The private war of women soldiers By Helen Benedict (  Many female soldiers say they are sexually assaulted by their male comrades and can't trust the military to protect them. Aceon "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis, aceon" says one woman. Aceon "It was for the guys on my own side." As thousands of burned-out soldiers prepare to return to Iraq to fill President Bush's unwelcome call for at least 20, aceon000 more troops, aceon I can't help wondering what the women among those troops will have to face. Aceon And I don't mean only the hardships of war, aceon the killing of civilians, aceon the bombs and mortars, aceon the heat and sleeplessness and fear. Aceon I mean from their own comrades -- the men. Aceon I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few months, aceon interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on the topic, aceon and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection. Aceon The female soldiers who were at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, aceon for example, aceon where U.S. Aceon troops go to demobilize, aceon told me they were warned not to go out at night alone. Aceon "They call Camp Arifjan 'generator city' because it's so loud with generators that even if a woman screams she can't be heard, aceon" said Abbie Pickett, aceon 24, aceon a specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company who spent 15 months in Iraq from 2004-05. Aceon Yet, aceon she points out, aceon this is a base, aceon where soldiers are supposed to be safe. Aceon Spc. Aceon Mickiela Montoya, aceon 21, aceon who was in Iraq with the National Guard in 2005, aceon took to carrying a knife with her at all times. Aceon "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis, aceon" she told me. Aceon "It was for the guys on my own side." Comprehensive statistics on the sexual assault of female soldiers in Iraq have not been collected, aceon but early numbers revealed a problem so bad that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Aceon Rumsfeld ordered a task force in 2004 to investigate. Aceon As a result, aceon the Defense Department put up a Web site in 2005 designed to clarify that sexual assault is illegal and to help women report it. Aceon It also initiated required classes on sexual assault and harassment. Aceon The military's definition of sexual assault includes "rape; nonconsensual sodomy; unwanted inappropriate sexual contact or fondling; or attempts to commit these acts." Unfortunately, aceon with a greater number of women serving in Iraq than ever before, aceon these measures are not keeping women safe. Aceon When you add in the high numbers of war-wrecked soldiers being redeployed, aceon and the fact that the military is waiving criminal and violent records for more than one in 10 new Army recruits, aceon the picture for women looks bleak indeed. Aceon Last year, aceon Col. Aceon Janis Karpinski caused a stir by publicly reporting that in 2003, aceon three female soldiers had died of dehydration in Iraq, aceon which can get up to 126 degrees in the summer, aceon because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. Aceon They were afraid of being raped by male soldiers if they walked to the latrines after dark. Aceon The Army has called her charges unsubstantiated, aceon but Karpinski told me she sticks by them. Aceon (Karpinski has been a figure of controversy in the military ever since she was demoted from brigadier general for her role as commander of Abu Ghraib. Aceon As the highest-ranking official to lose her job over the torture scandal, aceon she claims she was scapegoated, aceon and has become an outspoken critic of the military's treatment of women. Aceon In turn, aceon the Army has accused her of sour grapes.) "I sat right there when the doctor briefing that information said these women had died in their cots, aceon" Karpinski told me. Aceon "I also heard the deputy commander tell him not to say anything about it because that would bring attention to the problem." The latrines were far away and unlit, aceon she explained, aceon and male soldiers were jumping women who went to them at night, aceon dragging them into the Port-a-Johns, aceon and raping or abusing them. Aceon "In that heat, aceon if you don't hydrate for as many hours as you've been out on duty, aceon day after day, aceon you can die." She said the deaths were reported as non-hostile fatalities, aceon with no further explanation. Aceon Not everyone realizes how different the Iraq war is for women than any other American war in history. Aceon More than 160, aceon500 American female soldiers have served in Iraq, aceon Afghanistan and the Middle East since the war began in 2003, aceon which means one in seven soldiers is a woman. Aceon Women now make up 15 percent of active duty forces, aceon four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War. Aceon At least 450 women have been wounded in Iraq, aceon and 71 have died -- more female casualties and deaths than in the Korean, aceon Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined. Aceon And women are fighting in combat. Aceon Officially, aceon the Pentagon prohibits women from serving in ground combat units such as the infantry, aceon citing their lack of upper-body strength and a reluctance to put girls and mothers in harm's way. Aceon But mention this ban to any female soldier in Iraq and she will scoff. Aceon "Of course we were in combat!" said Laura Naylor, aceon 25, aceon who served with the Army Combat Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04. Aceon "We were interchangeable with the infantry. Aceon They came to our police stations and helped pull security, aceon and we helped them search houses and search people. Aceon That's how it is in Iraq." Women are