The Seamy Side of the Military

What’s promised (above) is too often not what results (below)

The U.S. military is increasingly putting a feminine face forward in its ads and PR (for example, the bright smiling faces flanking Mrs. Obama at the Oscars). The Navy’s outreach to women proclaims:

What’s it like being a woman in today’s Navy? Challenging. Exciting. Rewarding. But above all, it’s incredibly empowering. That’s because the responsibilities are significant. The respect is well-earned. The lifestyle is liberating. And the chance to push limits personally and professionally is an equal opportunity for women and men alike.

Hardly the story that unfolds in this month’s Rolling Stone harrowing feature on a less-than-empowered Navy careerist, “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” According to the Service Women’s Action Network:

one out of every three women in the U.S. military is the victim of sexual assault, making military women twice as likely to be raped as civilians.

Photo: Monica Almeida, New York Times

And, unfortunately, the military culture (which one victim describes as “a big rape cult”) does not involve justice for victims of sexual assault, with long-dead civilian attitudes of “she must have asked for it” prevailing. Even if an accuser manages to get the charge investigated, the chances of getting the case to trial are miniscule. A key stage of the investigative process is known as “command discretion:” the accused’s superior officer reviews the case and has absolute power to dismiss it.

The upshot is that of last year’s 3,192 military sexual-assault reports, a paltry 191 cases—6 percent—ended with a conviction. Only 149 perpetrators served jail time. And yet even those rare convictions haven’t been enough to oust sex offenders from service. [emphasis added]

Yes, being convicted of rape doesn’t necessarily end your military career.

And once out of the military, such sexual trauma disproportionately leads to homelessness among women. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that 10 percent of the 141,000 veterans who spent at least one night in a shelter in 2011 were women.

And the New York Times reports:

Even as the Pentagon lifts the ban on women in combat roles, returning servicewomen are facing a battlefield of a different kind: they are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population…

While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs. But a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists said, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is, however, some truth in the Navy’s promise of “equal opportunity for women and men alike:”

Victims [of sexual assault] are disproportionately female, given that women make up less than 15 percent of the military, but men are victimized, too: More than 40 percent of vets receiving treatment for Military Sexual Trauma are men.

Those that want to “be all that they can be” would be better advised to join the Salvation Army.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman and Chief Executive of the Independent Institute.
Beacon Posts by Mary L. G. Theroux | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless