When I was in high school I worked on the floor of a popular department store. I don’t remember a lot about selling economically-priced, aesthetically lackluster clothing. But a recent article in the New York Times reminded me of an intimate story relayed by a coworker all those years ago. A woman who I worked with, let’s call her Samantha, told me that before working retail, she’d served in the Military. When I asked her why she quit, her face became dark, her gaze retracted. She said that she had enjoyed the army, but that something terrible had occurred that rapidly ended her career. The story that followed was a surprising and sad.
One evening while Samantha was on base, in her room alone, she heard a knock at the door. As soon as she’d turned the handle the door flew open with great force and a group of 4 or 5 men, many whom she worked with, rushed into the room, locking the door behind them. Before she had a chance to understand what was happening, they proceeded to strip and rape her, each taking their turn. When they were done, they left her in a pile on the floor and walked out of the room. Samantha forced herself into the shower to rinse off, but fainted, slamming her head to the ground during the fall.
When she woke up she was being attended by an army doctor, the harsh medical lights shooting down on her face. She tried to explain what had happened to her—the attack, the rape—but no one seemed to listen. She felt heavy, like she was on drugs—they had sedated her. She said that while she was highly medicated they forced her to sign a document forbidding her from accusing her rapists. She realized then that her commander was in cahoots with her attackers and that her story would never be taken seriously. She was discharged from the military and refused the rights typically bestowed to service members.
I felt terrible for her, but what could I do? I wondered why this woman had chosen to tell me such a person story. How could something so terrible actually happen and go unpunished? The untouchable, insulated nature of the military became a frightening place in my mind. What happened in that world—acts of monstrosity—were not accountable to the civilian justice system that existed in my neighborhood, my workplace, my school.
Changing a Flawed System
As the years passed I slowly forgot Samantha and her story. But the whole interaction resurfaced in an instant when I read about a new proposal aimed at addressing the Military’s ongoing issue with sexual assault. Presented by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, the proposal aims to make it easier for men and women like Samantha to come forward with their stories with the confidence that their cases will be fairly tried. According to the current military prosecutorial structure, your own commander decides if your case is tried in court—which places a full stop on any chance of justice if your commander is your assaulter. If this power is withdrawn from commanders and bestowed on a more impartial party (military prosecutors), sex crimes can be reported with less fear of retaliation.
It seems that the topic of sexual assault in the military has been gaining momentum since a report on the subject was published by the Pentagon. As outlined in the NY Times, the report reveals that “an estimated 26,000 assaults took place in the armed services in 2012, most of them on women. Yet only a fraction of those attacks were reported and only 10 percent went to trial.” This is just last year! This is disgusting!
Resist the urge to think about the issue in terms of moral reform of rape-minded men and “slutty” women. Focus on the structural issues that are encouraging abusive behavior and discouraging victims from seeking support and justice. As Elspeth Reeve of the Atlantic explains, “The military’s problem is not that it’s filled with high-testosterone dudes. It’s that it’s a massive bureaucracy.” It is also important to consider that many of the assaults reported have male victims. This is not a women’s issue—it’s a human issue.
Support Senator Gillibrand, President Obama, Minnesota’s own Senator Amy Klobuchar, and the many other politicians and activists working to improve the military’s handling of sexual assault.