The Plank

"the Knife Wasn't For Iraqis... It Was For The Guys On My Side"

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Helen Benedict has a chilling story in Salon about the prevalence of rape, sexual assault, and harassment within the military. In Iraq, things have gotten so bad that officers routinely tell female soldiers "not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection." This stuff is neither universal nor inevitable--several soldiers told Benedict that commanders can stop the mistreatment of women in their units if they so choose--but it is rampant. (A 2003 survey found that 28 percent of female veterans said they were raped while in the military.)

Back in 2004, Donald Rumsfeld convened a task force to investigate the problem. Whatever came of that? Well, the Pentagon still won't gather detailed statistics on rape and assault in Iraq (it only reports raw numbers for the entire Middle East), although it did set up a new website devoted to the subject. And that's... only half an improvement:

The Web site looks good, although some may object that it seems to pay more attention to telling women how to avoid an assault than telling men not to commit one. ... The site now also explains that a soldier can report a rape anonymously to a special department, SAPR (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response), without triggering an official investigation -- a procedure called "restricted reporting." And it promises the soldier a victim's advocate and medical care. On closer scrutiny, however, the picture is less rosy: Only active and federal duty soldiers can go to SAPR for help, which means that neither inactive reservists nor veterans are eligible; soldiers are encouraged to report rapes to a chaplain, and chaplains are not trained as rape counselors; if soldiers tell a friend about an assault, that friend is legally obliged to report it to officials; soldiers must disclose their rank, gender, age, race, service, and the date, time and/or location of the assault, which in the closed world of a military unit hardly amounts to anonymity; and, in practice, since most people in the Army are men, the soldier will likely find herself reporting her sexual assault to a man--something rape counselors know does not work. Worse, no measures will be taken against the accused assailant unless the victim agrees to stop being anonymous. ...Back in real life, Pickett watched several of her friends try to report sexual harassment and assault since the 2005 reforms, and she said that none of them were sent a victim's advocate, a counselor or a chaplain. "These women are turning perpetrators in and they're not getting anyone to speak on their behalf," she told me. "There's no one sitting in that room with you, so you're feeling all alone." In the end, she added, it boils down to the woman's word vs. the man's, and he is the one with the advocate, not her.

Charming. It's worth recalling, by the way, that Salon broke the Walter Reed story two years before anyone else. Ideally, we won't have to wait two more years for yet another lengthy Washington Post exposé before this becomes a major issue too.

--Bradford Plumer

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