The Combat Within: Female Veterans and PTSD Benefits

Go check out Courtney’s newest column at the American Prospect about the need for female veterans who are sexual assault survivors and are suffering PTSD to be classified as disabled and eligible for services.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the Veterans Affairs Office is compelled to differentiate combat from non-combat veterans. Those who have been exposed to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the stress of direct negotiation, and the trials of patrol on a daily basis certainly have a higher rate of PTSD and other disabilities following their tour than those who have not. But it’s not a zero-sum game. When the sexual assault rates among female veterans are so astronomically high — at least 30, and as high as 70 percent, according to Helen Benedict, author of the new book The Lonely Soldier — the “combat” classification becomes a moot point. Keep in mind that sexual assault is a hugely underreported crime; even the Pentagon admits that only 10 to 20 percent of cases are probably being reported.
Add to this the reality that military culture is built on breaking down some of our most basic psychological instincts through humiliation, deprivation, and submission, and it becomes less and less logical to separate the soldiers who have seen combat from those who haven’t. Everyone who signs his or her name on the dotted line of a military contract is destined for psychological trauma of one kind or another, especially if they’re female.

(emphasis mine)
I think this point of the culture of humiliation, deprivation and submission is not only a helpful frame in understanding the culture within the military, but also in thinking about the mindset that motivates the military to then create those types of conditions amongst the communities we are warring with be it via prisons or the use of rape as a weapon of war. It seems logical to us that a US military culture that demands a certain level of emasculation, would create, produce and sustain a culture of sexual violence.

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39 Comments

  1. BeastlyKitty
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    did you notice the “women -with- MSA” talking about it like it was a disease the woman had, rather then something that was done to them?
    I think that says even more about how the military others women.

  2. Shelley
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Every veteran is screened for TBI, PTSD, and MST as a part of their initial workup, as well as Depression, Smoking, and Drug/Alcohol issues.
    I don’t know if that was implemented as a response to any specific case, but the VA is certainly on top of it, and getting better all the time. That doesn’t mean the vets admit to having been traumatized; they are free to refuse to answer anything about Military Sexual Trauma.

  3. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I love feministing, but I cringe every time y’all post on military women. Forgive the long comment, but this is my area of expertise, and I’ve been wanting to say something for months now.
    I have to ask: how do you interact with the culture of the military? How have you come to understand its “culture of humiliation, deprivation and submission”? Most people do so through movies and other media. I would argue that they are generally utterly inaccurate, though it is certainly productive to discuss the image of the military in the public consciousness–if you recognize it may have little to do with the reality.
    The US military consists of more than 3 million personnel in five distinct branches, each with their own subcultures, and the particular milieu of individual units can vary widely. There are just as many problems ascribing a monolithic, reductionist “culture” to the military as there are with other groups and institutions. As feminists, we are often particularly aware of the problems with essentialism, representation, and the frequent contrast between lived experiences and outsider’s constructed views. Unfortunately, feminists in particular but progressives in general are unwilling to extend our usual analytical frameworks to discussion of the military.
    In reference to this and other military sexual assault posts: what is the sexual assault rate in the general population? And in a university setting? The familiar statistic for college women is 1 in 5 or 1 in 4– 20 to 25%. As we know, very few assaults are reported (10-20% or less). Are the assault rates for college women substantially different than those for military women? It does not appear so, particularly taking into account the reporting problem. How do our attitudes toward college and the military differ, as feminists? Why? I have often found this comparison illustrative.
    Furthermore, if you break down the statistics by service, you can clearly see evidence of different cultures: the Air Force has the lowest rates, less than 20%, while the Army obviously has a much bigger problem. The Marines, interestingly, had the worst rates in the 90′s, but have also shown the greatest improvement: for example, their rates of sexual harassment dropped from near 60% to 30% from the mid nineties to the early 00′s. Again to compare to a university setting: one of the few studies to examine harassment in college found that nearly 60% of college women reported being harassed on campus (in 2005, I believe. I’m writing this all from memory from my thesis. I can dig up the citations if required.)
    Most important in the discussion of military assault/harassment rates in my view is the prevention efforts: every soldier, sailor, marine and airman gets harassment, EO, assault, human trafficking, and other awareness raising training every year. There are offices and personnel dedicated to reducing these problems. The best anti-sexual assault video I have ever seen (as a WGST college graduate and a PP volunteer, that’s saying something) was the one made by the Air Force: it was about an hour long, and discussed thoroughly the stranger rape myth, alcohol, rape for power not for sex, the psychology of rapists who don’t think they are raping (“taking advantage of her, maybe, but not rape”), etc. etc.
    The military may be our archetype of violent patriarchy, and may attract the most misogynist, sexist, and “unenlightened” people to its ranks, but it is also the only large-scale institution doing systematic education and prevention work.
    I have not even begun to discuss the economic, educational, insurance, child-care, and community benefits of military service for women. Nor have I touched the socioeconomic/religious/class/educational issues plaguing many feminist’s perceptions of military service, as well as military women’s perceptions of feminism. Nor the potentially transformative nature of military women’s nontraditional work for reaching and changing religiously and politically conservative minds, though I did discuss all that in my honors thesis in Women’s and Gender Studies.
    Anyway: it’s more complicated than that. It’s not necessarily what you see in movies. Remember there’s been a persistent anti-military sentiment since Vietnam in basically all of academia, and that this sentiment may be distorting reporting, analysis and discussion.
    I have been in the military for nearly six years, and deployed to Iraq in 2008. My father is career military, and his experiences training women pilots was instrumental in changing him from a casual sexist into a feminist father, a pattern you can see repeated often if you look.
    Reducing the military to simply “a culture of rape and humiliation” has the effect of dismissing some real women’s positive relationship with their service, and more importantly, causing many military women to distrust and oppose feminism in general. Why should they join us, if we refuse to understand their often complex relationship with the institutions they belong to and love?

