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From Draft NOtices, July-September 2006

Suzanne, Sara, and Military Sexual Trauma

— Callie Wight

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, her sergeants.

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 be kept.

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 was done.

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

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


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