Al-Jazeera’s Two-Part Story

Two part Story on Rape in USA military

Rape rampant in US military
Statistics and soldiers’ testimonies reveal a harrowing epidemic of sexual assault in the US military.
Dahr Jamail Last Modified: 24 Dec 2010 20:34

Sexual assault within the ranks of the military is not a new problem. It is a systemic problem that has necessitated that the military conduct its own annual reporting on the crisis.
A 2003 Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal prompted the department of defense to include a provision in the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act that required investigations and reports of sexual harassment and assaults within US military academies to be filed. The personal toll is, nevertheless, devastating.
Military sexual trauma (MST) survivor Susan Avila-Smith is director of the veteran’s advocacy group Women Organizing Women. She has been serving female and scores of male clients in various stages of recovery from MST for 15 years and knows of its devastating effects up close.
“People cannot conceive how badly wounded these people are,” she told Al Jazeera, “Of the 3,000 I’ve worked with, only one is employed. Combat trauma is bad enough, but with MST it’s not the enemy, it’s our guys who are doing it. You’re fighting your friends, your peers, people you’ve been told have your back. That betrayal, then the betrayal from the command is, they say, worse than the sexual assault itself.”
On December 13, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups filed a federal lawsuit seeking Pentagon records in order to get the real facts about the incidence of sexual assault in the ranks.
The Pentagon has consistently refused to release records that fully document the problem and how it is handled. Sexual assaults on women in the US military have claimed some degree of visibility, but about male victims there is absolute silence.
Pack Parachute, a non-profit in Seattle, assists veterans who are sexual assault survivors. Its founder Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, was raped as a cadet at the Air Force Academy. In July 2003 she was member of a team of female cadets handpicked by Donald Rumsfeld, at the time the secretary of defense, to tell their stories of having been sexually assaulted. The ensuing media coverage and a Pentagon investigation forced the academy to make the aforementioned major policy changes.
Report reveals alarming statistics

