Sara Rich wore her thick, remarkably red hair in
a long braid down her back for decades. Just a few days ago she
cut it all off. A luxurious twelve-inch braid will now be donated
to Locks of Love. When I interviewed Sara and asked why she did
it, she said, “For my daughter, Suzanne.”
Sara Rich is the mother of Suzanne Swift, a 21-year-old Army
specialist who served with the 66th Military Police Company in
Iraq. She had already served one tour, driving a Humvee for combat
patrols in Karbala. She had returned to Fort Lewis, Washington,
for what the military refers to as “stabilization time”,
a period that is supposed to be 18 months long. But she didn’t
make that 18 months. She went AWOL last year.
What is it that drove Suzanne Swift to refuse to return to the
battle zones of Iraq for a second tour? Why did her mother, Sara
Rich, feel compelled to shear herself of her remarkable hair in
order to do battle for her daughter?
Like literally thousands of other women, and men, who have served,
and who are serving right now in the United States armed forces,
Suzanne Swift is a victim of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
This is sometimes referred to as “military sexual trauma.”
According to the Veterans Health Administration’s own Military
Sexual Trauma National Report for the period between January 1
and March 31 of 2006, 1,586 women veterans and 1,379 male veterans
receiving care at a VHA facility reported that they had either
been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at some time while
on active duty service. According to the definition of military
sexual trauma used by the VHA, the perpetrator could have been
any one: male, female, an acquaintance, a stranger. The sad reality
is, however, that the majority of military sexual trauma cases
that have eventually been reported by female and male veterans
to the VHA were perpetrated by other military personnel.
At 19 years of age, Suzanne Swift was convinced by military recruiters
that she would not go to Iraq if she enlisted as a military policewoman.
She’d have to do five years instead of four, but that was
a minor trade-off because the benefits seemed very attractive.
Within a few short months of her induction, Suzanne was deployed
to Iraq with the 66th MP Company.
She was one of only a scant handful of women in her unit. Instead
of unit solidarity, she found an atmosphere of exploitation, threat,
fear-mongering and a sense of sexual entitlement on the part of
many with whom she served so closely; an atmosphere sunk into
the already threatening and fear-inducing environment that is
the war on Iraq. And as so many have found before her, those who
seemed to believe themselves to be the most entitled and who behaved
in the most exploitive fashion were her own military supervisors,
Suzanne’s mother, Sara, describes the repeated sexual harassment
and assault that her daughter experienced in Iraq as “command
rape” and the atmosphere within Suzanne’s unit as
one of sexual domination. In fact, Sara recalls vividly the sergeant
who told her, just before deployment, “Don’t worry,
ma’am. I’ll keep your daughter safe.” How many
families of the military have heard such a statement? In many
cases, it is meant sincerely, even when it is a promise that cannot
In Suzanne’s case, however, that very same sergeant was
the first to harass her daughter once in Iraq. He ordered her
to accompany him in his jeep. Suzanne was obedient but afraid
that she had done something wrong. She soon learned that his motive
was to pressure her for sex. “You want to f--- me, don’t
you, Swift?” Suzanne did the correct thing and reported
him to the Equal Employment Opportunity officer as soon as possible.
However, what she found there was a dismissive response and nothing
It doesn’t take long for a smart young woman embedded in
a sexually predatory environment, in the middle of an urban guerilla
combat zone, to realize that she is in serious trouble and the
enemy is not the people of Iraq. There was no one to turn to,
no one who had her back, no one who would stand up against the
degrading and traumatizing behavior of her superior officers.
She had to figure this one out alone, at 19 years of age.
In my interview with her, Sara Rich told me that after Suzanne
had reported this first incident to the EEO officer and had been
rebuffed, the atmosphere around her became even more dangerous.
She became the target of another of her sergeants who repeatedly
arrived at her quarters drunk and demanding sex. He would single
her out for humiliating punishment whenever she “disobeyed”
him. He let her know that he was always “writing her up”
for some infraction or another. “Suzanne was very scared
of him”, her mother Sara reports.
In the meantime, Suzanne was driving that company Humvee on combat
patrols. She saw the dead bodies, the hapless children. She knew,
of course, of the improvised explosive devices and the many other
dangers of the combat environment.
Suzanne returned with her unit to the States for her 18 months
of stabilization time. At eleven months, she was screamed at and
intimidated into signing a form that waived the remaining time
and was told to get ready for redeployment back to Iraq with the
very same unit. She was going to go. She did what soldiers are
trained to do — she “sucked it up.” She told
her mom, “It’ll be ok.”
But when she and others in her unit learned of the rape of one
male soldier on her base by another male soldier, she couldn’t
bear it any longer. She hit the wall and just could not go back.
Suzanne is now confined to base in Fort Lewis, Washington, while
her AWOL situation and reports of traumatization due to sexual
assault and harassment are investigated by the base command. Her
mother, Sara, a social worker, member of the Eugene, Oregon, Human
Rights Commission for seven years, and now an avid counter-recruitment
activist with Military Families Speak Out, has rid herself of
any encumbrances, such as her long red hair. She is now going
to battle to literally save her daughter’s life.
Sara Rich implores us all to do something every single day to
end the war on Iraq and bring our people in uniform home. She
exhorts us all to overcome our “numbed out complacency”
and “refuse to put up with this any longer!”
July 15th, Suzanne’s birthday, will be a national day of
support for Suzanne.
For more information: visit www.suzanneswift.org
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org)