When I was 12 years old I developed a strange obsession with Navy SEALS. I loved the idea of an elite group of soldiers that tackled the toughest problems and bad guys plaguing our world. I loved the idea of being strong and pushing my body to its limits; I fell in love with the vision I had of using this strong body and will power to help people in need. I remember sitting down to dinner with my family one night and expressing my wild dream of joining the Navy to my mother, bubbling over with excitement and enthusiasm, and I distinctly recall her desperate response: “Please don’t.” Now would be an appropriate time for me to tell you that I happen to be a woman, and if you have heard or read any of the statistics, cases, or stories regarding women in the military, then you may understand just where exactly my mom was coming from.
A sickening 2011 report found that women in the U.S. military were more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than to be killed in combat. In 2012 the Pentagon conducted a survey in which they found that 26,000 women and men were sexually assaulted in our military, and of those only 3,374 were reported. Another report from 2013 found that at least 25% of women in the military had been sexually assaulted and that up to 80% had experienced sexual harassment.The American Journal of Industrial Medicine conducted a study in which they found that one in three women in the military were raped. Pages could be filled with statistic after statistic detailing the atrocity that women incur by being members of the U.S. military. Let the record show that sexual assault is an issue that affects both male and female members, but among women, it is an epidemic.
In an article from a female Army soldier preparing other women for what to expect after enlisting, I was dumbfounded at something I read. After detailing her experience of hard work, growth, and blunt determination through basic training she threw in a brief disclaimer: boys will be boys. Sure, they made crude comments, assumed she was promiscuous, doubted her abilities and worried whether she would “tattle” on them, but that was just part of the job, right? In a hyper-masculinized culture like the military, women who join are not just fighting America’s enemies but are fighting to be respected and recognized as soldiers and people. Women who join the military don’t join to play a victim, and it is for this reason that so many females who have been the recipients of inappropriate comments and actions stay silent. In an environment where they are fighting, just as their male counterparts, to come across as anything but weak, they don’t want to be the one woman who claims she has been sexually assaulted and then becomes labeled as a victim. This horrific culture is the perfect breeding ground for rape and sexual misdemeanors. Women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault are hardly ever believed, and become victims of a heinous crime and a broken system.
Former Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Brenda Gain, has nothing but fondness and gratitude for her time in the military. The USAF was a saving grace to her family during a time of financial hardship and job insecurity. Though she herself didn’t experience any violence, she and her fellow female soldiers did have to take special safety precautions while overseas. Gain also said, “Some of the men who were with the unit for a long time weren’t comfortable with taking women with them on deployment, but we were there and required to go when called upon. We tended to experience discrimination more than anything else, at least by our own.” Gain’s experience is a positive one, and a shining example of how the military could benefit so many women in this country. Women who are interested in enlisting should be encouraged because the military offers opportunities like it did for Gain; opportunities to develop new skills, provide for your family, and learn valuable life lessons. However, women like my twelve year old self are often discouraged from joining due to the infamous reputation of ignored harassment and brutality that follows many branches of our armed forces.
In an article by David S. Martin for CNN, four stories from four different servicewomen were shared with one shocking similarity: all women were diagnosed with a personality disorder and discharged from the military after reporting a sexual assault. In a field where trust is crucial, when soldiers approach their superiors to report a sexual assault they are often never heard and are forced to face their perpetrator who will probably get off scot-free. This pervasive evil among the people who are supposed to support, protect, and represent our country is something that has been swept under the rug too long. When anyone comes forward with allegations of sexual assault, they should be taken seriously and with great care, especially among soldiers who are already facing serious stress from the natural effects of war and military life.
Former United States Air Force member Akilah Messado never experienced any form of harassment or disrespect while she was in the service, but this is not the case for all servicewomen in varying branches. Messado said, “ My son joined the Marine Corps, and he did share some interesting stories about how some females were not regarded in high esteem. I have no experience in the other branches, but I can just imagine from hearing from other service people the differences between the standards of the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines.” When asked if she would encourage her daughter to join the military Messado replied she would, but only the Air Force. Due to what she has heard, she would not encourage her daughter to join the other branches.
Deborah Sampson was a revolutionary war soldier who fought for America’s freedom disguised as a man. Air Force Colonel Eileen Collins was the first female space shuttle commander. Cathay Williams was the first African American servicewoman who served with the buffalo soldiers disguised as a man. Most recently, Army General Ann E. Dunwoody was the first woman to serve as a 4-star Army general. Needless to say, women have been invaluable members of this country’s military since its conception. But, we have created and and silently fostered a subculture of sexism, misogyny, and coercion within our armed forces that has created a toxic environment for the roughly 214,000 women serving in our military. Our servicewomen dedicate their lives to protecting this country, and should not have to face this disgusting reality. Should a little girl resembling my twelve year old self ever share her dream of becoming a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger or an Airwoman with me, I’d like to have the faith and confidence in this country’s military to be able to encourage her with a clear conscience, but I could not do that today.