Mountjoy-Pepka often works with male survivors of MST. She stated in a telephone interview that four per cent of men in the military experience MST. “Most choose not to talk about it until after their discharge from the military, largely because the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in over 60 percent of MST cases is too overwhelming,” she informed Al Jazeera.
Last week the Pentagon released its “annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the military service academies”. At its three academies, the number of reports of sexual assault and harassment has risen a staggering 64 percent from last year.
The report attributes the huge increase to better reporting of incidents due to increased training and education about sexual assault and harassment. Veteran’s Administration (VA) statistics show that more than 50 percent of the veterans who screen positive for MST are men.
According to the US Census Bureau, there are roughly 22 million male veterans compared to less than two million female vets.
In Congressional testimony in the summer of 2008, Lt. Gen. Rochelle, the army chief of personnel, reported the little known statistic that 12 percent (approximately 260) of the 2,200 reported rapes in the military in 2007 were reported by military male victims.
Due to their sheer numbers in the military, more men (at a rough estimate one in twenty), have experienced MST than women.
Shamed into silence
Billy Capshaw was 17 when he joined the Army in 1977. After being trained as a medic he was transferred to Baumholder, Germany. His roommate, Jeffrey Dahmer, by virtue of his seniority ensured that Capshaw had no formal assignment, no mail, and no pay. Having completely isolated the young medic, Dahmer regularly sexually assaulted, raped, and tortured him.
Dahmer went on to become the infamous serial killer and sex offender who murdered 17 boys and men before being beaten to death by an inmate at Columbia Correction Institution in 1994.
Capshaw reflects back, “At that young age I didn’t know how to deal with it. My commander did not believe me. Nobody helped me, even though I begged and begged and begged.”
The debilitating lifelong struggle Capshaw has had to face is common among survivors of military sexual assault.
Later during therapy he needed to go public. Since then he says, “I’ve talked to a lot of men, many of them soldiers, who are raped but who won’t go public with their story. The shame alone is overwhelming.”
In 1985 Michael Warren enlisted in the navy and for three years worked as a submarine machinist mate on a nuclear submarine. One day he awoke to find another soldier performing fellatio on him.
He recollects with horror, “I was paralyzed with fear. I was in disbelief… shame. When I reported it to the commander he said it was better for me to deal with it after being discharged. Nobody helped me, not even the chaplain. The commander at the processing centre wouldn’t look me in the face. When I filled out my claim later they didn’t believe me. It’s so frustrating.”
Armando Javier was an active duty Marine from 1990 to 1994. He was a Lance Corporal at Camp Lejeune in 1993 when he was raped.
Five Marines jumped Javier and beat him until he was nearly unconscious, before taking turns raping him. His sexual victimization narrative reads, “One of them, a corporal, pulled down my shorts and instructed the others to ‘Get the grease’. Another corporal instructed someone to bring the stick. They began to insert the stick inside my anus. The people present during this sadistic and ritual-like ceremony started to cajole, cheer, and laugh, saying “stick em’ – stick-em’.”
Extreme shame and trauma compelled him not to disclose the crime to anyone except a friend in his unit. He wrote in his account, “My experience left me torn apart physically, mentally, and spiritually. I was dehumanized and treated with ultimate cruelty, by my perpetrators… I was embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t know what to do. I was young at that time. And being part of an elite organization that values brotherhood, integrity and faithfulness made it hard to come forward and reveal what happened.”
The reality of being less equal
Women in America were first allowed into the military during the Revolutionary War in 1775 and their travails are as old. Drill instructors indoctrinate new recruits into it at the outset by routinely referring to them as “girl,” “pussy,” “bitch,” and “dyke.”
A Command Sergeant Major told Catherine Jayne West of the Mississippi National Guard, “There aren’t but two places for women – in the kitchen or in the bedroom. Women have no place in the military.”
She was raped by fellow soldier Private First Class Kevin Lemeiux, at the sprawling Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad. The defense lawyer in court merely wanted to know why, as a member of the army, she had not fought back.
The morning after the rape, an army doctor gave her a thorough examination. The army’s criminal investigation team concluded her story was true. Moreover, Lemeiux had bragged about the incident to his buddies and they had turned him in. It seemed like a closed case, but in court the defense claimed that the fact that West had not fought back during the rape was what incriminated her. In addition, her commanding officer and 1st Sergeant declared, in court, that she was a “promiscuous female.”
In contrast, Lemeiux, after the third court hearing of the trial, was promoted to a Specialist. Meanwhile his lawyer entered a plea of insanity.
He was later found guilty of kidnapping but not rape, despite his own admission of the crime. He was given three years for kidnapping, half of which was knocked off.
The long term affects of MST
Jasmine Black, a human resources specialist in the Army National Guard from June 2006 to September 2008 was raped by another soldier in her battalion when she was stationed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. She reported it to her Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and the Military Police, but the culprit was not brought to book.
After an early discharge due to MST and treatment at a PTSD Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (PRRTP) facility, she was raped again by a higher-ranking member of the air force in February 2009.
Administrator for a combat engineering instruction unit in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tracey Harmon has no illusions. “For women in the military, you are either a bitch, a dyke, or a whore. If you sleep with one person in your unit you are a whore. If you are a lesbian you are a dyke, and if you don’t sleep with other soldiers you are a bitch.”
Maricela Guzman served in the navy from 1998 to 2002 as a computer technician on the island of Diego Garcia. She was raped while in boot camp, but fear of consequences kept her from talking about it for the rest of her time in the military. “I survived by becoming a workaholic and was much awarded as a soldier for my work ethic.”
On witnessing the way it treated the native population in Diego Garcia, she chose to dissociate from the military. Post discharge, her life became unmanageable. She underwent a divorce, survived a failed suicide attempt and became homeless before deciding to move in with her parents. A chance encounter with a female veteran at a political event in Los Angeles prompted her to contact the VA for help. Her therapist there diagnosed her with PTSD from her rape.
The VA denied her claim nevertheless, “Because they said I couldn’t prove it … since I had not brought it up when it happened and also because I had not shown any deviant behavior while in the service. I was outraged and felt compelled to talk about what happened.”
While it will go to any length to maintain public silence over the issue, the military machine has no such qualms within its own corridors. Guzman discloses, “Through the gossip mill we would hear of women who had reported being raped. No confidentiality was maintained nor any protection given to victims. The boys’ club culture is strong and the competition exclusive. That forces many not to report rape, because it is a blemish and can ruin your career.”
The department of defence reported that in fiscal year 2009, there were 3,230 reports of sexual assault, an increase of 11 percent over the prior year.
However, as high as the military’s own figures are of rape and sexual assault, victims and advocates Al Jazeera spoke with believe the real figures are sure to be higher.

April Fitzsimmons, who was originally quoted in this article, requested that her information be removed on the basis of personal reasons.


