winter Soldier.

“If you want to talk about rules of engagement, you could talk about the engagement of Iraqi civilian women,” she said. “If you want to talk about corporate pillaging and military contractors, you could talk about contracted sexual labor… These issues transcend into the core of the war itself.”

Fifteen percent of US military personnel are women. According to a 2003 Department of Defense (DOD) study, almost one-third of female veterans seeking Department of Veterans’ Affairs care reported rape or attempted rape during their period of service. Fourteen percent reported being gang raped. Thirty-seven percent of those reporting rape cited more than one incident.

Those numbers may not come as a surprise: They have flashed across network TV broadcasts and the pages of major newspapers over the past few months. Yet, they don’t tell the whole truth. Panelists pointed out many military assaults go unreported, and even at Winter Soldier, very few women found the atmosphere conducive to disclosing their own experiences of sexual violence.

Disregard and Denial

Panelist Tanya Austin told the story of another woman, a Coast Guard member who was raped by a shipmate. The incident itself was horrific enough: The woman’s rapist brought her to an isolated pond and forced her to have sex, ignoring her blatant resistance. But the military’s response to the rape had audience members’ mouths gaping.

The woman did not immediately report the rape; she’d reported past instances of sexual harassment and her superiors had taken no action in response. Eventually, she gathered the courage to tell her command what had happened. When he heard she wanted to press charges against her rapist, he told her to leave his office. Other superiors later made her promise to drop the issue.

When the woman sought medical treatment for psychiatric problems associated with the rape, the details came out – at which point she was restricted from doing any of her regular duties. She was told “a rape victim cannot do any ‘real Coast Guard work.'” The following months flung her through a series of tribulations, including a threat from the “work life” staff that if she disclosed her rape to the media, she’d be handed a dishonorable discharge. In the end, she was honorably discharged due to “unacceptable conduct” – that is, speaking up about her assault experience.

Austin pointed to her friend’s story as representative of a general lack of disregard, even scorn, for rape and sexual assault survivors in the military. More than three-quarters of soldiers convicted of sex-related crimes are honorably discharged when they leave the military, according to DOD data. Only about 3 percent of soldiers accused of rape are court-martialed.

Post-rape examinations, in which a physician gathers and preserves evidence of the assault, are not covered by insurance in the military, according to an official memo read by testifier Patty McCann.

Built-In Sexism

Sexism and sexual violence are not simply due to isolated “bad soldiers” or to evil forces at the DOD, testifiers reiterated throughout the panel. Gender divisions and hierarchies are built into the very structure of the military, already one of society’s most blatantly hierarchic institutions.

Former Army National Guard mechanic Jen Hogg, who organized the panel, pointed to a very basic manifestation of the gender split: Women are not allowed to serve in the Army infantry.

“A lot of people say it’s because women wouldn’t physically be able to do positions like infantry,” Hogg told Truthout. “But there are men who can’t do the position of infantry, as well. So, it’s not so much that all women can’t do it, or that all men can. There are definitely all kinds of institutionalized policies that set women aside, as different, from step one.”

Women can never obtain a combat infantry badge, which, according to Hogg, is a basic military status symbol. Since they can’t achieve the type of distinction available to military men, their sexuality often becomes their distinction, Hogg noted, pointing to the form-fitting style of female soldiers’ uniforms.

Testifiers described their introduction to the military’s attitude toward gender issues: A “sexual assault awareness training” workshop that was cursory at best.

“The type of training that goes on is ‘check-the-box’ training,” former combat medic Wendy Barranco said. “There’s an NCO [noncommissioned officer] at the front of the room with a PowerPoint presentation. Slide, slide, slide, slide, slide – we’re done.”

Hogg compared the military’s approach to sexual harassment training with the briefing on the Rules of Engagement (ROE), which supposedly regulate soldiers’ relations with foreign civilians. The ROE are relayed as a matter of course, but often not taken seriously.

“Technically, sexual assault is not condoned,” Hogg said. “They don’t say, ‘Please sexually assault women.’ But when it happens and they don’t enforce the rule, it’s basically saying, ‘You can do this, because you’re not going to be punished.'”

When it comes to sexual orientation, institutionalized discrimination is even more patent. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy offers an ultimatum: secrecy or discharge. Queer panelist Jeff Key, a former Marine, pointed to a strange disconnect between military rules and one-on-one human interactions. Many of his fellow Marines acted as supportive allies, he said, even attending his wedding back at home.

However, when the Iraq War rolled around, Key decided to call the military out on its heterosexism, reasoning that the privilege of fighting an unjust war was not worth his personal sacrifice. After he heard no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, he “went on CNN and came out of the closet to 5 million people and made them throw me out.”

An Everyday Thing

In addition to its tolerance for appalling incidents of rape and assault, panelists pointed to the military’s general habit of disregard for “small” instances of harassment and discrimination. Those instances add up.

Panelist Patty McCann told of a male platoon sergeant who took pictures of the young women in her unit and taped them to doors. When McCann complained to her higher-ups, she was told the sergeant “hadn’t hurt her,” and she shouldn’t make a fuss.

“There’s always this idea you’re going to ruin someone’s career if you talk about this stuff,” she said.

Barranco testified about her experience in a hospital in Tikrit, where she was harassed almost every day by a male doctor who would catch her alone and intimidate her, pushing up against her. Though he never took it to the point of assault, Barranco dreaded going to work each day. Yet, she did not speak up.

“I knew command wasn’t going to do anything about it, so there was no point,” she said.

What accounts for the military’s lack of oversight and discipline when it comes to sexual harassment and assault? Hogg pointed to a basic underlying problem: No centralized reporting system exists, so oftentimes, women don’t even know where to turn if an incident occurs. Unlike in the civilian world, where, at least in theory, the police are responsible for following up on sexual crimes, every division of the military – and sometimes even individual units – have different ways of treating the issue. In the period of distress and confusion following a rape or assault, some women find the process of determining who they should speak to too daunting to take on.

Advocacy From Within

The military complex, with its strict hierarchy and both implicit and explicit encouragement of secrecy, leaves little room for gender-related activism. Yet, an increasing number of soldiers are beginning to speak out, finding ways to offer support for marginalized service members.

After her discharge, the Coast Guard rape survivor, whose story was told during the gender panel, developed a web site,, which supplies information on sexual violence in the military, as well as support for those who have experienced it. The site also houses the Military Rape Crisis Center, another new project, which puts survivors in contact with legal, financial and medical assistance.

Last year, Hogg and several other veterans and active-duty soldiers founded the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), with the goal of providing mentorship and guidance for women in the military and addressing issues specific to female soldiers and veterans.

“[SWAN is] about looking for peace through healing, looking for ways for women who are thinking of joining the military, women who are in the military and women who are out of the military to find avenues to be able to heal themselves and commune with other women,” Hogg said.

Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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