Like tens of thousands of other women who joined up during the past decade, Gena Smith stands at a crossroads with a U.S. military that must decide whether it will continue to tolerate sexual discrimination and even rape within its ranks.

Smith says she suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and that her personal history illustrates that women travel rough terrain in today’s Army. The former Army intelligence specialist, now 29 years old, was serving in Iraq in 2006 when she was ordered out of her co-ed unit and loaned to a Stryker brigade, an infantry battalion of all men. The brigade was moving into Baqubah, which had been declared by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, to be the capital of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

For the next 15 months, Spc. Smith slept on dusty concrete, engaged the enemy with her M4 rifle (she believes she made one kill) and exercised her intelligence skills. She will not elaborate, but she does say that once she “deduced the location of an enemy attack on our base [which] led to the arrest of 30 or so insurgents, and the capture of their weapons, explosives and vehicles.”

While Smith was on a patrol in Baqubah, a buried explosive lifted a 20-ton Stryker armored vehicle into the air. An ambush followed, and Americans were injured. Smith’s platoon was soon holed up in a house and pinned down by snipers. Inside, an Iraqi mother gave her some information, and the specialist raced off to her commanding officer to pass it along, but he didn’t want to hear anything — yet. “He wouldn’t let me brief him until I got some tea for him and the [male] soldiers on the roof,” she says. “So I had to serve tea in a firefight. Carrying a tray with 10 glasses of tea up three flights of stairs when people are shooting at you is kind of hilariously difficult.”

She can find a bitter smile in that memory, but there were other gender-related incidents that Smith, the only female in the platoon, had to endure that contained not a trace of humor. “The sexual harassment was constant during the whole deployment,” she says.

At times the abuse became physical and violent. She says that sometimes her crotch was grabbed and that several times the sexual violation was terrifyingly worse: She says she was raped by men whom she described as junior enlisted infantry.

Smith accepts what happened and is trying to move on. She is not vengeful. She feels she is, in a way, a pioneer who was ordered into war out of necessity and helped pave the way for future women soldiers taking a role in combat.

“I don’t want to demonize our unit or our base. Not all of them were animals. This problem is about military culture in general,” Smith says. “It’s a boys’ club and there was a lot of anger towards me because I wasn’t them.”

Smith, who writes Regular Fury, a graphic and pain-filled blog about her military experiences, has been asked many times why she never sought justice after being raped in a combat zone. She replies, “I wasn’t threatened about the consequences of reporting it, [but] I was led to believe that I would be a bad soldier if I reported it.”

On her blog Smith wrote “I was shocked when I discovered how morbidly furious I am with myself” for not reporting the rapes or fighting off her attackers. She adds that she had thought she would die in Iraq and that “I was too afraid [during the rapes] to do anything to make them stop other than cry.”

The military has come a long way since Army Ranger Capt. Brian Mitchell’s 1989 book,“Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military,” was a best-seller and presumably a must-read within the military academies. Women are joining the military as never before, a trend that accelerated during this past decade of war, which was also a decade of high unemployment. The main reason Gena Smith enlisted was because she couldn’t find work in small-town Mississippi.

In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel, according to military documents. Today, that number is 14.3 percent, representing roughly 200,000 women, and when troop levels in the Iraq theater were at their highest there were four times more women there than during the 1991 Gulf War.

Women are fighting in combat. The Pentagon still bans female soldiers from combat roles, but only officially. Their bravery, at least, has been recognized. Since 9/11, women have garnered two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest decoration for extraordinary heroism while engaged in combat with the enemy. One hundred fifty U.S. military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq during the American military involvement in those two countries.

No doubt the military is increasingly relying on the female soldier, yet the Pentagon has been accused of fostering a culture of abuse as women in the ranks seek greater acceptance and respect.

The military, say women soldiers and their advocates, is indifferent to the entrenched problems of misogyny and sexual assault. Because of this, they say, some male soldiers believe they can treat the female soldier as though she has no legal rights.

“This matter [sexual assault] is a laughing stock among men in the military,” says Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel who quit the State Department in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has since dedicated herself to the struggle against rape in the military. “It’s a joke for the guys because they know they’ll never get prosecuted. The atmosphere in the military is you know you can get away with it.”

Here are the Defense Department’s own numbers: It estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred within the armed services in 2010 but that only 13.5 percent of those were reported, because victims in some cases either feared retaliation from commanding officers or believed nothing would come of a report.The DOD’s numbers also reveal that the military is soft when prosecuting what is now being called military sexual trauma, or MST. In 2007, only 600 out of 2,212 sexual assault cases reported and investigated to some degree resulted in suspects facing any sort of accountability. And out of the 600 cases, only 181 were recommended for court-martial, the equivalent of a criminal trial. This means that in those sexual assaults reported and investigated to some degree, only 8 percent of suspects faced potential prosecution.

