What does it tell us that female soldiers deployed overseas stop drinking water after 7 p.m. to reduce the odds of being raped if they have to use the bathroom at night? Or that a soldier who was assaulted when she went out for a cigarette was afraid to report it for fear she would be demoted — for having gone out without her weapon? Or that, as Representative Jane Harman puts it, "a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire."
The fight over "Don't ask, don't tell" made headlines this winter as an issue of justice and history and the social evolution of our military institutions. We've heard much less about another set of hearings in the House Armed Services Committee. Maybe that's because too many commanders still don't ask, and too many victims still won't tell, about the levels of violence endured by women in uniform. (See TIME's special report on the state of the American woman.)
The Pentagon's latest figures show that nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2008, up 9% from the year before; among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number rose 25%. When you look at the entire universe of female veterans, close to a third say they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving — twice the rate in the civilian population. (See the top 10 crime stories of 2009.)
The problem is even worse than that. The Pentagon estimates that 80% to 90% of sexual assaults go unreported, and it's no wonder. Anonymity is all but impossible; a Government Accountability Office report concluded that most victims stay silent because of "the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip." More than half feared they would be labeled troublemakers. A civilian who is raped can get confidential, or "privileged," advice from her doctors, lawyers, victim advocates; the only privilege in the military applies to chaplains. A civilian who knows her assailant has a much better chance of avoiding him than does a soldier at a remote base, where filing charges can be a career killer — not for the assailant but the victim. Women worry that they will be removed from their units for their own "protection" and talk about not wanting to undermine their missions or the cohesion of their units. And then some just do the math: only 8% of cases that are investigated end in prosecution, compared with 40% for civilians arrested for sex crimes. Astonishingly, about 80% of those convicted are honorably discharged nonetheless.
The sense of betrayal runs deep in victims who joined the military to be part of a loyal team pursuing a larger cause; experts liken the trauma to incest and the particular damage done when assault is inflicted by a member of the military "family." Women are often denied claims for posttraumatic stress caused by the assault if they did not bring charges at the time. There are not nearly enough mental-health professionals in the system to help them. Female vets are four times more likely to be homeless than male vets are, according to the Service Women's Action Network, and of those, 40% report being victims of sexual assault. (See pictures of an Army town coping with PTSD.)
Experts offer many theories for the causes: that military culture is intrinsically violent and hypermasculine, that the military is slow to identify potential risks among raw young recruits, that too many commanders would rather look the other way than acknowledge a breakdown in their units, that it has simply not been made a high enough priority. "A lot of my male colleagues believe that the only thing a general needs to worry about is whether he can win a war," says Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of the Armed Services Committee. "People are not taking this seriously. Commanding officers in the field are not understanding how important this is."
But there are some signs that both Congress and the Pentagon are getting serious about this problem. It is now possible for victims to seek medical treatment without having to report the crime to police or their chain of command. More field hospitals have trained nurse practitioners to treat the victims; more bases have rape kits. "More than ever," Sanchez says, "I believe that our leadership at the very top is beginning to realize that they need to be proactive."
According to a report by the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, the progress made so far remains "evident, but uneven." The failure to provide a basic guarantee of safety to women, who now represent 15% of the armed forces, is not just a moral issue, or a morale issue. What does it say if the military can't or won't protect the people we ask to protect us?