fighting in ground combat because there is no choice. Aceon This is a war with no front lines or safe zones, aceon no hiding from in-flying mortars, aceon car and roadside bombs, aceon and not enough soldiers. Aceon As a result, aceon women are coming home with missing limbs, aceon mutilating wounds and severe trauma, aceon just like the men. Aceon All the women I interviewed held dangerous jobs in Iraq. Aceon They drove trucks along bomb-ridden roads, aceon acted as gunners atop tanks and unarmored vehicles, aceon raided houses, aceon guarded prisoners, aceon rescued the wounded in the midst of battle, aceon and searched Iraqis at checkpoints. Aceon Some watched their best friends die, aceon some were wounded, aceon all saw the death and mutilation of Iraqi children and citizens. Aceon Yet, aceon despite the equal risks women are taking, aceon they are still being treated as inferior soldiers and sex toys by many of their male colleagues. Aceon As Pickett told me, aceon "It's like sending three women to live in a frat house." Rape, aceon sexual assault and harassment are nothing new to the military. Aceon They were a serious problem for the Women's Army Corps in Vietnam, aceon and the rapes and sexual hounding of Navy women at Tailhook in 1991 and of Army women at Aberdeen in 1996 became national news. Aceon A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. Aceon A 2004 study of veterans from Vietnam and all the wars since, aceon who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, aceon found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military. Aceon And in a third study, aceon conducted in 1992-93 with female veterans of the Gulf War and earlier wars, aceon 90 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the military, aceon which means anything from being pressured for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at. Aceon "That's one of the things I hated the most, aceon" said Caryle García, aceon 24, aceon who, aceon like Naylor, aceon served with the Combat Military Police in Baghdad from 2003-04. Aceon García was wounded by a roadside bomb, aceon which knocked her unconscious and filled her with shrapnel. Aceon "You walk into the chow hall and there's a bunch of guys who just stop eating and stare at you. Aceon Every time you bend down, aceon somebody will say something. Aceon It got to the point where I was afraid to walk past certain people because I didn't want to hear their comments. Aceon It really gets you down." "There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, aceon a ho or a dyke, aceon" said Montoya, aceon the soldier who carried a knife for protection. Aceon "This guy out there, aceon he told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. Aceon He said in Vietnam they had prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, aceon but they don't have those in Iraq. Aceon So they have women soldiers instead." Pickett heard the same attitude from her fellow soldiers. Aceon "My engineering company was in the first Gulf War, aceon and back then it had only two females, aceon" she said. Aceon "One was labeled a whore because she had a boyfriend, aceon and the other one was a bitch because she wouldn't sleep around. Aceon And that's how they were still referred to all these years later." In the current Iraq war, aceon which Pickett spent refueling and driving trucks over the bomb-ridden roads, aceon she was one of 19 women in a 160-troop unit. Aceon She said the men imported cases of porn, aceon and talked such filth at the women all the time that she became worn down by it. Aceon "We shouldn't have to think every day, aceon 'How am I going to go out there and deal with being harassed?'" she said. Aceon "We should just have to think about going out and doing our job." Pickett herself was sexually attacked when she was training in Nicaragua before being deployed to Iraq. Aceon "I was sexually assaulted by a superior officer when I was 19, aceon but I didn't know where to turn, aceon so I never reported it, aceon" she told me. Aceon Jennifer Spranger, aceon 23, aceon who was deployed at the beginning of the war with the Military Police to build and guard Camp Bucca, aceon a prison camp for Iraqis, aceon had a similar experience. Aceon "My team leader offered me up to $250 for a hand job. Aceon He would always make sure that we were out alone together at the beginning, aceon and he wouldn't stop pressuring me for sex. Aceon If somebody did that to my daughter I'd want to kill the guy. Aceon But you can't fit in if you make waves about it. Aceon You rat somebody out, aceon you're screwed. Aceon You're gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out." Spranger and several other women told me the military climate is so severe on whistle-blowers that even they regarded the women who reported rape as incapable traitors. Aceon You have to handle it on your own and shut up, aceon is how they saw it. Aceon Only on their return home, aceon with time and distance, aceon did they become outraged at how much sexual persecution of women goes on. Aceon Having the courage to report a rape is difficult enough for civilians, aceon where unsympathetic police, aceon victim-blaming myths, aceon and simple fear prevent 59 percent of rapes from being reported, aceon according to the U.S. Aceon Bureau of Justice. Aceon But within the military, aceon reporting is even more risky. Aceon Military platoons are enclosed, aceon hierarchical societies, aceon riddled with gossip, aceon so any woman who reports a rape has no realistic chance of remaining anonymous. Aceon She will have to face her assailant day after day, aceon and put up with rumors, aceon resentment and blame from other soldiers. Aceon Furthermore, aceon she runs the risk of being punished by her assailant