It was 2004 and I had been in the Army for only three months when I first began to suspect something was wrong. I was walking by our drill sergeant's desk, where he sat, leaning back in his chair. On the floor in front of him was a newly arrived female soldier. She was on her back, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, doing scissor kicks. He sat perfectly poised to see her crotch and the insides of her thighs.
In one sense, this wasn't unusual. In Advanced Individual Training, soldiers are drilled in technical skills after Combat Basic Training. Here we get "smoked" - we are given grueling punishments designed to build us up physically and break us down mentally so that we can be whip-shaped into soldiers who do exactly as told. The soldier on her back was doing exactly as told.
I was in the same class as this woman at Fort Gordon, a military installation set among the world-famous golf courses of Augusta, Ga. The drill sergeant had a reputation of "smoking out" women with flutter kicks and other sexually driven punishments, but at the time, I viewed my drill sergeants with great reverence. It seemed then to be something rare, something I would never seen again in the military. I was wrong.
A few months later, at my first duty station at Camp Hovey in South Korea, my platoon sergeant told me very directly that all female soldiers were "lazy sluts" and that I was going to become one too. He explained to me that the military was undergoing a uniform change, not to allow us to mesh into the desert and urban jungles of emerging combat environments but because more women were joining the military and we were all "dirty whores."
After months of daily berating from my platoon sergeant, I finally mustered the courage to tell my 1st sergeant, the senior enlisted leader at my company. He listened without much response and the next day moved me to another platoon. I was grateful, but I also noticed that no action was taken against the platoon sergeant. Because soldiers generally get moved because of misconduct, rumors began to spread about me. As is often the case with harassment or assault, I, the victim, was shamed.
In an impassioned statement at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said, "We know from reports 60 percent of men and 58 percent of women who experience sexual harassment or gender discrimination indicated a supervisor was one of the people engaged in the violations. That is a problem with our command." My own experience and those I've learned about from other women support this statistic.
I witnessed misogyny at all levels of my six years in the military. On Monday mornings, while working in the motor pool to clean and maintain our Humvees, male soldiers would gather around a single cellphone to watch porn and talk in detail of their sexual escapades. I quickly learned and got accustomed to hearing terms for violent sexual activity too graphic to detail here. This language and the images of sexual violence they represented quickly became part of my psychological reality. I myself began to objectify women, and found myself troubled and confused by my own gender identity.
Misogyny was present in the smallest of things, like the nude pinups of women that the chain of command allowed in work shelters, but bigger things, too, like the frequent accounts of male-on-female assault and rape. One of my friends, on a deployment to Afghanistan, was so brutally raped by a male soldier that she is now physically unable to carry and give birth to a child. (She was recently medically discharged after 19 years of active duty and in is in rehabilitation for post-traumatic stress disorder, including daily thoughts of suicide.) Another friend, while stationed in South Korea, was tied up in her bedroom, raped and beaten by several male soldiers, then found in a bloody bath four days later.
In the United States, sexual assault is reported to be declining (dropping 58 percent between 1995 and 2010). But in the military it's increasing enormously, so much so that the United Nations has gotten involved and the Pentagon reported that the military received a record number of sexual assault reports in 2016. This year we saw the persistence of this culture in the Marines United photo scandal, in which hundreds of Marines circulated intimate photos of women to a secret Facebook group without their consent. Despite the historical advances of women into combat and leadership roles, not a whole lot is being done to change this culture.
Misogyny, of course, is present in every other sector of society, but there is an important distinction in the military. Michael Kimmel, author of "Angry White Men" and a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, told me, "The military is the same as every other organization, in that these informal cultural barriers have shown up everywhere." But the military is different because of transparent hierarchy. "If the top of the military wanted this to stop, it would stop. Period."
The military, more than any other American institution runs on an unwavering chain of command. It is entirely based on the taking and giving of orders. But there remain entrenched problems with the system of military justice. It is the chain of command that is responsible for investigation and punishment of sexual assaults.
In 2013, Senator Gillibrand introduced legislation to remove the chain of command from handling these cases. It narrowly failed to meet the 60-vote threshold required to avoid a filibuster. In 2014, Senator Gillibrand fought and lost again. In 2016, she tried to reintroduce the bill, but the Republican leadership would not allow the bill onto the floor because the Department of Defense said taking away commanders' authority would "undermine good order and discipline." As a result, reports from the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office show that year after year, almost no progress has been made toward ending sexual assault in the military, despite its repeated promises to do so.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me, "The chain of command cannot be involved in issues of sexual assault because the issue gets diluted and distorted." A military lawyer I deployed with agrees. He estimated that in his eight years of service, "95 percent of crimes prosecuted were crimes caught, or reported, by an outside agency, not internal to the unit."
This was because those crimes being reported by an outside agency had to be prosecuted. Otherwise, commanders would bury allegations because having harassment or assault cases reflects poorly on them. As a manager, it's simply easier to squash the problem by transferring the accused perpetrator or the victim out of the unit.
Many of our closest allies' militaries, including those of Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia, have already moved reporting and prosecution of violent sex crimes outside of the chain of command. But why haven't we?
Some in the military have decided on their own that it will stop, with them.
When I was moved into a different platoon in South Korea, I fell under the leadership of the man who would become my mentor. With his guidance, I pushed myself physically, getting near-perfect scores on my fitness and marksmanship tests. He helped me study for Soldier of the Month competitions, which I won numerous times. This led to my promotion to sergeant, just shy of my second anniversary of being in the Army. When rumors spread that I was promoted because I must have slept around, my mentor sat down with the rest of my platoon and set them straight. He told them forcefully that it was not true and to cease the rumor spreading immediately.
Because someone defended me at that critical moment, and because of guidance from other true leaders, I was able to sharpen my mental and physical acumen and attain positions in the United States Embassy in Iraq and as a member of the personal staff for Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the former commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps. General Helmick nurtured my passion for writing and planted the seed for me to later pursue it professionally. These positive experiences with men greatly enhanced my self-worth and have helped me succeed, both in and out of the military.
I wish I could say my military career ended well, but it didn't. As my career progressed, I was confronted with more poor treatment by my superiors. It became all too clear to me that despite the many devoted, professional men who hold up the honor of military service, the atmosphere toward women in general had not changed.The military is morally obligated to stop the system wide mistreatment of women in its ranks, but that change will not be made until it is enforced from the top leadership on down. It is too big and important a job to be left to a few good men.
The writer is an Army veteran and a freelance writer
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