Military Sexual Assault: Combat Isn't the Most Dangerous Place For Female Soldiers — Here's What Is

It’s a sad day in the United States of America when a five-term U.S. senator — also a former Navy pilot and nominee for president — feels compelled to dissuade young women from serving their country. That’s exactly what Senator John McCain says occurred recently when a woman came to him asking for him to give his unqualified support for her daughter joining the U.S. military. He said he could not. John McCain, former Vietnam P.O.W. and pillar of U.S. strategic and military leadership, telling a young American he did not support her joining the military. What’s wrong with this picture? 

The Department of Defense reports that one in three military women have been sexually assaulted. One VA worker I interviewed estimated that 80% of the women he sees returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been sexually mistreated in some way. To put it bluntly, it isn’t completely safe for a woman to join the U.S. military. That’s a hard truth, and it’s something we must deal with now as one nation.

Sexual abuse of female soldiers will be one of the gravest threats to the U.S. military if left unaddressed. Not terrorist networks in Pakistan or Iran; not Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; not a nuclear-obsessed North Korea or a cyber-frenzied China, but sexual assault and misconduct.

The Pentagon has been busy dealing with scandals involving troops desecrating enemy corpses, incidents of fratricide (known as blue-on-blue and green-on-blue attacks), and other high-profile incidents of criminal misconduct. These offenses would not have created any fallout in a powerful military one thousand years ago, or five hundred, or even 50. But in today’s globalized world image is critical to an organization, especially one like the military. Sexual misconduct is one dire situation that the Pentagon must deal with if it is to maintain force cohesion and effectiveness. This challenge is an issue of conscience, and this one is equally important.

The nature of the accusations brought against some male servicemen is hard to fathom. So is the fact that many of those embroiled in scandals of sexual misconduct are at the highest levels of leadership in the intelligence and defense communities. The charges are violent, they are degrading, and they are disgusting. How can we ask allies to make future moral strategic decisions to protect or defend the interests of the U.S., when we can’t stop predatory soldiers from violently raping women?

General George Patton famously said, “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.” Those words are especially prophetic as our nation attempts to stanch the bleeding created by sexual misconduct in our armed forces by a rotten few. To translate Patton’s words and apply it to the current situation, working hard now to ferret out those responsible for perpetrating and covering up crimes against women in the military will make the force more cohesive, more effective, and more focused on winning future fights. The harder we work at this now, the less our men and women will bleed in war.

America cannot afford to have a patriotic senator warning against joining the military, and we certainly can’t have a military culture that shelters male officers from the consequences they deserve. That culture needs to be turned on its head and shaken until all the embers of violence and egotism fall to the ground. Americans should be vocal in support for new legislation that fights back against abuse and violence towards servicewomen.