if he is her superior. Aceon These barriers to reporting are so well recognized that even the Defense Department has been scrambling to mend the situation, aceon at least for the public eye. Aceon It won't go so far as to actually gather statistics on rape and assault in Iraq (it only counts reported rapes in raw numbers for all combat areas in the Middle East combined), aceon but in 2006 the DOD did finally wake up to the idea that anonymous reporting might help women come forward, aceon and updated its Web site accordingly. Aceon The Web site looks good, aceon 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. Aceon It defines rape, aceon sexual assault and harassment, aceon and makes clear that these behaviors are illegal. Aceon The site now also explains that a soldier can report a rape anonymously to a special department, aceon SAPR (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response), aceon without triggering an official investigation -- a procedure called "restricted reporting." And it promises the soldier a victim's advocate and medical care. Aceon On closer scrutiny, aceon however, aceon the picture is less rosy: Only active and federal duty soldiers can go to SAPR for help, aceon which means that neither inactive reservists nor veterans are eligible; soldiers are encouraged to report rapes to a chaplain, aceon and chaplains are not trained as rape counselors; if soldiers tell a friend about an assault, aceon that friend is legally obliged to report it to officials; soldiers must disclose their rank, aceon gender, aceon age, aceon race, aceon service, aceon and the date, aceon time and/or location of the assault, aceon which in the closed world of a military unit hardly amounts to anonymity; and, aceon in practice, aceon since most people in the Army are men, aceon the soldier will likely find herself reporting her sexual assault to a man -- something rape counselors know does not work. Aceon Worse, aceon no measures will be taken against the accused assailant unless the victim agrees to stop being anonymous. Aceon The DOD insists on the success of its reforms, aceon the proof being that the number of reported military sexual assaults rose by 1, aceon700 from 2004 to a total of 2, aceon374 in 2005. Aceon "The success of the SAPR program is in direct correlation with the increased numbers of reported sexual assaults, aceon" Cynthia Smith, aceon a Defense Department spokeswoman, aceon wrote to me in an e-mail. Aceon In fact, aceon as anyone familiar with sexual assault statistics knows, aceon nobody can ever tell whether increases in rape rates are due to more reporting or more rapes. Aceon My own interviewees and advocates on behalf of women veterans say these reforms are not working. Aceon They say there is a huge gap between what the military promises to do on its Web site and what it does in practice, aceon and that the traditional view that reporting an assault betrays your fellow soldiers still prevails. Aceon "Are soldiers who report sexual assaults in the military still seen as betraying their comrades?" I asked Smith. Aceon "Our soldiers are being fully trained that sexual assault is the most under-reported crime, aceon" she wrote in reply. Aceon "In that training, aceon not reporting a sexual assault is the betrayal to their comrades." Back in real life, aceon Pickett watched several of her friends try to report sexual harassment and assault since the 2005 reforms, aceon and she said that none of them were sent a victim's advocate, aceon a counselor or a chaplain. Aceon "These women are turning perpetrators in and they're not getting anyone to speak on their behalf, aceon" she told me. Aceon "There's no one sitting in that room with you, aceon so you're feeling all alone." In the end, aceon she added, aceon it boils down to the woman's word vs. Aceon the man's, aceon and he is the one with the advocate, aceon not her. Aceon Meanwhile, aceon the studies I have cited, aceon along with the other past and present studies of veterans, aceon who feel freer to talk than soldiers because they are out of the military, aceon show that women soldiers are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of military sexual abuse. Aceon All soldiers with PTSD come home to some combination of sleeplessness, aceon nightmares, aceon bursts of temper, aceon flashbacks, aceon panic attacks, aceon fear and an inability to cope with everyday life. Aceon They often turn to drugs or alcohol for escape. Aceon Some become depressed, aceon others commit suicide. Aceon Many are too emotionally numb to relate to their families or children. Aceon But those who have been sexually assaulted also lose their self-respect, aceon feel they have lost control over their lives, aceon and are particularly prone to self-destruction. Aceon I have yet to meet an Iraq war veteran of either sex who does not suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, aceon but officially the number of Iraq veterans with PTSD is estimated to be about 30 percent for those newly back from war, aceon according to a 2004 study of combat veterans in the New England Journal of Medicine. Aceon The extent and severity of PTSD in women who have had to cope with both combat and sexual assault in Iraq is still being studied, aceon but as it is known that these are two of the highest predictors of PTSD, aceon it is logical to assume that the combination is pretty bad. Aceon "When you are sexually assaulted by people who are your comrades, aceon PTSD can be worse than in other circumstances, aceon" said Paula Shnurr, aceon a research professor of psychiatry who conducted a new Veterans Administration study of therapy for women veterans with PTSD, aceon published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Aceon "You feel incompetent