Helen Benedict On Sexual Assault In The Military (And How To Stop It)

Helen Benedict, author of the new book The Lonely Soldier, believes strongly that the U.S. military has an obligation to do far, far better by the women who join its ranks.

As we recently pointed out, there have been far too many stories of rape, domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrated on female soldiers and civilian contractors abroad and even here at home. Benedict's incredible book follows 5 soldiers of varying age, ethnicities, politics, education backgrounds and reasons for joining up as they join the military, find out they're going to Iraq, get deployed and return home where everything seems different and help is far from just a phone call away. But she's also got statistics, history, supporting interviews and a ton of empathy to add to the stories Mickiela Montoya, Jennifer Spranger, Abbie Pickett, Terris Dewalt-Johnson and Eli PaintedCrow have to tell about their disparate-yet-similar stories of being a woman in the military and a war zone. In an excerpt running in The Nation today, she says about her subjects:

They join the military for the same reasons men do-to escape dead-end towns or dysfunctional families, to pay for college or seek adventure, to follow their ideals or find a career-only to find themselves denigrated and sexually hounded by many of the "brothers" on whom they are supposed to rely. And when they go to war, this harassment does not necessarily stop. The double traumas of combat and sexual persecution may be why a 2008 RAND study found that female veterans are suffering double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for their male counterparts.

Benedict doesn't stop there with her harsh indictment of the way the military treats its female soldiers and protects its male soldiers from the consequences of abusing their colleagues.

Even when the military does accept a report of sexual assault, the consequences to the perpetrators tend to be negligible. Of the assaults reported and recorded by the Defense Department in the fiscal year 2008, 49 percent were dismissed as unfounded or unsubstantiated-meaning there wasn't enough proof of assault, or that the women recanted or died-and only 10.9 percent resulted in court martial.

Even those few men who are found guilty of sexual assault or rape tend to receive absurdly mild punishments, such as suspension, demotion, or a scolding letter for their file. In 2008, 62 percent of offenders found guilty received mild punishments like this. This amounts to a tiny fraction of the men accused of sexual assault.

But it's not just a book of dry and horrifying statistics — Benedict manages to weave together the stories of her protagonists to show that the problems are systemic, intractable and, sadly, widespread. It's a fantastic piece of writing and reporting, but there was more I wanted to know, so, a few weeks ago, I sat down with Benedict to talk about the problems faced by women in the military, the sources of those problems, what hope there might be for women who wish to serve and what she hopes readers will take away from her book when they do read it.

MEGAN: What was your impetus for writing the book?
HELEN: It was because I was very concerned about the Iraq War, and what we were doing there, and what it was doing to people — the Iraqis and us. And I was wondering what it was doing to soldiers. I went in originally interested in conscientious objectors and then I started to meet women soldiers and they had this whole other story to tell that wasn't being told. And that really caught me, because I'd written several books about sexual assault before. And when I heard that this war, the Iraq War, we were having women in combat, actually fighting, losing their limbs and their lives and they were also being treated like dirt by the people that were supposed to be their brothers-in-arms, I just thought that was so outrageous is had to be told. But I didn't go in looking for that, I didn't know about the sexual assault at first, I was just curious about women soldiers and what they thought of the war initially — or, really, all soldiers. So it was bit by bit that I got into it.

MEGAN: Do you think that the prevalence of sexual assault in the military has changes as a result of this war, or as a result of more women being in combat positions and being to, a degree, less segregated and more spread out in units, given than there's such a small number of women in the military overall?
HELEN: It actually hasn't changed. I mean, women have been assaulted and abused in the military for a very long time. And some of the first ones I talked to were Vietnam veterans. They weren't in combat then — they weren't even allow to carry weapons — they were nurses and Women's Auxiliary Corps, WACs. But they were even more outnumbered, and they were having the same problems and didn't speak out about it very much then because the atmosphere was more discouraging. So, the statistics have gone up somewhat in this war, but it's really a military-wide problem, it's home bases, it's bases around the rest of the world. And wartime does seem to make assault go up a bit. But it's a pervasive problem and it's been around for a while.