  4. mk
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    jane, are you a blogger? If not, please, PLEASE start a blog!
    I can’t add much to the discussion because I know very little about the military (other than the usual movie education, and a bit from my cousin, who’s a Marine Reservist), but I really, really appreciate your fantastic comment, and I thank you deeply for your service.

  5. Livia
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jane, I am an Active Duty Army Officer and have been on Active Duty for almost five years. I want to thank you for your post. I frequent liberal blogs and I often notice there is a perception of “those poor women” in the military, as well as the perception that the military preys on the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Is that true in some cases? Sure, but not every women in the military is abused or harassed, and not every individual who joined the military is from limited socioeconomic means or feels “preyed upon.” I find it infuriating that the positive experiences of women in the military are ignored. I certainly wouldn’t ignore or whitewash the negative, but I would like my stories, both negative and positive, heard as well. I suspect that each military woman has a host of positive and negative stories related to her service, like one would have with any other life experience.

  6. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Exactly: why are we so good at critically examining rhetoric about “those poor women” in Africa, in developing nations, in a wide variety of situations, but not the military? Our stories are important, and our service–in the traditional sense, but also as women doing the feminist work of engaging with and changing attitudes and institutional culture–is important. I chose to enlist, and I choose to reenlist, and my positive experiences of military service are neither coerced nor figments of a false consciousness: I and many women find our service infinitely valuable, often as women.
    As you said, there are serious issues that need addressing about the military (DADT, women in combat, harassment and assault, hazing) but we must look at the whole picture, and recognize the benefits.
    Just one example: the National Women’s Law Center has recognized the active-duty military child care system as the model that businesses should adopt–they note is far surpasses every other system in the country.
    The military also provides housing for members and their families, as well as free healthcare, free education, money for food and food subsidies (the commissary system), paid maternity leave and a host of other benefits. Unbeknownst to both members and critics, the military is actually a fairly socialistic community! Why aren’t we feminists more aware of these aspects of military life, despite calling for many of these reforms in the public sector?

  7. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a blogger, though perhaps I should be. I’ve been toying with the idea of turning my thesis into a book, but I finished it in January and I can still hardly look at it.
    I think that the military we see on TV and in movies is very illustrative of our cultural ideas about militarism–the soldier is an important archetype, especially in the construction of American masculinity. Very few movies or TV shows get military culture or experiences anywhere near right. On the other hand, the changes in military culture since the end of the draft have been slowly percolating through into the media. Many of these changes are revolutionary in that they challenge root assumptions about gender roles, understandings of manhood and conceptions of justice and violence. The men and women who join up are often exposed to these ideas, but those who watch it on TV rarely are.

