For women in uniform, the war in Iraq poses a very specific danger: getting sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier or commander.
For Suzanne Swift, it was a commanding officer who committed the rape — one reason the young Army specialist from Oregon decided not to redeploy to Iraq with the 66th Military Police in 2006.
Swift’s story made national headlines, but she is far from alone. In the Iraqi war theater today, one out of seven troops are female. It’s estimated that one in three of them will experience some form of sexual abuse in the military, making the number of rapes reported last year across all the services — 1,400 — low.
Those are just a few of the statistics to come out of an Oct. 2 forum held in Seattle on “Women & the War in Iraq.” The event included the debut of a short Seattle-made documentary, “Female Faces of War,” and a panel of women speakers including Stacy Bannerman, author of When the War Came Home, and Sara Rich, mother of Suzanne Swift, whose court-martial has put the soldier behind bars until January 2009.
For a woman in the military, “It is common to be one of three things,” Rich told the audience at the Seattle Art Museum. “You sleep around, you’re mean, or you’re a lesbian.
“I think that was really hard for Suzanne being 19, being in Iraq,” Rich said. The other was “being stalked and always, everywhere you turn, there’s somebody that’s… trying to get in your pants.”
Smith still hasn’t told the full story of what happened to her, but the fact that she was raped by a commander illustrates a problem pointed out by the panelists: Despite the U.S. military’s stated policy of zero tolerance, commanders control the situation and take little or no action on nearly 70 percent of the rape cases reported to them, Rich said.
“They’re slapped on the wrist,” she said of the perpetrators, and “moved to a different unit to rape again.”
Of the cases that do make it to trial – a rare occurrence, says veterans advocate Susan Avila-Smith, one of three interview subjects in the film “Female Faces of War” – less than 3 percent will result in a guilty verdict. “If you’ve got 1,400 rapes [in a year],” she says, “you’re looking at maybe one or two people doing some time.”
Avila-Smith was sexually assaulted at Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the Army between 1991 and 1995. When she got out, she joined a women’s support group for military sexual trauma, or MST, at the Seattle veterans hospital and later founded Women Organizing Women, which she currently runs out of her home in Enumclaw.
The organization originally provided support to female veterans who had suffered MST, but Avila-Smith quickly shifted her efforts to helping such women get MST-related benefits that the Veterans Administration owes them regardless of whether they received an honorable discharge or not.
Most VA clerks don’t know about the benefits, she says, or, as sufferers of post-tramatic stress disorder — which is common to both combat and sexual trauma — the victims have a rough time filling out the VA paperwork to get them.
“How do you know where to go when the first person [at the VA] says you can’t get compensation for having sex in the military?” Avila-Smith says. “If they’ve got PTSD, they go away and never come back.”
She had one case, she says, in which a woman had waited 17 years before getting the benefits she was owed – a long and debilitating limbo for a woman whose military career, or ability to work at all, typically ends with the rape.
“Often for women, their military sexual trauma is a career-ending experience,” said panelist Tracy Simpson, a psychologist and co-director of the Women’s Trauma and Recovery Center in Seattle. “What we see in women in the clinic is that their trust in themselves has been very, very damaged.”
MST, she said, “is one of the number-one problems facing women returning from Iraq.”
Others include higher rates of domestic violence among returning women veterans and, for the wives and mothers who stayed at home, higher rates of domestic violence, divorce and suicide among veterans of both genders, which the panelists blamed, in part, on the Army increasing deployments from 12 to 18 months.
“They were never prepared for 18-month deployments,” said Alfie Alvardo-Ramos, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. “That right there has wreaked a lot of havoc on the family unit.”
The toll on Iraqi women is much higher: According to the film, which was produced by Kiya Bodding and Moni T. Law of the King County Washington Women Lawyers, sponsor of the film and the forum, Iraqi families do not take back victims of rape, and Shiite wives of Sunni men are often threatened with death and have to flee across the border with their children.
Americans at home don’t hear or see more about these tragedies because “anything that’s seen as not supportive of the troops the media is not willing touch,” Bannerman said.
And, Rich said, because the media may not be able to get women like her daughter Suzanne, who Rich said was treated like a traitor, to open up.
“It’s really an ugly side of our nation, particularly with Suzanne and command rape,” Rich said. “Suzanne would rather eat glass than talk about what happened to her.”