From today’s press conference:
Over the past two years, we have watched the highest ranking officers in almost every branch of the military with sexual assault prevention assignments, dismissed from their duties for committing crimes of sexual assault and harassment that they were supposed to provide the leadership and training to prevent.
Over the past 12 years, we have watched women service members come forward with their personal Military Sexual Trauma stories, from inside the wire of the forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and within the gates of military bases and training school here in America.
Eighteen of those women, featured in the military rape documentary “The Invisible War” sued the government for its system of handling MST cases that stripped their constitutional rights that as military members they’d sworn to defend for others. Their case was dismissed, citing that “rape was an occupational hazard of military service.”
Meanwhile, every military commander and politician on camera has echoed the same sentiment: zero tolerance.
That phrase has been put to the test, and it has failed, miserably, year after year after year. This is not just the military’s problem or a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue. Every person has the right to live and work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment, predation, assault and rape.
Our country has some big numbers to face: between 360,000 and half million service women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their military career which is at least 1 in 5 women in the military. 1 in 3 women that file a claim with the VA for any reason, report Military Sexual Trauma when asked. Maybe only about 15% of MST incidents are reported. But that report rate has increased by 50% in the last year alone.
What does our state face: the VNRC hasn’t found any solid data. But we’re certain that Iowa is not too far outside the national trend. In fact, the proposed MST Amendment would make it a military leaders “duty to report” MST incidents, therefore allowing us to begin tracking the status of MST crimes in the Iowa Guard and Reserves. That’s a powerful start. From a survivor standpoint, it explicitly protects her (or him) from retaliation. And for a perpetrator, it holds him accountable for his crime in civilian court, with a conviction that cannot be overturned by his chain of command.
I honorably served my country in the active duty Army and Iowa Army National Guard from 1995-2004, including one tour in Iraq. I was a victim of both military justice systems that ignored my reports, threatened my career and protected my perpetrators. You see, it didn’t matter that MST was a relatively small issue when it happened to me. It didn’t matter if I was 1 in 3 or 4 or 5 women traumatized during my military career or if I was part of only 8 or 15% that chose to report it. What counted was that it happened at all and that my chain of command appeared to have a systematic method to ignore and conceal my report and re-victimize me in the process. What is crushing is that the greatest professional Army in the world and one of the most ready and well trained Guard units in the country, made me one of its own—a sister among brothers, trained and battle tested. Proud of the uniform I wore. And from within the tightest woven threads of trust and loyalty, it unraveled everything it had taught me to believe in.
And I’m not alone. Whenever I speak about my military service, at women’s groups, book clubs, service organization meetings and veteran events, one woman will stay afterward to tell me her sexual assault story. At almost every event.
Military Sexual Trauma is NOT an occupational hazard of the military. It is not simply the by-product of women training, living and fighting alongside men. It’s not about young people, in an isolated and emotionally charged environment, being indiscreet. MST is NOT about normal, consensual sex. It’s a crime of coercion and power that is a temporary pain of the body and a lifetime disfigurement of the soul.
The MST Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice is an opportunity for our state to lead the nation’s charge against this egregious crime, to take action against perpetrators that do not stand for the values of the Iowa Guard and Reserves, and to protect the women and men that voluntarily give their best and if necessary, their life, in faithful service.
Only 1% of our citizens wear a military uniform, yet all of us enjoy the benefits, luxuries and liberties paid for by their sacrifice. We owe them more than we can ever repay. But we can start, with the MST Amendment today.
I’ve heard from several members of the Veterans Affairs Committee that there is no Republican or Democratic way to treat veterans, just a right way. And the MST Amendment is a right step.
Dear Representative or Senator ____________,
I’m writing to express my need for your support in making changes to the Iowa Code of Military Justice that help protect our defenders at a state level, in the midst of the national crisis of sexual assault against women in the military.
Unfortunately, Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act was not included in the defense bill. But as she and her supporters continue to advocate at the national level, there are still ways that Iowans can take action to protect Iowa’s military team by supporting the Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice drafted by the Veterans National Recovery Center.