MEGAN: When I was still in college and graduate school, there were a lot of news stories around about sexual assault and harassment at the military academies. And the students then are now lieutenants and captains and majors now — officers, more or less my age. Back then, the academies were putting forth a public, concerted effort to try to stem the tide of sexual assault at the military academies, and now it's not in the news as much anymore. Do you think that there's a potential for the younger men and women making their way up the ranks with a different kind of culture can make a difference? Or has it all just been swept under the rug?
HELEN: I think both. It is still a big problem in the academies. And there is a huge problem that the culture of the academies is a culture of brutal hazing and it's a misogynist culture. So we're still basically teaching our officers to disrespect and assault women. Not everywhere, not all the time, but a lot. That said, the average assailant in the military is older and of higher rank than the average victim. And I have heard from a lot of people that the biggest problems are the older men who basically don't want women in the military and that's why they are disrespectful and, worse, assaulting — and that once those people age out things will get better. I think that's somewhat true, but in a way it comes down to the individual because it's not as though all the assailants are the older generation by any means.

MEGAN: In your research, did you feel that sexual assault was more of a problem among non-commissioned officers? Among officers? It does seem like, insofar as it was presented in your book, that it was a lot of peer-on-peer violence, it seemed more hierarchical.
HELEN: It can be hierarchical but it can be anybody from your immediate squad leader all the way up to the colonel. So I think officers do this a lot and non-commissioned officers. Basically, when you're given power in the military, in the hierarchy, you have much more power over your subordinates than in any civilian situation, even more power than teachers over students and so on. And so there will always be people that will abuse power. And in the military, it's such a protective environment, and there are so few consequences paid, and people are supposed to obey their superiors absolutely that it's like a little closed system where abuse can just go on and on and on without changing.

MEGAN: Why do you think it is that military officers are supposed to be trained to leave no soldier behind and there is this esprit de corps that is supposed to be inculcated in officers and enlisted people, that women soldiers don't end up part of that? Why is it that sexual assault or sexual harassment against a member of your team not viewed in the same way as someone shooting at them?
HELEN: That's a great question, and it's one of the questions I ask in my book. I think officers should be taught to take as much pride in protecting their soldiers from harm by each other as they are in protecting them from harm by the enemy. But they're not taught that at the moment because the military would rather sweep under the rug the fact that there is this problem. Basically, any commander who hears about a sexual assault in his or her — because women are just as bad about this — platoon has a choice. They can either choose to protect the reputation of the platoon by hiding the assault and covering it up and thereby making their platoon look perfect, or they can choose to show off their platoon by showing that the proper procedures are put in place and all work and are pushed through when there is a misdeed. And they need to be taught more to take the latter route. At the moment, too many people are busy covering up so that it doesn't tarnish their reputation and their chances of promotion.

MEGAN: So, if you allow this to be reported, if you allow this to come out, it affects your own chances of advancement in the military?
HELEN: That's the fear, yeah. And I'm sure the fear comes from something real, that it could happen and that it does happen some times. Which means that all the way up — from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top — that attitude has to change so that when a commander fully prosecutes and goes through the proper procedures in the wake of an assault they will be rewarded and will look like a good commander. And when they cover up, they will be punished. They will have to think about the consequences. They should be removed from command if they cover up a crime. That's one of the big changes that needs to be done.

