Women in Combat: Military Must Prioritize Sexual Assault Prevention

The passage of an act that allows women into combat units and the recent highlight of rape in the military can lead the public to wonder about questions of gender equality and the new division of labor for women in the United States Military. Sexual assault in the military and their resulting trauma are problems that the U.S. military must take head on if they wish to welcome more women into combat service.

In late January, news broke that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would be allowing female U.S. Army soldiers into combat roles. The change will open more than 230,000 new job roles for women, advancing the careers and opportunities for thousands. Commentators have noted that having women in active combat duties will increase the likelihood of them being injured in combat, while others have praised the new amount of equality that would be accorded to female soldiers.

This push towards equality came nearly at the same time that advocates for the rights of women abused in the armed forces rallied around the release of the documentary, The Invisible War. Service Women’s Action Network Executive Director Anu Bhagwati says “service members sacrifice some of their civil rights when they join the military,” and this could not be truer in the case of military sexual assault. The statistics for 2011 indicate that as many as 19,000 MSAs may have occurred that year.

The statistics of sexual assault have been increasingly higher, and point toward the debate over women’s new role in the military. The aforementioned statistics indicate that the number of rapes reported are high, and out of those, the number that result in reports, much less court marshals (but not prosecution or incarceration), are abysmally low. How will changes in active duty combat policy affect policies of sexual assault in the U.S. military? The inappropriate handling of MSA cases, and the difficulties female soldiers face in seeking help, can leave the public wondering if MSAs will increase with the number of women now allowed to participate in active combat tours.

The problem of rape in the military remains an issue that is entrenched in the misogynistic, hierarchical nature of the establishment. A positive effect of the lift in active duty combat roles is that the opportunity for more women to serve in the higher leadership and command positions will decrease the number of assaults that occur each year.

Despite policies indicating that expedited transfers and external mental health counseling are available, the reality of intimidation and punitive actions by the assailant (who are sometimes supervisors or higher ranking soldiers) results in low reporting rates. The cases that are reported can be easily ignored by higher command, who often side with the assailant. 

The legislative steps issued by Secretary Panetta will ensure that claims of sexual assault are handled by senior officers, but substantive change remains to be seen. Despite the legislature, women serving active duty tours will still be vulnerable in the battlefield if they are raped, coerced into silence, and threatened to be discharged once they break it. Without access to resources and unable to transfer, their mental health might deteriorate while serving long and difficult tours.

The mental health of the survivors of military sexual assault should not be an issue that is relegated to outside organizations, such as SWAN and the Military Rape Crisis Center. A step in this direction is the Ruth Moore Act of 2013. The Act was introduced in Congress this past February by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to ensure that service women are able to receive disability ratings from the Veteran Affairs Department. The Act would expedite military sexual assault survivor’s access to mental health resources.

A paradigm shift in the U.S. military would ensure that female combat soldiers are respected and allowed to perform their duties. A change in attitude about the value of the work of female soldiers, more women in higher command positions, and sweeping changes in the structure of basic military training can combat the sexist organizational. In the long run, this may lead to dramatic changes in the number of military sexual assault cases.