It addresses two important aspects: accountability and reporting. 1 in 5 service women are sexually assaulted during their time of duty and 1 in 3 that seek treatment at the VA for any condition “test positive” for MST when surveyed. Our state can do better.
Can I count on your support in co-sponsoring the amendment?
My female veteran friend and lobbyist Miyoko Hikiji is advocating on behalf of the VNRC for these changes because of how she knows both personally and anecdotally how this issue has effected women warriors in our state.
Contact her to get more information at: email@example.com. She will also be at the Capitol, Senate Room 206, next Tuesday January 21st at 10am to outline the amendment and answer questions.
Thank you for pledging to protect our defenders.
I feel like I need to approach the physical fitness of women right up front. It’s one of the most common objections to women serving in combat and I believe is probably one of the weakest arguments. My plan is to assault this argument from five sides and then drop a smart bomb direct center.
Picture this: two soldiers are out on the “front line,” advancing on the enemy. Smoke from exploded bombs obscures their view. The enemy is well entrenched in their fighting positions. Machine gun spray erupts. They’re pinned down. They’ve been cut off from their squad; no communication. Confusion. A scream. The female soldier of the buddy team sees her “battle” is down. He’s 6’4” and weighs over 200 pounds. Her 5’2” just over 100 pound frame rushes to his side, but is helpless to shoulder his dying body and retreat to the nearest medic station “in the rear.” He will die because he is was forced to fight alongside a woman who had no business being on the battlefield.
This is the scenario most often recounted to me as the launching pad for an argument against women in combat due to smaller physical size and weaker physical strength. After all, doesn’t this scene make is obvious? Well, not exactly.
First, while the great majority of adults have watched a war movie, less than 1% of adults in the United States are currently serving in its Armed Forces. In other words, this scenario is more like a Hollywood war than a real one. I know a bit about it because I was in that one percent.
Secondly, in my last blog post, I discussed the war fighting operations of the last decade—the battlefield being non-linear, or fluid—the fallacy of a “front line.” Prior to the rescinding of the combat exclusion policy, women were already encountering the enemy and acting as combat soldiers—successfully.
Thirdly, combat operations occur in teams. Squads of eight soldiers or more secure buildings and raid bunkers. Quick reaction forces, or additional teams of soldiers within that same sector, are usually minutes away. Air support, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, function as both firepower and MEDIVAC support. It is not likely that any two soldiers, let alone one man and one woman, be isolated during a combat mission.
Fourth: Combat is extremely technologically based. There has been very little hand-to-hand combat in the wars of the last decade. SINGARS (Single-Channel Ground-Air Radio Systems) on frequency hop allow for the secure communication of information from soldier to operations headquarters to higher headquarters to medical personnel to quick reaction force teams. The MTS (Movement Tracking System) uses GPS technology to map vehicles in convoys and allows for long band satellite two-way text messages. NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) and scopes increase shooting accuracy. The M4 rifle, a shorter, lighter version of the M16, increases mobility of soldiers in close combat situations.
Warfare technology has likely reduced the gender gap that might have existed between men and women due to physical ability alone because both genders can equally master its use. In addition, both men and women can equally assimilate the necessary leadership skills, discipline and mental endurance needed in a war environment. Before a single shot is fired, all these elements must first be in place.
Only now can we evaluate the physical strength differences between men and women. The caveat here is not to note that differences exist (because I fully admit that they do), but to grapple with how much those differences truly matter on today’s battlefield. My fifth point is the distinction of physical differences in combat matter less than what the public collectively assumes.
Also, the military does not train the average of all men and all women, but individuals. These soldiers, first self-selected volunteers, then trained and tested recruits, must pass a set standard of tasks and abilities. So if the standards are met, whatever the Armed Forces deems those to be for each branch and job, a soldier should not be disqualified based on gender alone.
I must digress to two brief sub-points. One is the assumption that all men in the military have greater physical stature and strength than all women in the military. This is simply false. Despite the fact that as a woman warrior, my physical fitness standards were designed lower than my male counterparts, I still was more fit than most of them. Measured by the Army Physical Fitness Test of two minutes of push-ups, followed by two minutes sit-ups and a two-mile run, I did more push-ups, more sit-ups and ran faster than many men. Period.