MEGAN: There used to me, in the nineties, there used to be a big focus on having consensual relationships with one's subordinates and a focus on prosecuting those through the military code of justice — insofar, of course, that a relationship with a subordinate can be considered fully consensual, which is something you touched on in your book, that some of these so-called consensual relationships can be somewhat coercive. What happened to that idea that it's bad for morale to get sexually involved with one's subordinates?
HELEN: It's still against the rule to "fraternize" — that's the word they use in the military to mean "having a relationship" which is not what "fraternize" actually means at all, but that's how they use it. It's still against the rules and people can still get into trouble for it and they still have to hide it. It can also be used to persecute people. Someone along the chain of command can make a choice whether to prosecute someone who is having a relationship and so all kinds of other things will come into it, you know, jealousy will come into it, favors will come into it. Very often whether the prosecution happens or the relationship is ignored has to do with reasons that are rather corrupt. I can tell you that in wartime, when men and women are mixed together, they're almost all in relationships. Almost all of them, including the married ones. And most of them don't get into trouble for it. But it can cause some trouble within the platoons, because people do get jealous and then they accuse the women of sleeping with so-and-so for favors. You know, it's like high school, it's like being in high school, locked up on a boat in high school for a year and being unable to escape.

MEGAN: Oh, God.
HELEN: There's that level of gossip and everyone knows everybody's business and back-biting and competition and it's very similar to that, except worse, because you're at war and because you can't go home at the end of the day. Even in high school you can go home, go home to your family or outside friends. But you never can go home, you're stuck with these people all the time. So you're stuck with their gossip and you're stuck with their abuse and you're stuck with their coercion and you're stuck with whatever else is going on.

MEGAN: The military has taken a couple of steps the last in the last few years, including making anonymous reporting possible. And, to some degree, you're critical of how that's been implemented. How would you specifically like to see the anonymous reporting process changed?
HELEN: I think it's basically a good idea, just as it is in civilian life, because it allows people to come and get counseling and get medical help, which they weren't getting at all if they were afraid to report before. And most people still are afraid to report. It does mean that no one is going to prosecute your case or investigate it. The problem is that the commander of the unit still has to be told that there was a sexual assault reporter. And because units and platoons, especially when they're away at war, are enclosed, hierarchical, gossip-y societies, it's very likely that victims won't actually be anonymous. And I think that's one of the reasons so few people still report even with this option. I mean, the Pentagon's last report estimated that 90 percent of sexual assaults aren't reported and the year before they said 80 percent. So it's actually going up according to them. So the anonymous reporting isn't doing a whole lot. They trumpet an 8 percent rise or something in reports over last year, but it's an 8 percent rise when there's a 10 percent increase in non-reporting, so it's canceled out, so it doesn't actually look like there's any increase in reporting at all. I think on our home bases there should be hotlines to civilian rape crisis centers so that people can seek help without anybody knowing in their platoon, so that they can get real help without all that hierarchy stuff happening and punitive repercussions that result. Now, at war, that's harder. How are you going to have a civilian hotline when you're in Iraq? That's not going to happen. My other suggestions is that, at war, every unit has a combat stress team already in place — counselors that are supposed to help soldiers after they've been in a battle or something horrible has happened to them. Most soldiers don't use them because it makes them look weak and it's stigmatized, but they are there. I think sexual assault counselors should be included with the combat stress team so that there's someone there — trained in civilian life, by the way — for people to go to for help. And I think they should be able to go without reporting to anybody. That's anonymous reporting.

MEGAN: Especially if you're the only woman in a unit, and the commander is told there's been a sexual assault, it's pretty clear...
HELEN: Although, actually, men are assaulted and raped, too.

MEGAN: Although you would think that with the focus on Don't Ask, Don't Tell that men that are perpetrating sexual assaults on other men would have other reasons to be drummed out of the military.
HELEN: Well, but most men that rape other men are not "gay." They are straight men who are into degrading, torturing and humiliating people just as they are with women.

MEGAN: Although, technically, one doesn't have to be gay to be caught up in Don't Ask, Don't Tell, one just has to be caught engaging in a "homosexual act" and one can be drummed out of the military.
HELEN: Oh, yeah, and its disproportionately used to persecute women. There are more women being kicked out under than then men which, given how few women there are is pretty startling. Yes, that has to go, too, that persecution.