  8. Navy_Blue
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Jane says what I’ve been thinking for a while now, but haven’t had the words to get across effectively. Thank you.

  9. mk
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I would definitely read anything you wrote, blog or book.
    I’d also be really curious to hear what media gets the military right (or at least closer to right)–any movies or books you can recommend?

  10. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Well, if it’s action, it’s probably wildly unrealistic. Do many cops live like Bruce Willis in the Die Hards?
    I found Black Hawk Down to be really compellingly realistic. I’ve never been in combat (for values of combat that include small arms; I was in a combat zone, and shit blew up fairly frequently, but it was mortars and rockets, not bullets) but the interaction between characters, attitudes, abilities, motivations–they were all familiar.
    Hilariously, the Sci-Fi Stargate franchise has perfectly accurate uniforms, customs and courtesies. Spaceships, aliens, wormholes–but damn if their uniforms aren’t perfect.
    I actually don’t have that many recommendations; I don’t have a TV, and rarely watch movies. But what I do watch syncs up fairly solidly with the archetype of soldier that feminists, politicians, and conservatives alike imagine to be real–a one dimensional character: violent/powerful, exclusionist/loyal, stupid/honest, fascist/patriotic. Of course, we’re all of that, and none of it; 3 million is a lot, and the military’s actually fairly diverse.
    Oh, and PS: on your suggestion I got a blog. Hey, why not? GI Jane POV.

  11. mk
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Fair enough. Any book recommendations? One of my library colleagues really liked I Love My Rifle More Than You, but I haven’t started it yet.
    (And hooray for your blog! I’ll be adding you to my RSS reader.)

  12. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Whew, well: all of my book recommendations are from the work I did for my thesis; take them with a grain of salt.
    It’s Our Military, Too! By Judith Stiehm is great; she also wrote Arms and the Enlisted Woman, which is more dated but one of the few scholarly works on enlisted women.
    The Few. The Proud. Women Marines in Harm’s Way by Sara Sheldon is FANTASTIC, and very recent: she embedded in various places in Iraq and the book was published in 2008.
    Sound Off! Military Women Speak Out by the Schneiders is also wonderful.
    I think it’s telling that the only books I thought that got anything right about military women are compilations of interviews of military women. A notable exception is LL Miller’s Feminism and the Exclusion of Army Women from Combat. That article was included in a recent compilation called One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers; some of the other articles in that volume are great, others terrible.
    You meant fiction, though, right? Unfortunately I’m more a fantasy reader, when not doing academic reading, which is less than helpful in this case.

  13. ArmyVetJen
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I think its good to have conversation about women in the military, andthat includes Courtney’s article for what ever truth it brings up.
    I don’t believe comparing military assault/harassment to college assault/harrassment is proper. You can leave college. You can sue your college for not protecting you. There is outside oversight for colleges. These things do not exist in the military. Maria Lauterbach may not have been killed if she had the same freedom college students do. Even when she requested a base transfer it was denied.
    I also think prevention is key, which is why its important to talk about the reality of sexual assault in the military. As long as the issue is ignore, dismissed or minimized it will not be prevented. The DOD only tracks reported cases since this decade, and only because Congress required it.
    It seems a little bit odd to say feminists aren’t celebrating the military more when if you look at the general tone of our work it is to point out the things that need to be fixed in society.
    When we discuss the negative, it doesn’t mean we negate the positive.
    The article itself isn’t “poor me” It focuses on a woman who who shares an experience many women in the military do. The whole point is that it is the story that is heard the least.
    Samhita didn’t say the military is only a culture of humiliation, deprivation and submission, she said there is a culture of that in the larger military culture.
    I know it can be hard to hear negatives when a person is still in, I have been out for 4 years, but these stories are true. All deserve to be heard. The good, the bad and the ugly.

  14. ArmyVetJen
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t matter if the VA is on top of sexual assault teatment if people are being denied access to it by the VBA. This is happening with all kinds of PTSD.