1995: Archives of Family Medicine revealed that 90 per cent of women veterans from the 1991 US attack on Iraq and from earlier wars had been sexually harassed.

2003: American Journal of Industrial Medicine surveyed women veterans from Vietnam to the 1991 Iraq attack and found that 30 percent of them had been raped.

2004: According to a study published by the Journal of Military Medicine, of veterans from Vietnam and all wars since, 71 per cent of women soldiers have been sexually assaulted or raped while serving.

2007: The Miles Foundation, a private nonprofit organisation that provides support to victims of sexual assault in the military, received 976 reports of sexual assault in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the foundation, said at the time that there was a steady upward trend in the number of reported cases of sexual assault, of 10 to 15 per cent each quarter.

2008: The Pentagon reported nearly 3,000 cases of women assaulted sexually in Fiscal Year 2008, an increase of 9 percent from 2007. For women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the increase was 25 percent.

2009: The annual report on sexual assaults states, “In FY 09, there were a total of 3,230 reports of sexual assault involving military Service members as either victims or subjects, representing an 11% increase from FY 08.”

2009: Admission by the Pentagon that approximately 80 per cent of rapes are never reported – making it the most under-documented crime in the military.

Sexual abuse happens in the US military at rates twice the national average, according to reports [GALLO/GETTY]

Every year, rape increases at an alarming rate within American military institutions – and even males are victims of the cycle.

In fact, due to raw demographics, one can roughly surmise that most victims of sexual abuse in the military are male.

Regardless of gender, reports of victims of military sexual assault have been increasing. In 2007, there were 2,200 reports of rape in the military, whilst in 2009 saw an increase up to 3,230 reports of sexual assault.

Many of the victims suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are shamed into silence, with numerous cases not even reported.

A disturbing trend, however, is how military officials seem to be sweeping this damaging issue under the rug and deflecting blame.

Blaming the Victim

Kira Mountjoy-Pepka of Pack Parachute, a non-profit organisation which assists sexually abused veterans, explains that the military system favours the perpetrator. “What we’re seeing now, and what we’ve seen for decades, is when someone is assaulted, the military investigators create false or misleading crime reports. Then the case is dismissed, and the command persecutes the victim for false reporting.”

She cites the Feres Doctrine (Feres v. United States, 340 US 135 [1950]) that made it impossible for the survivor to sue the investigators since it, “essentially prohibits people from suing the military and/or petitioning any non-military legal authority for interdiction without the military’s prior and explicit agreement and consent.”

“If you’re a victim and you report this crime and the military mishandles the investigation, you can’t sue them,” she explains, “I feel if this were taken up by Congress as an issue it would be exposed that the military is operating against the Constitution by denying victims their first amendment rights. The military always has their own investigators investigate [these cases], and that doesn’t seem like justice to me.”

The military goes to great lengths to protect the perpetrators, and that deters survivors from reporting. The incidences of sexual trauma in the military are staggering.

The Department of Defence claims to have a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual assault in the ranks, but figures indicate otherwise.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of sexual assault on women in the military is twice that in the civilian population. 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.”

While a civilian rape victim is ensured confidential advice from his or her doctors, lawyers and advocates, the only access a military rape survivor has is to a chaplain.

Compared with a 40 per cent arrest rate for sex crimes among civilians, only eight per cent of investigated cases in the military lead to prosecution.

After Congress mandated it do so in 2006, the Pentagon started a comprehensive programme to track incidents. That year, there were 2,974 reported cases of rape and sexual assault in the military. Of these, only 292 cases resulted in trials, and those netted only 181 prosecutions of perpetrators.

Nearly half the cases are dismissed for lack of adequate proof or due to the death of the victim. Less than 11 per cent of the cases result in a court martial. Often, those prosecuted merely suffer a reduction in rank or pay, and 80 per cent receive an honourable discharge nonetheless.

The victim, on the other hand, risks ending his or her career when they file charges.

Signed, the commander

Faced with the threat of possible persecution and losing their jobs and professional credibility, most soldiers prefer to remain silent about their traumas. Not that silence helps, because records reveal that less than one-third of the women have been able to maintain their careers in the military after having been assaulted.

When presented with these dismal statistics in an interview with ABC News last year, former Principal Undersecretary of Defence for Personnel and Readiness, Michael Dominguez said, “Yes, we absolutely have to get better. Secretary [Robert] Gates himself is driving this initiative this year to improve our ability to investigate, to prosecute and convict. This is not where we want to be.”

