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Does Military Service Turn Young Men Into Sexual Predators?
Posted on Oct 22, 2009
Penny Coleman, AlterNet
Tia Christopher, women veterans coordinator at Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, holds Dominguez, not Whitley, responsible for flouting congressional directives.
"I heard him claim that the reason sexual assaults are so high in the military right now is the hip-hop influence. I don’t need to spell out why I found that so offensive. I fault Dominguez for not recognizing that it is a leadership issue."
Christopher loves the military and calls it "a really beautiful machine" when it is working correctly. But she is a rape survivor, and she feels doubly betrayed by her superiors in the Navy. "They can respond to other situations, why not to sexual assault?"
Christopher was 18 when she joined the Navy, training to be a cryptologist. The night she was raped, she had been drinking.
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"But I saw him every day. I mustered with him. He would follow me into the chow hall and sit across from me while I ate. I stopped eating, couldn’t concentrate, started failing my courses. And I started having flashbacks, hallucinating. I thought I saw him everywhere."
Christopher finally realized she needed help, but the female petty officer she first spoke to got her chief involved and, as the report went up the chain of command, her nightmare just got bigger.
"In my case, there were witnesses. They heard my head hit the wall in the barracks room, but they were drinking [underage], too."
Her commanding officer promised them all immunity if they agreed to testify on her behalf, and then reneged on the deal.
"It ended up that they all got in trouble, and [her rapist] got off." (In 2006, Christopher’s attacker was expelled from the military for another rape.)
"The last few months that I was in the service, I was assigned to X Division, mopping the stairs, cleaning the heads, picking hair out of the drains. It was my job to vacuum the different chief’s offices, and these sleazeballs would say things like, ‘Hey, Christopher, bend over when you’re sweeping.’ Or, ‘Hey Christopher, let me see them titties.’ When you come forward about a rape, basically you are just a slut."
Christopher left the military in 2001, and it took her a long time to get her life back together. She still has panic attacks, flashbacks, trouble sleeping. But, with help from a women’s psychotherapy group at the Seattle VA, and the rich support from sympathetic colleagues at Swords to Plowshares, she has developed a lot of coping skills.
After seven years, and some good therapy, she feels strong enough to manage her advocacy and policy work.
"I’ve testified before the California state legislature, and I was invited to testify before Congress. I speak out about MST as much as I do so other women don’t have to. This is not just my job. There is no way I would ever give my clients to the media. I remember what it was like, being fresh out of the service and going through that trauma."
Lisa Pellerin, who has facilitated sex-offender programs for the New York State Department of Corrections for six years, believes that "everyone has the potential to be a sex offender. It depends on how they have been conditioned. When they are in the military, supporting the brotherhood is the most important thing. Soldiers do what they feel they have to do because they don’t want to be seen as weak or unable to perform.
"Sexual abuse has always been about power and control. If you are exposed and desensitized to certain sexual behaviors, they become normalized."
One of the most basic conditioning strategies military training uses to destabilize a recruit’s inherent disinclination to kill is the inculcation of a dehumanized enemy. Soldiers are taught that "we" are the good guys; "they" are the "others." "They" are easier to kill because they are not us. They are also easier to despise. "Others"—the nips, the gooks, the hajis—come and go, but ever reliable and constant is "the girl."
Even in this new 20 percent female military, misogynist marching rhymes (aka jodies) are still used, and drill instructors still shame recruits with taunts of pussy or sissy, faggot or girl. Patty McCann, who signed up with the Illinois National Guard when she was 17 and deployed to Iraq when she was 20, still feels betrayed when she remembers her drill sergeant yelling, "Does your pussy hurt?" and "Do you need a tampon?"
A culture that encourages violence and misogyny, says Helen Benedict, attracts a disproportionate number of sexually violent men: half of male recruits enlist to escape abusive families, a history that is often predictive of an abuser.
But whatever attracts them, and wherever they come from, this is about a system plagued by rot, and not about a few bad apples. American veterans embody the inevitable, predictable blowback from that rotten system.
It is both unjust and disingenuous to focus on what our soldiers have become without talking about what we have become: A society that romanticizes its warriors, demonizes its veterans and devalues its women.
"Did I serve my full enlistment?" Christopher says. "No. But that’s because some shitbag sailor who shouldn’t have been wearing the uniform came into my life. Why is that my issue?
"This is a leadership issue."
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