  15. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    There is very little oversight re: sexual assault and basically none for harassment (at least by peers) in colleges. There have been several recent scandals where respected college administrations pressured women to drop charges, covered up cases, and made services less or unavailable to women. Only very recently (see here and here), has a woman successfully sued her college for not protecting her. In any case, I think the real important part of the comparison is not whether they are strictly identical, but to point out how drastically differently we feminists view college and the military: the one is expected and encouraged despite the risk, while the other is demonized despite the benefits.
    While it is true that the military is a special case (you can’t leave), I don’t think that’s a good way to approach the issue. Telling a woman who was raped at her college that she chose to be there and could leave at any time is unhelpful. Of course, many women assaulted or harassed in the service are forced to remain in untenable and horrifying situations, working day to day with the perpetrator, but I think my point stands.
    I disagree with you that the woman in the article tells a story “heard the least.” The lion’s share, if not all, of media coverage of military women’s issues, particularly in liberal and feminist venues, is very similar to this article. For example, the only two posts on feministing tagged “military” are about rape and assault. Google feminism and military and you’ll get much the same result. Sometimes I think the only thing feminists know or care about military women is their rate of victimization, rather than the transgressive and productive feminist work they do.
    I find your comment that it’s hard to hear negatives while still in slightly condescending: it smacks of an accusation of false consciousness, which I alluded to in my original comment. Am I upset about the portrayal of the military and military women because it’s a legitimate concern, or because I’ve been and still am brainwashed?
    As a feminist, I’m also concerned that you’re implying that the work of a feminist is to point out the negative. Certainly that’s part of it, but my identity as a feminist is tied up with the work: making the bad better. That’s why I find this sort of analysis of military women so frustrating. I think military women are doing incredible feminist work, particularly in socioeconomic, religious and socially conservative groups that are basically unreachable by anyone calling themselves a feminist.
    Finally, I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything wrong with the article, the women it was about, or our attention to the issue: it IS important, and we DO need to pay attention, I’m just frustrated by the focus being only on military women as victims.

  16. mk
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Oh, no, I wasn’t even thinking of fiction! Thank you for these suggestions–adding them to my (always huge, because I’m a librarian) list right now. You rock.

  17. Erynn
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps if I’d had anything vaguely approaching a positive experience in the military, I’d be more inclined to believe positive things about it. As it was, it took me 12 years of fighting to get my pension for PTSD and related issues.
    I will add that one thing that bothers me is the emphasis on women in service during wartime. I served during the Cold War and never saw combat, yet I was just as effectively traumatized as any combat personnel.
    Obviously a few women somewhere are going to have positive experiences in service. I’m one of the ones who didn’t. I’m still paying for it over 25 years after I got out.

  18. SprigofIvy
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I think that is a really interesting phenomena… and I find it interesting that I came across this today, as we just had our second female military member from Canada die in Afghanistan yesterday. The first was three years ago. The comments that come out of this include things like “Women should not be in combat” or that “women that age, should not be able to be in that position.”
    I disagree, as a woman should be able to do this type of work…. I am a military member here in Canada as well, very different then those who serve overseas, but I have had connections to many who have served.

  19. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m really sorry to hear about the trouble you’ve had with the VA. I should have made it clearer that the women who came before me had it much, much worse; a lot of the things I really like about the service and the things I think are good for women came about in the mid-nineties, if not later; I enlisted in 2004. It’s also much worse the fewer women there are in the unit, and while we’re at 10-20% now, immediately post AVF it was more like 1-3%. I am indebted to you, and the women you served with, and those who served between us.
    Not to demean the battles you’ve had to fight to get what you needed and were due from the service and the VA, but many women who are raped, beaten or otherwise traumatized (men, too) outside of the military get no help, no services, and no pension. Personally, I’ve made use of the VA and I’m fairly confident I would be able to get help if I needed it; they already help me with my sleeping problems, free of charge. Not something my college would do if I were attacked on campus, for example. I wish that the VA actually worked, better and more justly, but I also wish that more institutions worked the way the VA is ideally supposed to and took care of their own.
    I completely agree with you about the combat emphasis: I felt like in order to be taken seriously, I had to deploy. I often get a pass because I’m a medic, but my service in the states has just as much meaning as my service in the desert. It’s a pissing contest, really. Deployment and combat give you credibility, regardless of who you are or what you did, which often gives credibility out inappropriately. That said, I value the work I did with patients in Iraq very highly, and had very unique experiences there.
    Thank you for sharing your story with me. I sometimes forget about the newness of many of the reforms I prize.

