July 16, 2006

Suzanne Swift - Sexual Abuse in the Military

Yesterday was Suzanne Swift’s 22nd birthday. She is the soldier who refused to go back to Iraq with her unit and was arrested last month at her home in Eugene, Oregon. That’s three Fort Lewis, Washington soldiers who have refused to go, for three different reasons. Kevin Benderman came to believe that all war is wrong and filed for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied. He is now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go because the Iraq war violates international law and the Geneva Conventions both in its inception and in the way it is being prosecuted, is awaiting court martial.

Suzanne Swift is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and could not bring herself to go back to Iraq with the same unit where she had been sexually harassed and a victim of what they call “command rape”. That is where your commanding officer coerces you into having sex.

The relationship between a ordinary soldier and her Sergeant is inherently unequal. Any boss-subordinate relationship is unequal, which is why most companies have policies against dating in that situation. If a romance develops, then one of the parties involved has to quit, or at least transfer to another department. There is just too much temptation for abuse of the situation. A boss can easily give special favors, promotions, or overlook poor work if their judgment is clouded by romance. On the other hand, an unscrupulous boss can promise favorable treatment in exchange for sex and has considerable power to punish a subordinate who refuses, or when the romance goes bad. People have been fired for refusing to put out. Even if there are no special favors or punishments there is often a perception that there is. That perception hurts morale and can be coercive in itself. That is why companies have policies against sexual harassment and set up a mechanism outside of the regular hierarchy for reporting and investigating abuses.

In the military, and especially in a combat zone, the same problems exist, only to an extreme level. The military isn’t just a job, its your whole life. Your commander has tremendous power to reward or punish you. In a combat zone, it can mean endangering your life by getting the worst assignments. Spc. Swift refused two sergeants who propositioned her but was coerced into sex with a third. She said, “They treat you like a dog if you refuse and it’s worse if you agree.”

The military has a policy against harassment, but it is not always enforced. Swift did report the harassment but nothing happened, except that things got worse for her, as she was singled out for humiliating treatment and continued demands for sex.

The Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Abuse in 2004 found widespread abuse in the military, which is not a surprise to women who have served. Estimates are that as many as 2/3 of women, and almost 1/3 of the men in the service are victims of sexual harassment, much of which goes unreported because the military response is often to further harass the victim, rather than punish the perpetrator. As Colleen Mussolino, co-founder of Women Veterans of America (WVA), an advocacy group for women veterans, was quoted as saying about her experience after being raped in "Female Soldiers Treated Lower Than Dirt", by Rose Aguilar, "I was taken by the criminal investigation team and treated like a prisoner of war for six weeks with threats. I finally signed a paper promising that I wouldn't prosecute.” Some female soldiers in Iraq were so worried about being assaulted going to the latrines at night that they wouldn't drink water late in the day and subsequently died of dehydration, according to Col. Janis Karpinski. Perpetrators usually face no consequences, or are simply transferred to another base.

Swift’s mother, Sara Rich, who is leading the fight to protect her daughter, is calling for implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, an investigation of Swift’s abuse, prosecution of the guilty parties and an honorable discharge. Since this case has received publicity, the Army has started an investigation. It remains to be seen how far it will go but Rich hopes that continued public support for her daughter will force the Army to treat this seriously. It was with this in mind that she celebrated Suzanne’s birthday with a rally, support banners on I-5 and a press conference at the entrance to Fort Lewis.

This isn’t really an anti-war issue and I don’t know what Suzanne Swift thinks, although Sara Rich is against the war and a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and most, if not all, the supporters who turned up at Fort Lewis were anti-war. People who believe that the war is necessary should be outraged at this abuse of soldiers who are risking their lives on our behalf. It undermines the effectiveness of the war effort. In a situation where everything depends on the mutual trust and unit cohesion necessary to be successful in their mission, this kind of abuse of authority can be deadly. It undermines respect for authority and drives away potential recruits.

The War Resisters League(WRL) in a pamphlet entitled “Battered by the Military” states, “Violence against women is not only an accepted part of military culture but an integral component in the training that desensitizes soldiers to violence and killing.” They go on to say, “If you think the military is an option, before enlisting ... Ask yourself whether you want to be part of a system that causes physical, emotional and psychological trauma to both women and men.”

Here is another article that goes a little deeper

Why Soldiers Rape
Culture of misogyny, illegal occupation, fuel sexual violence in military

Additional resources:

GI Rights Hotline 1-800-394-9544

The Miles Foundation is a private, non-profit organization providing comprehensive services to victims of violence associated with the military

STAMP Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel 1-866-879-2568


Anonymous said...

Being a prior enlisted, I don't know of any females that were sexually harassed, first hand. I know of one female who claimed she was raped, and after the soldier was sent to another unit, she recanted. We all knew it was consentual. But as far as Suzanne, well, her chain of command needs to fry.

Anonymous said...

One of my friends was prosecuted by one of his subordinates who claimed he raped her. In pre-trial he showed the prosecutor video of her, to use a poor term, jumping his bones. She was always in the position of power. The case was dropped.

There is a reason why only 2% of sexual abuse cases come to prosecution, if women want their claims taken seriously they should stop other women from frivolous and hurtful prosecution.

Anonymous said...

The problem with sexual abuse in the military is that no one will do anything. I was in during the 80's and I was assaulted and no one would listen. I was 19, in a foreign country, away from family and had no one to turn too. I had to live with it and believe me it hasn't been an easy road.

Anonymous said...

I've never joined the military, but I was heavily thinking about it. From everything happening, I'd rather die than to face what many are facing. I value their sacrifice and I know many who are currently serving. Sexual harassment and abuse is one of the thousand reasons for not joining. What everyone has to face is beyond what should be. I hope the many women like Suzanne Swift come forward and fight for change not only because its the right thing to do, it may protect others, but because they have rights too! Rape is a punishable crime, so why let them run free when you're left with scars that won't heal?

Anonymous said...

I am a proud U.S veteran of the army my thoughts on this subject is as followed. For all the women who have been sexually abused in the military I can understand I was sexually abused. Stay strong! Yes the chain of command will not back your claims up so your stories go unnoticed this happened to me and Im sure more then 2% of womens stories have gone unnoticed. For the guy talking about his 2%comment you wouldnt understand what its like for a women in the military you here about one case and all the sudden your all high and mighty and one to judge? No No No sexual abuse some how becomes a mans god given right? For all you men commenting on this sight I can say that Im sure most of your comments are going to state that women ask for it I would like to put you in my shoes for a day so you can have horrible flash backs of the past.In my eyes men will always stick with each others story that she was asking for it.

Anonymous said...

I am still over here in Iraq and I always see males marched out to tents where we are usually stacked in like sardines. The women have their own living quarters - usually a building with A/C - equiped with their own showers. They never have to live in tents and if they do it isn't for very long.
Civilian women get very nice trailers called CHU's with their own bathroom, and they still complain. Guys live outside in tents, Girls live in buildings with A/C.
If things aren't going their way, you can see the sexual harassment charge coming a mile away.