MEGAN: Do you think that something like Don't Ask, Don't Tell — which focuses on sexual acts as a way of determining whether one is fit for combat — is contributing to this culture as well? You recommend getting rid of it, but can you make clearer that link in terms of combating the culture that tolerates so much sexual assault?
HELEN: I mostly recommend getting rid of it because it's used as a tool of persecution against women who are advancing or who are seen as strong. I think that people's sex lives should have nothing to do with whether they're employable or not, just as I think that the fact that somebody is female should have nothing to do with what job she can qualify for — it should have to do with whether she can qualify for it or not. So it's logical to say that there's a connection there.

MEGAN: One of the other programs that some of the women in your book had a name for was this "Battle Buddy" idea that they're trying to promote within the Pentagon as some very nascent form of "Men Can Stop Rape." There's some criticism of it in the book. Is it a matter of implementation? Is it a matter of trying to implement it on top of a culture?
HELEN: It's not really a nascent Men Can Stop Rape thing. Firstly, it's something that's been in place, it's not something they're trying to implement, it's happening. The Battle Buddy is supposed to be another women, it's just so that you're not alone, that there's someone else with a weapon walking beside you with a weapon and is standing, holding your weapon for you while you're in the shower. But, of course, in lots of cases, there aren't enough women for women to be coupled up with other women for a Battle Buddy. So then they are supposed to be escorted by a man, but then you're back to the old-fashioned idea of a man protecting a woman, it's not the same thing as Men Can Stop Rape. That's why so many women end up having relationships over there, so that they can be protected by their boyfriends, but there's not anything really progressive about that. I mean, they don't tell men to find someone to escort them to the showers. It may be a necessity, but at the same time, it's another example of them not seeing women as equally strong soldiers.

MEGAN: There's also been a lot of cases that have come forward of civilian contractors being sexually assaulted by other civilian contractors, so it's not even seemingly just the military. Or is this just a product of how many military men become civilian contractors?
HELEN: Partly. But you also have to look at some of the types of men than go in for those jobs because a lot of the men that they hire — that Blackwater hires, or KBR — especially the ones that have been implicated in these particular cases, they're more like those private army types that just want to fight. They're particularly brutal, and some of them already have records of that type of behavior. I don't want to sound as if I'm saying all military men are rapists or that the military turns all men into rapists, because I don't believe either of those things. But I think when you train someone to be brutal — and there are some men that go into the military because they want to be brutal, not because of patriotic reasons or other things like traveling. There is a certain percentage of men that are just like that, and then they are more brutalized by the military, and then they want to go off and get paid more money to be brutal, and then they're in an organization that has no consequences for any behavior whatsoever. While Blackwater was in Iraq, all laws were removed so you could do whatever you want. That's why it happened. Even the military is a lot more controlled than that.

MEGAN: What are you hoping comes out of this book? What do you see actually changing?
HELEN: I hope that more women will know about this situation while they are making the choice of whether to join. Too many women do not know this. Young women don't really know what they're in for. I'm not trying to tell them what to do, but I really think they should go in with their eyes open. I think the more there is discourse about this, the harder it will be for the military to hide it. Many more men, when they know what's going on, will want to do something about it, too, because I still believe that the majority of men are horrified by this. I had people come to my play based on the book and male veterans would say, "I was in the infantry, I had no idea this was going on and it's horrible and what can we do to help?" That kind of thing, I hope can help. And it would be nice if the Defense Department paid some attention to it and actually followed some of my suggestions in the last chapter. But perhaps the main purpose of my book is that I want to try to bridge the chasm between civilians and the military so that we understand more what our women soldiers are going through, and so we know more how to help them when they come home so they won't feel so alienated from civilians. Over and over and over you hear veterans say, "No one understands me when I'm at home," because the military is so secretive and soldiers are so secretive that it's self-perpetuating. Civilians are so ignorant. And so I really want my book to bridge that gap as much as possible and break open the secrecy of it. And that's what the women in it want, too, that's why they told me their stories with their real names. They want these stories to be known. They want people to know about the things they're proud of and the things that are unjust.

The Plight of Women Soldiers [The Nation]

Related: The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq

Earlier: U.S. Government Continues To Shaft Female Veterans