  20. jane
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    As if women don’t die violently every day despite not being in recognized “combat zones”, and as if the deaths of fathers are inconsequential!
    What do you do in the service? I admit, I know very little about the Canadian military. I do know that the first (only?) woman in the Canadian artillery corps was nicknamed “Deadeye Dickless.” (Deadeye Dick is a common name for an excellent shot.) One of my favorite anecdotes.

  21. Mike Crichton
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    but my service in the states has just as much meaning as my service in the desert.
    Well, as a medic, your stateside job actually _is_ important. If you had an MOS whose garrison duty consisted of mowing grass, policing the motor pool, and very occasionally going out on FTX, you might feel differently. :-)

  22. Mike Crichton
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have to disagree with this. Having been shot at, I can tell you there’s a BIG difference between the myriad petty annoyances of military life, and “Oh shit, people are trying to kill me RIGHT NOW!”. That said, I agree that rape victims should have the same access to care that other wounded soldiers (are supposed to) get.
    Also, while I can’t personally say I noticed a difference, I’ve spoken to female soldiers who feel that there’s more casual sexist bullshit now, than there was before the current wars started. If this is true, personally, I’d attribute it to the idiotic and farcical “No girls in combat!” rule. As more and more troops get actual combat experience, they naturally feel at least a little bit superior to those who haven’t. If there’s an entire category of their fellow soldiers who are theoretically not allowed to get that experience, that’s just a recipe for disaster.

  23. Mike Crichton
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Argh, forgot to include the part I was responding to. this should have been at the top of my previous comment:
    Add to this the reality that military culture is built on breaking down some of our most basic psychological instincts through humiliation, deprivation, and submission, and it becomes less and less logical to separate the soldiers who have seen combat from those who haven’t.

  24. Courtney
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I wrote this story largely based on an interview with Maricela Guzman, the woman I feature in the story, as well as research conducted online (including much of it from VA issued research) and Helen Benedict’s new book The Lonely Soldier. I can understand that you might have frustration about the lack of positive portrayals of women in the military, Jane, given that your experience was so positive, but please remember that there are so many women who have had traumatic experiences and their voices need to be heard. Civilians, like myself, need to take the plight of women like Guzman personally. I think claiming that we can’t write about or advocate on troops’ behalf simply because we’re civilians is short-sighted.

  25. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    On the contrary, I wish more people paid attention to military women! Asking for my input to be respected as a first-person narrative does not require silencing you. But I feel that not only do feminists in particular only focus on our plights, but specifically on assault narratives. I know there are many schools of thought on victimization, but surely you can’t think that the only thing to say about military women is that they are often raped, and then further victimized by the institutions designed to protect them? For example, there are other issues we deal with: access to abortion overseas, the constant, grinding insult of poorly fitting and unflattering uniforms, the struggles of military couples to negotiate relationships in a very conservative culture where women often explicitly equal or outrank their partners, or have a equally or even “manlier” job, and the perilous advance of politics and religion into the rites and rituals of the services.
    I don’t want to make comparisons, because situations are so very rarely comparable. But surely we have learned the folly of reducing the experiences of groups to victimhood without making an effort to fully contextualize their lives and motives? By asking that you listen to other narratives, my own as an example, of how military life can be fulfilling–even satisfying in an explicitly feminist way, I am not denying you the right to advocate on behalf of victimized military women.
    I’m aware that many of the things I’m talking about are inaccessible to civilians, and that’s why I’m telling you about them. There is more to military womanhood than an increased chance of assault, and there is more to the military than a culture of humiliation and degradation. The military has realized a lot of progress (in racism in particular, but also in its efforts to reduce sexism, harassment and assault within its ranks, though the work is not yet done), though no one wants to acknowledge this. It could make a lot more, and I am working on that, as others are, but we could use your support here and in other feminist boltholes.
    And by support, I mean things like the article you wrote, but I also mean interest in aspects of our lives that aren’t used to condemn the military as a misogynistic, monolithic evil.
    For example: much of my thesis was written on the damage that fully-integrated women do to the basis of Western gender roles. I argued that the trend in military culture (as I’ve seen it, in the most progressive part of the most progressive service) is slowly shifting away from “masculinity” as the ideal, to an ideal of competence–ungendered and unfettered. What I mean by that is that we understood “being a good soldier” as white manhood: a good white man was a good soldier, and vice versa. Much of the racial aspect of that is gone now; these days, many Americans understand good men as good soldiers: strong, protective, loyal, honorable, brave, competent. But the success of women in nontraditional fields of the military is challenging this: if women are strong, protective, loyal, honorable, brave and competent, then what is manhood? (Not to mention the darker things: men used to be the sole custodians of violence, while women epitomized innocence and virtue. Seeing that women can also be violent and cruel is painful, terrible, and often criminal, but instructive.)
    I have experienced things in my military service that make me think that this trend, towards valuing competence and allowing manhood or womanhood to be characteristics but not values will continue, and that the particular situation of young men and women in the military–a highly structured, highly visible environment, whose regulations are directly controlled by Congress, and which is designed to strive for true meritocracy–will coax part of a generation of us toward greater equality and freedom.
    Forgive me if it seems that I’m reproving you for writing about PTSD, the VA, and assault. I do not intend that at all. I have volunteered at the National Center for PTSD in VT, I have talked to groups of veterans about women’s issues, and I have carried women who suffered breakdowns after their assaults onto aircraft on stretchers. I thank you for your efforts; they are valuable.
    But I think the military is an excellent and unique tool in our work, and I think my perspective matters. I am tired of only being recognized as a potential victim, instead of a fellow-fighter.

