Sexual Assault in the Military
By MAJ(ret.) Tanya Singleton, BSN, MPH, RNC, Counseling Intern
As a retired Army Nurse, I can attest to the fact that most women in the military have been exposed to, or were victimized by sexual harassment and/or sexual assault of one form or the other at some time during their career. One problem is that as a soldier, the social definition and the “official” definition tend to mean different things to different people. Although the guidelines clearly follow those of any civilian training in sexual harassment – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. . .”, in the military arena, “don’t tell” is the code of silence that, in many cases, assures safety from harms deemed worse, such as being ostracized from the “band of brothers” in which the girls must pass muster to belong.
This past fall, I had the privilege of attending a Pre-Conference Institute of the Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), entitled: Combat Trauma: Boot Camp for Civilians. It was a time of reminiscence for me, but education for the civilian counselors in attendance. According to LTC Jeffrey Yarvis, PhD¸LCSW, MS, field soldier turned counselor and Desert Storm combat veteran, many female soldiers that he has counseled come to the military for safety, as they described the conditions they left home not nearly as safe as those in a field situation, where “at least I have a weapon” is the mindset of many females abused throughout childhood and into young adulthood. Running to the military was a more viable and accepted option than running away.
According to Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, Inc., a victim service and advocacy agency for victims of sexual and domestic violence in the military, “Many women. . . (disclose) that sexual assault is considered a rite of passage in the service, and they’re treated like the black sheep of the family when they ask for accountability”. The most recent data reports that 28 percent of female veterans reported sexual assault during their careers. Dr. Lorie Morris, Army veteran and a presenter at the ISSTD conference who runs an inpatient PTSD treatment program at the Veterans Administration hospital in Baltimore, suggests that reporting increases once the service member transitions to the veteran’s system, which is perceived as a less threatening environment for disclosure.
Hansen also mentions that “the biggest ongoing problem for sexual assault in the military is the lack of confidentiality . . . any report to a nurse, doctor, counselor, or police officer within the military is something that can be or must be reported to a commander.”
There is a current effort to provide more widespread sexual trauma treatment programs within the Veterans Affairs system. It is still problematic to prosecute reports of sexual assault in the active service, as the chain of command has the responsibility to investigate and prosecute, presenting an inherent conflict of interest during wartime, which is secondary to the mission at hand.
Tessier, M. (2003, March Sunday). Retrieved March 22, 2010, from womensenews.org: http://www.womensenews.org/story/rape
ISSTD 26th Annual Conference, November 2009, Washington, D.C.