Anne K. Ream’s recent Op-Ed sheds much needed light on how the U.S. military continues to trivialize rape and sexual assault committed by members of the armed forces. Writing about whether a man who is convicted of rape in a civilian court should still be entitled to a traditional military funeral, Ream points out that although barring full honor burials in such a situation is largely a symbolic act, “the military policy of allowing honors burials for veterans convicted of rape sends a chilling message to victims: Even the most heinous sexual violence does not trump prior military service.”
The case Ream refers to is not an isolated incident of fraternal militarism being used to excuse sexual violence. In a recent court case in Lebanon, Penn., an Army Reserve sergeant was convicted of indecent assault after rape charges were dropped when fellow soldiers who were present at the incident refused to cooperate with police. Responding to the verdict, the defendant’s attorney said she thought he should have been cleared of all charges. “After all, he did serve his country.”
Unfortunately, this mind-set is consistent with the Pentagon’s very poor record of prosecuting sexual assault and rape within the ranks while at the same time disregarding and further victimizing those who report these heinous crimes. To put these cases in perspective, there were 2,947 reports of sexual assaults in the military in 2006, an increase in reports of 24% over 2005. However, very few of these cases tend to be prosecuted. A Pentagon report [PDF] in March 2007 found that more than half of the investigations dating back to 2004 resulted in no action. When action was taken, only one third of the cases resulted in courts-martial.
Indeed, in many cases, the military seems more intent on intimidating and harassing the victims than investigating and prosecuting the charges. In 2004, after Lt. Jennifer Dyer reported being raped by a fellow officer at Camp Shelby, Miss., she said she was held in seclusion for three days, read her Miranda rights and threatened with criminal prosecution for filing a false report. After finally being given two weeks leave, she was threatened with prosecution for being AWOL when she would not report for duty to the same location where the man she had accused who was later acquitted on assault charges was still posted.
Lance Cpl. Sally Griffiths was also accused of lying after she reported being raped by a fellow Marine while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. It wasn’t until she got access to her case file and found a statement by the Marine that confirmed her story that she was able to obtain the discharge she sought. The Marine she accused was never prosecuted. He continued to serve in the military and was promoted several times.
After Army Spc. Suzanne Swift went AWOL instead of staying in the same unit as the soldiers who she accused of sexually harassing her, the Army court-martialed her when she refused a deal that would have forced her to remain in the military and sign a statement saying she had not been raped.
More recently, there have been the well-publicized cases of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who was murdered after accusing another Marine of rape, and Jamie Leigh Jones, who says that she was gang-raped while working for Halliburton/KBR in Iraq. Jones claims that after she reported her rape, the company put her in a shipping container and warned her that she would lose her job if she left Iraq for medical treatment. The rape kit collected by military medical personnel was lost after it was turned over to Halliburton/KBR. The Pentagon has refused to investigate or to testify before Congress.
In allowing convicted rapists to be buried with full honors, the military continues to perpetuate the culture of impunity that allows soldiers to commit sexual violence with little worry of being brought to justice. As Ream concludes, it is sadly ironic that even though rape and sexual violence are now considered war crimes, our own military persists in practices that perpetuate those crimes. Unfortunately, this is merely one more example of the misogyny implicit in military culture. Women’s bodies and lives have always been considered the spoils of war. The military’s continuing disregard and disrespect for the safety of women’s lives even within their own ranks, and in disregard of international law, should give us pause to wonder just whose freedom we are protecting.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer, activist and founder of the Feminist Peace Network.