America's all-volunteer military makes up two percent of the entire US population. We serve in an environment that is segregated from civilian life. The chasm increases with distance, and much of what goes overseas stays overseas. The culture is one of stoic silence. We are told not to go to the civilian sector when handling personal issues or crimes. We are told to maintain OPSEC. We are told not to destroy morale. A facetious reworking of the title of Gordon Dickson's novel “Soldier, Ask Not” applies 24/7: “Soldier, Shut Up”.
In March of 1986, fresh out of basic, I arrived at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi for my technical training. During that time I befriended a staff sergeant and his wife who'd been living on base for about 10 years. One day they asked what squadron I was in. I said “I'm in the 96th” and my friend Keith's wife, Barbara, visibly flinched and replied with a tone of loathing and horror, “Oh no.”
She asked me if there was anything strange about the 96th and, a bit confused, I said, “Well, yeah. They moved us into a dorm that they said had been condemned. They said we were the first troops to reactivate the squadron. The building was all mildewed and stuff and we spent about a week having to clean it up. Why would they move us into a building they said was condemned?” Her next question boggled me even more: “Were there doors on the dorm rooms?” I blinked, and said, “Of course!”
Barbara's eyes grew narrow and when I was finished, she turned and said to Keith, “I see. They deactivated the squadron afterward. They left it alone for a year, so people would forget.” Turning to me, Barbara carefully explained that it wasn't the building that had been condemned, it was the base commander, the squadron commander, and most of their staff who in the early 1980s turned the 96th Technical Training Squadron into “their own personal whorehouse”.
The tale she told was like a horror movie. Women were told their careers would be over if they didn't cooperate. The problem base-wide, but the 96th was particularly notorious. Men came into the dorm at will, day and night, because the squadron commander had had all the doors to the rooms removed – supposedly “to protect the girls so people could see what was going on inside”. The reality was that no one cared. Rapes were a constant and daily occurrence. Suicides skyrocketed. There was nowhere to turn for help in one's chain of command, because the misogynistic insanity went all the way up into the office of the base commander.
The madness at Keesler finally ended when six female Air Force students banded together and went AWOL, traveled to Washington DC, and supported each other as each woman petitioned their Congressional Representatives for an investigation. The base commander was busted down in rank and ended up in Leavenworth, but most of the people involved got the usual slap on the wrist and reassigned elsewhere. I was later to learn that this is how the military handles “prosecution” for most cases of sexual harassment and rape.
I left the military 21 years ago and that is how it was then. I was lucky, it never happened to me, but that was only a circumstance of timing. I served active duty for six years and if I were to write down every instance of sexual harassment I remember as it happened to myself and the women I served with it would make a goodly sized novel. A very short “there I was” story consists of my having volunteered for combat duty in Ankara, Turkey as the first Gulf War proceeded and being told by a DoD contractor that while I spec'd out fine on the systems, he was going to recommend that I not go because, and I quote: “You need to be home baking cookies for your man.”
It's hard to believe it's gotten worse, but it has. Today, statistics show that one in three women in the U.S. military is raped by someone wearing the same uniform and/or in her chain of command. If you are a woman in the U.S. military today, your chances of being raped by someone wearing the same uniform are higher than your chances of taking a bullet from an enemy.
Colonel Ann Wright, a 29-year career Army veteran and State Department diplomat, has tirelessly worked for nearly a decade to bring attention to this systemic military problem. She was instrumental in lobbying key legislators, organizing public Congressional hearings, writing articles for independent media outlets, and helped to organize Military Sexual Trauma support groups within Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and ultimately “SWAN”, or Service Women's Action Network.
When challenged on where she got the “one in three” statistic, Colonel Wright ironically replied that she'd collected the records of how many rape kits the VA had billed the women for. You read that right. The VA refuses to cover the cost of a rape kit. Victims of rape in the US military have to pay for the procedure that allows them to prove that they were raped.
"The Invisible War," a powerful new documentary focusing on this problem, opens today at select theaters. It recently premiered at Sundance and was awarded the Audience Choice award, and has received wide attention with articles in the NY Times and Washington Post. The movie has already been screened for numerous high profile politicians and decision makers and is having a huge impact that's been a long time coming. Garry B. Trudeau saw it soon after Sundance and in tribute devoted 12 Doonesbury comic strips earlier this month to bring attention to the issue. In an eerie instance of art imitating life, a woman featured in “The Invisible War”, Jessica, represents a real-world version of Trudeau's character Melissa.
"The Invisible War" will be out in select theaters today. If you care about our female vets and currently serving military or are a young woman thinking about signing up or if you have a family member or friend who is female and serving, then you need to see this movie.
The communications disconnect between the two percent who serve and those whom they serve to protect needs to end. The support of our troops needs to go beyond a yellow ribbon magnet on a back bumper. This systemic issue goes beyond embarrassing and into the realm of atrocity.
Much can be said about a society that maltreats it's women. I constantly hear that we are in the Middle East in part to liberate women from the oppression of the Taliban. Judging from the hard evidence presented in this documentary as well as my own personal experience, I dare say the United States could stand to clean a little of its own dirty laundry first.
If you care about our women in uniform, see “The Invisible War”. If there is enough interest, I will ask if the Glen Cove Theater is willing to show it.
One final note: if anyone reading this knows of a woman who suffers from military sexual trauma, there are resources available to help them at the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN). SWAN is a very active group that stands by to do everything the VA hasn't.