  26. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    I do feel like what I experienced of combat was far more traumatic than basic training, and certainly nothing like my everyday work, which I mostly enjoy.
    I feel like the perception of basic training is unfortunately scripted: our TIs tell the world they’re going to break us all the way down and remake us, and some (often outsiders) buy the press. I mostly folded a lot of shirts and ran a lot, but then again, I’m AF. That’s not to say that some TIs haven’t bought their own press–there have certainly been abuse scandals (those that have been uncovered and those that have gone unseen), and it’s because of this traditional idea of the “adversarial method” of teaching. I feel like we’re getting better, farther away from sadism and closer to controlled stress, though many (oh, Brian Mitchell; he gets shriller every book. And Jim Webb: the Marines are getting soooo girly!) think it will lead to the end!!!1!!!11 of the military as we know it.
    Oh by the way, did I mention I’m a reservist? Change your tune any about the value of my stateside service?

  27. Navy_Blue
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Jane seems to have this pretty well in hand, but I’m loathe to let a shipmate do all the heavy lifting. What troubles me about a lot of the posts I read about general sexism or sexual assault in the military is that they often seem to come from a viewpoint that is either hostile to the military as a whole or is not interested in understanding military culture except as a location of patriarchal oppression. It is, but then so are most cultures. We wouldn’t let someone get away with saying something like “X foreign culture is inherently misogynistic and brutal, so it’s not surprising that women over there have terrible lives” without displaying a pretty solid understanding of the culture in question, and even then we’d probably question how comprehensive that understanding is if it led to such a one-sided view of that culture. Yet when it comes to the military, itself a practically foreign culture, there seems to be a different standard.
    The problem, to me, isn’t that these stories are being told. They need to be told, both within the military and in the civilian world, so that citizens can put pressure on us to fix things. The problem is when these stories are told absent a wider understanding of military culture.

  28. aabbey
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Not to be a cheeseball, but I feel that the issue we’re all missing here is leadership in explaining the variability of military culture. It can be a shaming, humilitating, culture of deprivation that exploits masculinity issues and uses rape as a tool. It can also be a place where young soldiers/sailors/airman/marines learn how to push themselves towards better fitness and performance, are supported by their buddies during their struggles, and have leaders who keep an eye on their welfare (and that of their families) and love them dearly. It can be a mixture of these things. It’s really the leader’s role to encourage their subordinates to support each other, not to exploit masculinity issues (“you’re weak/a pussy!” if you fail), to not tolerate sexist remarks, and to make sure their support of any harassment/rape victims is known.
    A good leader doesn’t humiliate you. A good leader makes you want to do better because you respect them (for who they are, not the rank), want to please them, and because they make you believe that you are strong enough to make it. They motivate positively, not through creating a culture of fear. I feel that the “we tear you down” model is outdated and isn’t being taught much anymore. It certainly wasn’t how I was trained to run my squad of ten new cadets. Of course, there are certain things during your first week or so of basic training that do attempt to strip your civilian identity away, and do have that “tearing down” effect. But that should never be the central focus.
    I’ve heard stories from AG (personnel) officers outprocessing soldiers from Iraq who saw handled an abnormal number of cases of male soldiers being raped and assaulted by fellow soldiers. I’ve experienced in my own pre-commissioning time social penalties for reporting harassment and seen a friend who was raped dragged through the mud for reporting. But the upside is that we all had good officers (if not fellow cadets) around us that made the process bearable.
    In some cases deployments have increased harassment and sexism, and in some they’ve increased the teamwork and equality in a unit. It depends on how the leader frames the mission.
    It is frustrating that it seems that the only narrative about military women in feminism revolves around rape, and that the masculinity/aggression/power issues in the military create this inevitability of rape for servicewomen. That is, like jane has said, an outdated view that comes more from pop culture than military reality, which is a lot more bureaucratic and boring than its pop culture vision. The problem is that sometimes leaders forget what they’re actually supposed to be teaching and let their own issues turn the unit into some kind of male aggression/hate on each other fest, instead of building people up and focusing on the mission.