While almost all of the men were taller than me, they were not all muscular giants and most would have made a poor model soldier for a military recruitment poster. And most of the women, were larger than me too. When we think of men and women soldiers, we often get stuck in the stereotypes—polar opposites—when in fact there is a wide and overlapping range of physicality between genders.
Second subpoint … stay with me, this is an important consideration. If you check the military entrance records of the soldiers of “The Greatest Generation” you’ll find that the average man judged to be fit enough to storm the beaches at Normandy was closer to the size of the average woman in the military today. Men have gotten taller and stronger because of better nutrition, fitness and health care. So have women. Today’s woman is fit to fight today’s wars.
I had this discussion with a radio DJ lately, who admitted—as nearly all men do—that I don’t “look like a soldier.” Well, “that’s why I need to be out in public, telling my story and conveying my message that today’s wars are fought by tenacious women with a feminine look like mine.” But the DJ followed my response with the most poignant argument I have heard yet: “The heart of a soldier is always the same.”
And this hit me square in the chest. You see, there are physical standards, training drills, an entire checklist of tasks and requirements that can be measured. But one thing cannot: the heart. It takes a special person to raise her or his hand and take an oath to willingly defend freedom even at the cost of her or his life.
The Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. This is the heart of a soldier. These qualities cannot be screened for or tested, except in those moments when everything is demanded and there is less than a second to choose. At that moment the most powerful muscle a soldier can rely on is the heart.
Roadside Convoy Security (with non-combatant sheep)
I’ve received some feedback from my recent interviews about the roles of women in combat. And what I’m finding is that over and over again, I’m hearing the same concerns and sentiment. True to my word of wanting my writing to be a forum for discussion, a back-and-forth story about us all, I’m planning a series of blogs on my Website in order to address the most popular objections to a wider audience.
Some backstory: Less than a month ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey rescinded the 1994 rule that barred women from being formally “assigned” to combat units. On May 15, 2013 each military branch will need to make a case for why women cannot serve in any particular military job—previously they needed to make the case of why women could. So the assumption now is that if a woman meets the qualifications, she is not disqualified due to gender. This opens the door for women to potentially serve in 200,000 jobs that had been closed to them.
To me, this is an extremely complex issue. Military laws, regulations, and policies are not widely known by the public and at times the way they are practiced looks quite different on the battlefield than they do on paper.
For example, a “combat” job is partly defined by the proximity to direct combat operations. Previous to the rescinding of the combat exclusion rule approximately 283,000 women deployed to the Middle East in support of the Global War on Terrorism—mainly to Iraq and Afghanistan. 800 women warriors were wounded. 130 died. Clearly, the most problematic aspect of the 1994 rule was that it simply did not keep women out of harm’s way. This is because the ways in which we fight wars has changed.
The battlefield used to be a more defined or controlled space. There was a “front line”—an area in which we engaged enemy forces. And “behind the lines” there was little to no enemy activity, a “green zone,” where logistics, administrative and medical services (jobs traditionally held by women soldiers) were performed. This is no longer the case. The battlefield is “non-linear” or fluid. Sniper fire, ambushes, IED (improvised explosive devices) attacks are executed by non-uniformed, enemy forces along every roadway and outside every FOB (forward operating base) and within every major city. The front line, the battlefield, is wherever there are US or Coalition Forces.
The recent development, until further implemented, simply validates the reality of US Armed Forces operations over the past decade of war in the Middle East. And this I can personally attest to. Though I was, according to my personnel file, “assigned” to a transportation company (which is not a combat unit because it’s main mission is to deliver supplies, not engage the enemy) I was “attached” to combat units that did just that. And while I was deployed, being a truck driver was the most dangerous job in Iraq. Why? We were very large and slow moving targets.
An IED, a bullet, a bomb is gender blind. It maims and kills indiscriminately. It destroys whatever is in its path. That is the reality of today’s wars. And I think we must first accept the truth of the present situation before we can even begin to consider how allowing women to serve in assigned combat jobs may change the landscape of how our military recruits, trains, integrates and operates a joint-gender force.