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The Pentagon’s Shameful Record On Rape

[Warning: The YouTube is a compilation of clips from The Accused and some statistics about rape. It is disturbing — it should be — but I didn’t want to startle anyone without advance notice.]

As long-time readers know, I am a rape survivor. It isn’t something I talk about often because, frankly, reliving a terrifying and brutal moment of my life isn’t exactly high on my list of favorite things. But sometimes, news comes up that brings those memories crashing back.

I cannot stop thinking about LaVena Johnson.

Last Thursday, the House Committee on Government Oversight And Reform held hearings on sexual assault in the military. Rep. Jane Harman detailed some horrific statistics (PDF):

…Women serving in the US military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.

The scope of the problem was brought into acute focus for me during a visit to the West Los Angeles VA Center, where I met with female veterans and their doctors. My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41% of female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while in the military and 29% report being raped during their military service….

Those women that Jane Harman met in LA are luckier than most — because the US military programs for rape victims are few and far between. Most female vets who have been raped get no treatment, see their requests for justice for assaults swept under the rug, and see issues of PTSD and other subsequent emotional and physical difficulties arising from violent rape dismissed as all in their heads or worse.

But in Lavena Johnson’s case or any other rape or assault survivor who brings allegations or evidence to the table that just gets ignored or dismissed? Sorry, but it is an insult to simply dismiss this as inconsequential and hope everyone looks the other way.

Even more infuriating? Defense contractor KBR has, as of last weekend, banned cell phones for use by employees in Iraq, since Jamie Leigh Jones, a rape victim under their employee apparently used one to call her parents in the US for help — she was getting none from the company. Nothing says taking your personal safety seriously, girls, like pulling their ability to make an emergency call for help, now does it?  

And worse? The Pentagon, openly sneering at Congress, refuses to allow the person in charge of rape programs and investigations to testify before the Oversight Committee.  And note that the DOD declined to testify about Ms. Jones case as well when there were hearings.  Taking that job seriously, aren’t they?  Someone should ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates why the Pentagon is AWOL on this issue.  Although, after reading this at Truthdig, I’m not certain how much that testimony would be worth:

…One of the questions that would have been put to Whitley was why DoD had taken three years to name a 15-person civilian task force to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. The panel was finally named early in 2008 but has yet to meet. She would have also been queried on the SAPRO program’s failure to require key information from the military in order to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention and response programs.

I spoke with Dr. Whitley in April 2007 and had asked for an appointment to bring to her office four military women who had been sexually assaulted and wanted to tell her in what ways the DoD programs to prevent sexual assault were not working. Whitley declined, saying she worked at the policy level, and steered me to the chief of the Army sexual assault program. I called the Army program’s chief, who initially said she would talk to our group. However, when I mentioned that the mother of Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, who had been raped in Iraq, would be with us, she said she could not meet with anyone involved with an ongoing case. I replied that Swift’s case was closed as far as the Army was concerned. Her rapist had not been prosecuted, and Swift ended up with a court-martial and 30 days of jail time because she had gone AWOL for her own protection when the Army would not move her out of the unit to which both she and her rapist were still assigned. In view of the fact that the Army chief of prevention of sexual assault refused to meet with any of the four women who had suggestions on how to improve prevention and reporting of sexual assault and rape, I’m not surprised that the DoD snubbed Congress over the same issue.

Rep. Elijah Cummings joined Rep. Waxman in speaking of cover-ups. Cummings raised the cases of military women who had been sexually assaulted before dying in “non-combat incidents.” He spoke specifically about Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who was found beaten and dead of a gunshot wound at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in a burning tent owned by the contractor KBR. Her parents suspected that Johnson had been murdered and that the homicide was being covered up by the Army, which deemed the death a suicide. Cummings also spoke of Army Pfc. Tina Priest, who was raped at Taji, Iraq, and found dead 10 days later of a gunshot wound. After her family had measurements taken of her arms and of the angle of the bullet and found that she could not have pulled the trigger of her M-16 with her finger, the Army said she had pulled the trigger by using her toe. Cummings asked Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, chief of U.S. Army personnel, for assistance in getting all the documents the Army had on Johnson’s death. Additionally, four House members have asked for congressional hearings on the deaths of military personnel who have been classified as suicides, among them LaVena Johnson….

Two other military women have been murdered near military bases in North Carolina in the past two months….

Now, I know that somewhere out there, some asshat is thinking "well, boys will be boys and what do you expect when you put women and men together in an environment like this?" Here’s what I expect: for people who who have had violent crimes perpetrated against them to be taken seriously.

Having been raped, I can tell you that no matter how much you may have tried to stay safe, watch out for yourself, and be a good person, a violent, sudden physical and emotional assault can still come from out of the blue — violently tearing into whatever fragile notion of safety you may have had, and ripping your world into shreds as you claw your way through to survival because it is all you have left.

It hurts. A lot. Women do not enjoy it. We do not want to be physically assaulted.  Neither do men.

It forever colors how you see the world, because you always have that fear that it could happen again — and the flashbacks never, ever leave you, no matter how safe and secure your life may be down the line. They may dim, but the flashbacks and the nightmares never, ever go away completely.  Sometimes, the smallest thing can take you right back — a touch on the shoulder a certain way, an elevator door closing when someone rushes at it, a sound late at night when you walk to your car.  And most rape survivors — including me — don’t report their rape because they are terrified of the reaction of their family and friends, and they blame themselves.

In the case of military personnel, a number of these go unreported because there is a perception that reporting a rape can hurt your career path — especially if the rape perpetrator is a superior officer. And only 8 percent of all military rapes that are even reported go to courts martial.  8 percent.  (PDF)

That is quite simply unacceptable. Especially given that rape isn’t inevitable — it is a violent crime. Men and women in the military who have been sexually assaulted — or anyone who has survived it — can put details on the table that would break your heart. But they should not have to do so.

Lavena Johnson — along with any other potential rape or assault victim — deserves to have the crimes committed against her taken seriously. Because you can be certain that while a rape or assault victim is struggling to get away from the rapist, and then struggling to lift their head above the aftermath to survive it — they are taking it very seriously.  We should expect no less concern from the Pentagon on these issues. Shame on them. 

Color of Change is pushing for congressional hearings into Lavena Johnson’s case. Please add your name to the chorus of Americans who think that potential rape survivors deserve nothing less than complete justice and the dignity of a full investigation, not a whitewash.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com