War Stories

I've really got to hand it to the Department of Defense. When it comes to Orwellian doublespeak they are truly masters. Remember the MX missiles that were called "Peacekeepers"? Or the ongoing "liberation" of Iraq? Even the whole name of the agency is a public-relations coup: it used to be called the Department of War, after all. But this week I heard a new euphemism. The military doesn't use the term "rape." They prefer "unprofessional gender-related behavior."

Such unprofessional behavior, it seems, has been going on not just on military campuses, but on the field of battle, as well. At a hearing Wednesday of a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, military representatives said that 112 cases of sexual misconduct, including rapes, have been reported to them over the last 18 months in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. That's just what's been reported to the military--not civilian rape-crisis centers. Combined with calls to the nonprofit Miles Foundation, which provides services to military victims of violence, the numbers are closer to 170. Just to be clear: this is soldier-on-soldier rape. Also labeled in the military at times as "fraternization" and even "adultery."

There was nothing fraternal about what happened to Danielle, an Army intelligence sergeant. As first reported in The Denver Post--which prompted the hearing and a DoD report due April 30--this young woman from Fort Lewis, Wash., had been in Camp Udairi, Kuwait, for just a few weeks when she was knocked unconscious while stepping into a latrine. She awoke to find herself bound, gagged, blindfolded and being raped by a man with an American accent. To make matters worse--if that's possible--she says she was denied counseling and asked to take a polygraph test.

All too often the military is tone-deaf when it comes to sexual assault. Simply look at Wednesday's hearing. Rather than present ideas for prevention or treatment, the DoD representatives showed up proudly carting the "Armed Forces 2002 Sexual Harassment Survey." Then they showed a slide show in which they argued that sexual assault has actually declined--even though the mail-in survey had about a one-third response rate and didn't take any of the recent cases into account. "No one really knows if the rate is going up or down," explains Miles Foundation head Christine Hansen, who questions the survey's methodology. What's more, it is two years out of date--a fact not lost on Sen. John Warner, who chairs the full committee. "Why in the world did it take two years to take a survey?" he wanted to know.

Surveys, of course, rely on people to speak up. The National Victim Center estimates that only 16 percent of rape cases are ever reported. That's in civilian life. In the military, where reporting assault can hurt your career or get you ostracized, the rates may even be lower. In other words, the number of assaults may be even higher. That's why it seemed so encouraging to have the man in charge of the Pentagon's forthcoming report, David Chu, call on people to come forward. "We are eager to hear from those who believe there are remaining weaknesses we must address," Chu wrote in USA Today. "Their willingness to share specific details, not just general concerns or cases resolved long ago, will be essential in focusing our efforts on continuing improvement." But as of yet there is no hotline or 800 number to call, let alone a crisis counselor at the other end of it. (The Pentagon says they are scrambling to get one established in the next few days.)

For a military that boasts lightening-fast, precision technology, the DoD's bureaucracy can be plodding and unwieldy. Chu's deputy, Deputy Assistant Secretary Ellen Embrey, has her work cut out for her if she is going to make any progress by the April 30 deadline. She's been to Iraq on a fact-finding mission and her task force plans to conduct focus groups with commanders and soldiers in the next few weeks. Hopefully it will produce some immediate action and not just another survey. On her trip to Iraq, she certainly didn't pack any rape kits, which are only available at the big combat-support hospitals, not in the field. Nor did she bring with her a coterie of crisis counselors or victim advocates. At the hearing, Gen. George Casey of the Army explained that there were only six victim advocates at the division level. An Army division is at least 10,000 soldiers. "We believe this may not be adequate," he says. There was no irony in his voice.

Advocates say that spending this 90-day reporting period on focus groups, hearings and editorials shows that the military still doesn't see the urgency of the situation. Why the rush? Because the very statistics that the Pentagon loves show that it is during troop rotation that most of these assaults occur. Starting in March, massive numbers of troops will be rotating in and out of the region. Already nearly 60,000 female soldiers have rotated through. How many more will come forward to report unprofessional gender-related behavior remains to be seen.