The problem of MST apparently is not abating; the DOD’s “Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies” for 2010-11, published in late December, stated that reports were up 41 percent from the previous academic year.

The military in 2005 formed the first lead office to deal strictly with sexual assault, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO. It soon established a 24-hour global hotline, trained hundreds of sexual assault response coordinators, referred to as SARCs, and produced an elaborate media campaign to raise awareness.

Last Wednesday, Leon Panetta held a press conference at the Pentagon to announce a series of initiatives to curb sexual attacks in the military. The defense secretary called the assaults “an affront to the basic American values we defend and … a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families.”

The changes, which are limited in scope, are the first in a package to be advanced this year, and some elements of that package will require approval from Congress. [Click here to see an outline of the initiatives announced Wednesday.]

The most contentious issue surrounding MST is “re-victimization,” say female soldiers, who claim that commanding officers have a history of intimidating rape victims into silence.

SAPRO confronted re-victimization by establishing restricted and unrestricted reporting in 2005. Restricted reporting allows a victim to bypass the chain of command and report the assault to the SAPRO hotline or a chaplain. Once a restricted report is made, health counseling is initiated but an investigation of the incident is not triggered.

SAPRO believes restricted reporting has resulted in about 4,000 military members coming forward. But the Seattle-based advocacy group VETWOW, Veteran Women Organizing Women, points to the glaring drawback in the system: No investigation is initiated in response to such a report and the alleged perpetrator walks free and probably remains in the victim’s unit.

“Restricted reporting? It’s a joke,” says VETWOW Director Susan Avila-Smith.

Avila-Smith was an Army linguist who left the military after commanding officers refused to punish her husband, also a member of the Army, after he jumped on her stomach when she was pregnant. She says MST is equivalent to incest in some ways and is another reason the DOD needs to crack down.

“The military is your family. When you go into battle we’re like brothers and sisters. We would die for each other. But these same people will come into your room and rape you, and grope you, and think nothing of it. It’s like incest; it’s as if your brother sexually assaulted you. Then they act like it never happened. They flat out deny it and if the female were to pursue [charges], the military family says you should keep quiet, you shouldn’t pursue this, it was probably your fault anyway.”

Over the past year, several lawsuits were written in an effort to reform how sexual crimes are handled in the military. Yale Law School says it plans to file a suit alleging the military is surreptitiously promoting misogyny, while activist lawyer Susan Burke filed Cioca v. Rumsfeld, which charged the former secretary of defense with failing to take action against MST. That suit was dismissed by a federal judge in December.

Several members of Congress have heard the pleas of female soldiers. The most vocal of these officials is Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has given 14 House floor speeches on the issue and vowed to give more. She introduced a bill that would take away the chain of command’s responsibility to investigate and prosecute sexual crimes and instead place it within a civilian-run office independent of the military. That office would be called the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office.

Within 2012’s $660 billion defense spending bill, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote provisions that included requiring the Pentagon to provide legal service to victims, something the military had never offered.

And when it released its annual report on sexual assaults in the academies, the Pentagon made a policy change regarding unrestricted reporting. Victims who file an unrestricted report now can ask for a transfer out of their unit to get away from an alleged attacker.

Greg Jacob, the policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), says that despite the shortcomings in restricted reporting — defects that Congress recognizes — there is value in having a system that allows victims to come forward anonymously and get care.

“A lot of these folks are so traumatized they just want to get the help they need,” said Jacob, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “In a perfect world we would change the culture of the military to be friendlier to survivors so they feel comfortable demanding prosecution. And you would have a judicial system that would actually prosecute these folks at the rate they should be prosecuted, and you would have a judicial system that would issue punishments that would fit the crime, instead of a court giving a person a $500 fine and [sending] them back to work.”

The fight against sexual abuse in the military surely will be waged for years. For now, Gena Smith also wages war with her own personal problems. “Sometimes, I can’t believe my life,” she wrote on her blog. “Seriously, I want to track down my dumb-ass guardian angel and strangle that fucker.”

Until she finds her guardian angel, Smith must wrestle with earthly matters such as post-traumatic stress disorder and the fallout of military attitudes that victimize women soldiers. The abuses she has described have no place in the American military of the 21st century. No woman should have to accept being degraded as part of military service, and those who put their lives on the line should not have to worry about being sexually violated by their own comrades in arms after the gunfire stops.

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