  29. ArmyVetJen
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    t is disingenuous to make the point about being able to leave college one that turns it into victim blaming. The issue is that in the military people are forced to stay with in reach of their attackers and live in a culture that uses languge that demeans women (such as “do you have sand in your pussy”). I don’t think the point stands because the situation are like apples to oranges.
    I think it makes a VERY big difference for college students to know there is outside oversight for colleges including the police and court system. The military polices itself and has no responsibility for actually do what is right. I would have no problem if it were not the case that this lack of accountability leads to way too many instances of injustice. In fact we can’t even properly argue this point because the DOD does not provide conviction rates. The SAPRO report basically used statistics to lie. My point of reference is the stories of women who have not seen justice served. I’d love to have the actual numbers as well.
    Yes people HAVE sued their schools for sexual harassment and rape. Employer are also liable under Title VII for hostile work environments. Unless that employer is the military, which has a 70-90% harassment rate.
    This IS a story that is least heard IN GENERAL. This compliments the other point I made about feminist thought being a place to criticize the gaps in society for women, so it is not surprising that there are stories about this on feminist websites. This has long been a function of rights movements, to give voice to their truths.
    There are also stories about colleges that don’t protect women on feminists sites.
    I am sorry if you feel as though I spoke in a way that “smacks of an accusation of false consciousness”. I am speaking from a point of having been there myself. It may not be your case, but I have seen many women open themselves up to a higher level of criticism after they leave the service. It usually is women who are still in that have the highest level of criticism for articles like these. That is probably an easier situation to observe.
    As far as this article being one of military women as victim, Maricela is not a victim. How does one tell her story and not create the criticisms you bring up?

  30. ArmyVetJen
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Jane we certainly agree on the fact that other issues need to be addressed, that why women’s service organizations are doing such.
    I think the point of contention is that when MST is brought up there tends to be seems a push against it when what is being attempted is a push towards the other issues. This becomes confusing and I know I have come across this myself with other female vets I work with.
    I don’t think the reforms you prize are only new, they are sometimes sporadic and women who serve with you now can have totally different experiences than you (which most likely comes down to leadership).
    I believe you get VA treatment for only a few years and only because you deployed. Non-deployed reserve/guard do not get VA treatment and with out a service connect disability rating your treatment will run out.
    Some of the difference may be branch specific, my basic training wasn’t folding shirts! It also wasn’t without being physically pushed or pulled by a drill.
    This is a very delicate point to make: some of your thoughts on the military may be informed by your branch. This is a dangerous topic because some people take it to mean certain branches are weaker (which is sexist anyway) or that certain branches are immune to certain activities. Its hard to really make an assessment since most people are in only one branch.
    I think there may be better leadership in the Air Force, or at least your chain of command, in this case because as aabbey says below leadership makes a BIG difference.

  31. ArmyVetJen
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Free education?

  32. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  33. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    One would tell her story, and tells others’ stories as well–what you don’t say is as powerful as what you do.
    I don’t know where you’re getting your statistics; many of mine come from the military’s self-studies, which certainly could be inaccurate, but where do you find alternatives?
    The most recent reports from the military do provide conviction rates; I used them in my thesis. They’re much, much higher than civilian courts if you include article 15s, and comparable if you don’t. 2007 PDF.
    I can concede the point that college and the military are different in many important ways, but I think we just have different levels of trust/belief in the systems. I think that the military system has issues, but is sort of working, and is getting better–the same way I feel about the police, and college programs. Obviously, you have no trust in the military systems, and either/neither of us could be more accurate–it’s not something we could argue out, I think. I do want to point out that there is no systematic, required prevention efforts that I know of in universities–briefings or education for every student, particularly men–like there is in the service. And I’ve seen nothing to prevent or address harassment that does not approach assault/stalking in colleges. Employers–professors and TAs–might be taught/coached/reprimanded, but there’s no program in place (other than suing, which is a huge, expensive, often unthinkable alternative) to address peer harassment.

