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From Draft NOtices, January—March 2009

Sexual Assault in the Military

—– Kathy Gilberd

On July 19, 2005, Private First Class LaVena Johnson’s battered and partially burned body was found in a military contractor’s tent in Baled, Iraq. She had a gunshot wound to the head, a broken nose and loose teeth, bruises and abrasions all over her body. A corrosive chemical had been poured over her genital area.

The Army ruled her death a suicide. Its investigation found “massive self-inflicted trauma,” and concluded that she had shot herself through the mouth with a rifle, crawled from her own tent to the contractor’s, and set it on fire in an attempt to hide her self-mutilation and suicide. Ms. Johnson’s family believes that the evidence shows she was raped and murdered by a fellow soldier. Their belief is supported by photographs and autopsy information they forced the Army to release under the Freedom of Information Act. It is also consistent with statements from those who had talked with her before her death – including her company commander, who described her as “clearly happy.”

LaVena Johnson’s case points to a frightening pattern of rape and other violence against women in the military. In March 2008, the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office admitted that there had been 2,688 reported cases of sexual assault in the military in 2007. At the time of the report, only 600 of those had resulted in any punishment or administrative action for the attacker. Not long after these figures were released, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified before a congressional subcommittee that the majority of sexual assaults in the military went unreported. Their findings matched a DoD survey conducted in 2006, which also found that at least half of those assaulted did not inform the military of the attacks.

Most shocking have been reports of rape and assaults in combat areas. DoD reported 88 formal complaints of sexual assault in combat zones during fiscal 2003, and then 131 in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2007, the latter after new rape prevention and response regulations and training programs were put into effect under congressional mandate.

In 2005, Colonel Janis Karpinski, former commander at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison, told an audience at San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law about 83 rape and assault reports in Iraq and Kuwait during a recent six-month period. Karpinski said the situation for women in Iraq and Kuwait was “out of control.” She explained that women were given a military 800 number to report sexual assaults, assuming they could get access to a phone. But at the hotline women reached only an answering machine on which they could leave a report.

In January, 2006, Karpinski told a forum in New York (the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration) that several female soldiers at Camp Victory in Iraq had died from dehydration. These women stopped drinking any fluids late in the day out of fear that they would be raped walking to isolated latrines at night. Karpinski stated that an Army surgeon who reported these deaths to his superiors was told to leave the facts and cause of death vague in these cases in future briefings.

Unfortunately, these reports are nothing new — rape and assault have been prevalent in the military for many decades. After the Vietnam War, the Veterans Administration found that many female veterans suffered from a disorder it labeled “military sexual trauma” following rape or assault by other soldiers during the war. Beginning in the 1970s, reports of rapes, assaults and sexual harassment have appeared periodically in the media. In 1979, the military formally recognized the existence of sexual harassment, and it began tracking high numbers of sexual assault cases shortly thereafter.

Scandals have occurred at the military academies, among recruiters, in reserve and active-duty units, and in all branches of the military. Examples include: the Navy Tailhook scandal, where Pentagon-level officers stood by while drunken fighter pilots harassed and groped women at a semi-official convention; Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where Army drill instructors raped their own recruits during basic training; the Air Force Academy, where every few years there are new reports that women have been raped by fellow officer candidates (and where one cadet was punished for engaging in sex after she reported an assault); and women who told congressional committees about rapes in Kuwait or Iraq during both Gulf wars. These and other exposés have brought public attention to the problem and greatly embarrassed the Department of Defense, but they have not forced an end to sexual assault rates twice as high as those in civilian communities.

Figures vary. The military, Veterans Administration and media sources estimate that at least 15% and perhaps over 33% of women have been raped or assaulted during their military service. DoD has had difficulty explaining the high incidence of assault but has recently acknowledged one of its critics’ long-standing concerns – lack of confidentiality for women who report attacks. Unfortunately, military authorities tend to attribute that largely to shame or embarrassment about the attacks. All too often, reporting rape or even sexual harassment to their commands results in harassment from the attackers and their friends and retaliation by the unit commands to which the women complain. Enlisted women and female officers have received involuntary transfers and changes in job assignments (often to less pleasant duties), adverse performance evaluations (which limit promotion), taunts and ridicule from their superiors, and sometimes involuntary psychiatric evaluations.