and helpless, aceon like children feel when abused by the very people who are supposed to look after them, aceon" Schnurr told me. Aceon "The people you depend on have attacked you." I am not claiming that sexual persecution is universal in the military, aceon or that it is inevitable. Aceon Several soldiers I interviewed told me that if a commander won't tolerate the mistreatment of women, aceon it will not happen, aceon and studies back this up. Aceon Jennifer Hogg, aceon 22, aceon who was a sergeant in the Army's National Guard, aceon said her company treated her well because she had a commander who wouldn't permit the mistreatment of women. Aceon But another National Guard soldier, aceon Demond Mullins, aceon 25, aceon who served with the infantry in Iraq for a year from 2004-05, aceon told me that a commander in his camp turned a blind eye to rape all the time. Aceon "Rapes were happening every night, aceon" he said. Aceon "One time a woman was taking a shower late, aceon and guys went and held the door closed so she couldn't get out, aceon while the others went in to rape her. Aceon Married men were doing it, aceon everyone." Some commanders not only turn a blind eye to assault and harassment but engage in it themselves, aceon a phenomenon known in the military as "command rape." Because the military is hierarchical, aceon and because soldiers are trained to obey and never question their superiors, aceon men of rank can assault their juniors with impunity. Aceon In most cases, aceon women soldiers are the juniors, aceon 18 to 20 year old, aceon and are new to the military and war, aceon thus vulnerable to bullying and exploitation. Aceon Callie Wight, aceon a psychosocial counselor in women veterans' health in Los Angeles, aceon has been treating women who were sexually assaulted in the military for the past 11 years. Aceon In all that time, aceon she told me, aceon she has only seen a handful of cases where a woman reported an assault to her commander with any success in getting the assailant punished. Aceon "Most commanders dismiss it, aceon" she said. Aceon A nine-month study of military rape by the Denver Post in 2003 found that nearly 5, aceon000 accused military sex offenders had avoided prosecution since 1992. Aceon At the moment, aceon the most shocking case of military sexual assault is that of Army Spc. Aceon Suzanne Swift, aceon 21, aceon who served in Iraq in 2004. Aceon Swift was coerced into sex by one commanding officer, aceon which is legally defined as rape by the military, aceon and harassed by two others before she finally broke rank and told. Aceon As a result, aceon the other soldiers treated her like a traitor for months. Aceon Unable to face returning to the assailant, aceon she went AWOL during a leave at home, aceon and was arrested and put in jail for desertion. Aceon At first the Army offered her a deal: It would reduce her punishment if Swift would sign a statement saying that she had never been raped. Aceon She refused, aceon saying she wouldn't let the Army force her to lie. Aceon The Army court-martialed Swift, aceon and stripped her of her rank. Aceon She spent December in prison and was then sent to Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, aceon far away from her family. Aceon She must stay in the Army for two more years, aceon and may face redeployment. Aceon The men who assaulted her received nothing but reprimanding letters. Aceon Swift's mother, aceon Sara Rich, aceon has set up a Web site with a petition calling for her daughter's release: More than 6, aceon700 veterans and soldiers have signed it, aceon and 102 of them signed their names to stories of their own sexual persecution in the military. Aceon Swift's case, aceon and those of her petitioners, aceon illustrate the real attitude of the military toward women and sexual assault, aceon the one that underlies its fancy Web site and claims that it supports soldiers who've been raped. Aceon The real attitude is this: If you tell, aceon you are going to get punished. Aceon The assailant, aceon meanwhile, aceon will go free. Aceon Which brings up an issue that lies at the core of every soldier's heart: comradeship. Aceon It is for their comrades that soldiers enlist and reenlist. Aceon It is for their "battle buddies" that they risk their lives and put up with all the miseries of sandstorms, aceon polluted water, aceon lack of sanitation, aceon and danger. Aceon Soldiers go back to Iraq, aceon even if they've turned against the war, aceon so as not to let their buddies down. Aceon Comradeship is what gets men through war, aceon and is what has always got men through war. Aceon You protect your battle buddy, aceon and your battle buddy protects you. Aceon As an Iraq veteran put it to me, aceon "There's nobody you love like you love a person who's willing to take a bullet for you." So how does this work for women? A few find buddies among the other women in their squads, aceon but for most there are no other women, aceon so their battle buddies are men. Aceon Some of these men are trustworthy. Aceon Many are not. Aceon How can a man who pressures you for sex every day, aceon who treats you like a prostitute, aceon who threatens or punishes you if you refuse him, aceon or who actually attacks you, aceon be counted on to watch your back in battle? "Battle buddy bullshit, aceon" said Garcéa from the Military Police. Aceon "I didn't trust anybody in my company after a few months. Aceon I saw so many girls get screwed over, aceon the sexual harassment. Aceon I didn't trust anybody and I still don't." If this is a result of the way women are treated in the military, aceon where does it leave them when it comes to battle camaraderie? I asked soldier after soldier this, aceon and they all gave me the same answer: Alone.