  34. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    What a good point! And I don’t think you’re being a cheeseball at all. I’ve had good leaders and terrible, but thankfully the terrible ones didn’t foster a misogynistic atmosphere–they were more mundanely bad, disinterested and shallow. Or absentee.
    But good leaders: man, the things I wouldn’t do for people who have led me well!

  35. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I only get VA treatment because I deployed. But I could have gotten it had I been injured on duty as a stateside reservist–I have a friend who blew out his knee running on base, and he gets it. But my understanding is that as long as I meet income maximums and remain current, I can go to the VA indefinitely. And if I end up making more money than I’m allowed, I can still go, but have to pay on a sliding scale.
    You’re absolutely right about my experience being service-specific. I’m obviously having a problem with long, long comments, so I edited out a paragraph on that in my reply to Courtney. I think about it a little like I do political liberalism: slowly the radical left’s positions get traction, and become mainstream, until even the right thinks they’re appropriate. Like the vote for women, aspects of the civil rights movement, enviromentalism, etc. I feel like the Air Force in many ways is the radical left of the military, but some of it percolates right, I think. Slowly.
    Of course I’m mostly joking about the shirts. Mostly.
    As a random, somewhat branch-related aside: When I was deployed last year, I spent a lot of time in the gym on the Army side of the base, because a bunch of Army people had started a swing dancing group (good times.) They had anti-assault posters up everywhere, and I thought they were really moving–the rhetoric was all about how army women were your fellow soldiers, and how could you possibly harm them? Sheldon’s book on the Marines uncovered a lot of the same rhetoric: many of the women marines told stories about how they had been defended by peers with “fellow Marine” rhetoric. That kind of collective identity argument wouldn’t work as well anywhere else, I think; I remember that I read somewhere that some think the Marine iteration of the argument had a lot to do with the Marines’ statistics going from the worst to the middle-range (leaving the Army the worst, unfortunately) from the mid-90s to the 2000s.

  36. jane
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Exactly!
    And the citizen pressure is another good point: while laws apply to all employers, the military has such a tighter and more directly overseen relationship with Congress and the courts (as we saw in the VMI case and in Frontiero v. Richardson, for example). Citizen pressure can provoke much quicker and effective change in regs, though how quickly the culture changes has more to do with leadership (hi aabbey!).

  37. Mike Crichton
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    “Change your tune any about the value of my stateside service? ”
    Nowadays, the only difference is that reservists get slightly less train-up before, and slightly more cool-down time after the the back-to-back deployments. There was a time when ‘real’ military types could make fun of all you ‘weekend warriors’, but that time is sadly passed. ;-)

  38. KyleDavis
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    wow Jane please if you get this message within 2 weeks please respond. I am a senior in HS writing a thesis about women in combat. My thesis statement is.. The Pentagon should keep its current policy preventing women to fight in direct ground combat because they threaten cohesion and effectiveness of combat troops, they are not capable of the demanding physical requirements, and they increase temptation and distraction within mixed gender units. (those women who are physically capable which I believe there are will run into my other two points) I’ve researched all year for this 20 minute memorized-ish speech and would love to talk to you about it. If you get the chance please respond I’ll figure someway to give you my email address or something

  39. KyleDavis
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    wow Jane please if you get this message within 2 weeks please respond. I am a senior in HS writing a thesis about women in combat. My thesis statement is.. The Pentagon should keep its current policy preventing women to fight in direct ground combat because they threaten cohesion and effectiveness of combat troops, they are not capable of the demanding physical requirements, and they increase temptation and distraction within mixed gender units. (those women who are physically capable which I believe there are will run into my other two points) I’ve researched all year for this 20 minute memorized-ish speech and would love to talk to you about it. If you get the chance please respond I’ll figure someway to give you my email address or something

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