Sexual abuse in the military needs to be brought to light
There is a culture that condones sexual abuse of women in our military and it needs to be brought to light and changed.
Special to The Times
Uptown screening"Invisible War" will show at SIFF Cinema at Uptown in Seattle from Friday through July 19. The Friday and Saturday 6:30 p.m. screenings will be followed by Q&A with a survivor of military sexual assault.
THERE is a culture of abuse toward women in our military and it needs to be brought to light and changed. That culture includes a sense of entitlement among some male servicemen who believe they can take what they want from women service members through rank, coercion and violence.
I was an operating-room nurse for the U.S. Army in Cu Chi during the Vietnam War. Over the past six years, I interviewed more than 55 women veterans from World War II to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I met several women survivors of military sexual assault who were interviewed for "The Invisible War," a documentary film that opens at Uptown Theater on Friday. The film, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, won the Golden Space Needle Award for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival last month.
In my interviews, I heard many horrific experiences of sexual assault, rape, and even gang rape followed by punishment. From an 85-year-old World War II veteran to a woman in her 20s, I heard the same message: "We are here to service the men sexually, that is what is expected."
An army cook told me, "I felt betrayed and made the criminal. I felt like a prisoner of war instead of a woman soldier who was gang-raped."
A picture emerged of a cover-up within every branch of the military hiding the most heinous behavior of its male service members, a systemic failure to protect women in the military and an overarching protocol that punishes women and promotes rapists.
There were 3,191 reports of sexual assault in the military last year, a slight increase compared with 2010, according to the Pentagon. Because 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults were never reported, the Pentagon estimated the real number of sexual assaults was about 19,000. The problem today has been going on since World War II and it is worse than ever.
A federal lawsuit filed in March claims the Defense Department failed to take aggressive steps to confront the problem of military sexual assault. Two women in that lawsuit — one a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq war veteran, the other a Marine Corps officer — tell their devastating and emotional stories in "Invisible War."
Covering up criminal negligence is in itself a crime. When an institution like the U.S. military places itself above the law — proclaiming it stands for honor and integrity, while being accomplices to criminal activity and cover-ups — it needs to be stopped. There seemed to be no motivation on the part of the military to alter the culture of abuse toward women until April.
After being shown "The Invisible War," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced all sexual-assault complaints would now be handled by senior officers, such as colonels or Navy captains, rather than unit commanders. He is also examining the training for handling sexual-assault cases.
These are welcome changes and Panetta's personal interest in this issue may be what is needed to positively affect the culture of abuse, even though much more will be required.
Congress and the public must keep the pressure on to cause great change in the military. Our commander in chief and congressional leaders must be fully committed to seeking the complete truth. They must show the same courage these women showed in telling their stories. Silence equals support for this despicable behavior.Sarah L. Blum is a nurse psychotherapist and decorated Vietnam veteran. She lives in Auburn and is author of the upcoming book "Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military."