Dominguez’s replacement, Clifford Stanley, issued a Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2010-12 on December 30, 2009. It addresses the need to “Establish a culture free of sexual assault”, and puts forth goals of 90 per cent “awareness” and 80 per cent “confidence” in the sexual assault prevention and response program by the end of 2015, with no specific mention of the means to accomplish these goals.

Those plans do not fill Susan Avila Smith with confidence. She is director of the advocacy group Women Organising for Women and she projects a dismal picture.

“The people I work with go all the way back to WWII. The stories are almost exactly the same. It has always been covered up. Still the drill sergeants, chaplains, and doctors appear to be the worst perpetrators. So when these guys are convicted, rather than punishing to the fullest extent, they can give them a letter of reprimand which means Tommy was bad, signed The Commander. That letter comes out of his personnel file before he moves on to the next unit, so it’s like nothing happened.”

Military ‘aware’ of the crisis

Pentagon spokesperson Cynthia Smith assured Al Jazeera, “We understand this is very important for everyone to get involved in preventing sexual assault, and are calling on everyone to get involved, step in, and watch each others’ backs. We understand that one sexual assault is too many in the Department of Defence (DOD). We have an office working on prevention and response”

The office she alludes to is the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which is responsible for the oversight of the DOD’s sexual assault policy.

In 2008 Kaye Whitley, Director of SAPRO, was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs but was ordered by the military not to do so.

At a second oversight hearing she did appear and confessed to the members of Congress, “I was given a direct order by my supervisor to get back in the van and go back,” she said.

At an MST Congressional hearing on February 3, 2010, highlighted was what many see as the problem – the military investigating itself for criminal acts of sexual assault and rape committed by its personnel, as well as the naming of Task Force members and the work of the Task Force being delayed for three years.

Due largely to Mountjoy-Pepka’s work in the wake of her experiencing MST and taking action, in October 2005 then-Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld authorised the DOD Task Force on Sexual Assault in the military.

However, the DOD took three years to name the Task Force, and the group’s initial meeting did not occur until August 2008. During that period, 6,000 service women and men were sexually assaulted or raped.

This same Task Force told Congress’s Military Personnel Subcommittee that, “DOD’s procedures for collecting and documenting data about military sexual assault incidents are lacking in accuracy, reliability, and validity.”

Task Force leaders also told Congress that “neither victims nor other military personnel were routinely informed of the results of disciplinary actions relating to sexual assault”, and “Commanders generally did not communicate case results to members of their command, and that this lack of information often led to misperceptions, rumours, and assumptions that allegations were unfounded.”

Fighting back

Anuradha Bhagwati, the executive director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a group that helps military women who have been victims of sexual violence, contradicts claims by the DOD that their new programs will slow the number of MST victims. “We are seeing a disturbingly steady flow,” Bhagwati said .

In addition, she told Al Jazeera, “Contrary to DOD claims that they are making it easier for MST survivors to get help, MST survivors have a much more difficult time than other vets because of the burden of proof being on them. There are concrete legal barriers in place that prevent MST survivors from getting help.”

The DOD defends the policy, saying it ensures that soldiers get retained, promoted and their careers aren’t destroyed.

SWAN has draft legislation in place to get rid of this policy.

Bhagwati concludes that nothing short of “radical systemic change” will solve the MST crisis in the military today.

Susan Burke is an experienced litigator in Washington, DC who served as lead counsel in five actions brought on behalf of the torture victims at Abu Ghraib prison, as well as a suit against Blackwater for killing 17 Iraqis in Baghdad.

She urges us to think of MST this way: “Think of the victims – it is a double blow – first they’re physically assaulted, then the institution that is supposed to care for them does not care for them.”

She claims that the DOD has done little more than give lip-service to tackle the problem. “They created different positions, SARC, SAPRO, but the problem is that there is no genuine political will to change things. It’s a paper tiger…the will doesn’t exist. When you look at the career paths of perpetrators compared to the victims, the former are rising up the ranks, and the victims are leaving the military.”

She is putting together a class action suit against the DOD for failure to protect service-members from MST, aims to file it in February, and hopes the case will bring significant and lasting reform in the DOD’s stance on MST.

They’ve been saying for years that they just need more time, that they’re getting their act together,” Burke adds, “You can’t expect to have a properly functioning military without discipline problems being addressed, and if you can’t address rape, you have a real problem.”

This is the second part of an Al Jazeera investigation into sexual abuse in the US military.

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