Almost every public exposé of the problem has been followed by studies or surveys showing that the problem is widespread, and then by new military programs designed to prevent rape or harassment. (The military treats these as separate issues, with separate training programs and complaint procedures.) Most recently, DoD promulgated new regulations in 2005 and developed a new Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program to handle the problem. Under these regulations, women are allowed the option of confidential reporting in sexual assault cases. Women who report assaults to designated SAPR representatives or medical personnel can request that their names not be released and still receive medical care and supportive counseling. Women who make such “restricted” reports are not given protection from their assailants and, without an accuser, rapists cannot be prosecuted and punished. And anonymity may be lost if victims tell any other personnel about the attack, or if health care workers or SAPR officials decide the assault has compromised women’s performance or stability.

According to these regulations, women should be encouraged but not forced to make non-confidential reports and cooperate in investigations and prosecutions, during which they may be accompanied by briefly trained Victims’ Advocates. In theory, women making unrestricted reports are treated with respect and dignity; investigators and prosecutors are trained not to “revictimize” the women with humiliating or repetitious questions; and commands may, at their discretion, defer but not dismiss disciplinary actions against victims whose complaints disclose that they have violated regulations (such as underage drinking or drinking in the barracks). New rape prevention and response training programs were developed at the same time, although the GAO’s recent testimony and reports show that these are not uniformly implemented and that some local commands are hostile to the new program and regulations.

Military sexual assaults occur in an atmosphere that is both male-dominated and sexist. Regulations notwithstanding, sexual harassment is an accepted norm in military culture and sexual violence is often overlooked or quietly accepted. When harassers or assaulters are punished, the result is usually significantly less than that for equivalent civilian crimes, particularly if the offenders are officers. (Among high-ranking officers, administrative letters of reprimand or demotion to the next lowest rank are considered serious punishments, though rapists sometimes risk short prison sentences and punitive discharges.)

The weeklies Navy Times and Army Times regularly report charges of rape and other sexual misconduct among military personnel, both enlisted and officers. This includes the recent court-martial of a chaplain for assaults of women who came to him for spiritual counseling; rape and indecent assaults involving minors; and rape of “foreign nationals” in overseas host countries, most often Japan and the Philippines. This fall, one issue of Navy Times reported a demonstration held at the gates of Fort Bragg in North Carolina to protest the unsolved murders of four military women near the base.

At the heart of this sexist and violent atmosphere is the use of sexual imagery and sexual violence to train and motivate male soldiers. From the first weeks of basic training, men are taught to equate combat with sex, military prowess with sexual prowess, and weaponry with penises. Male soldiers who do well in combat training are real men, sexual conquerors. Soldiers who show weakness or timidity are characterized as girls, in the crudest terms. Taunts about femininity and homosexuality are used to humiliate recruits who perform poorly or fail to obey orders instantly. This symbolism continues throughout training and becomes part of normal discussion in the field and in the barracks.

This use of sex and sexual violence as motivational devices is no accident. For decades the military has been training soldiers and sailors who have little or no reason to fight, who are not motivated by the belief that they are protecting their homes and country. In wars as unpopular as the Vietnam War and the current occupation of Iraq, it is difficult to persuade soldiers to obey orders to fight and risk their lives without question. Violent sexual imagery has proven the most useful motivator in this situation, and it has been informally institutionalized in everything from marching chants to training manuals to basic combat language.

Advocates for military women say that the regulations and training used by the military are inadequate and superficial, and would do little to reduce sexual assaults even if they were fully enforced. Rape and assault complaints will be taken seriously, and the incidence of assault reduced, only if women are free from retaliation and further harassment or assaults — if complaints are investigated and resolved by an agency or office independent of the military, not responsible to the command hierarchy and not designed to promote “military discipline and readiness.” In the long run, the problem will remain pervasive as long as sex and sexual violence are used as a basis for military training and an incentive for combat.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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