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Women in Combat: Lifting the ban sheds light on Military Sexual Trauma

During times of war, women, who felt qualified, volunteered to serve their country.  Women of all races have been fighting, killing, and dying in wars throughout the ages. The collective histories of these women are often unrewarded. Many of these women fought for equality in the armed forces despite sexual violence and gender discrimination. African American women have served, in spite of sexual violence, racial and gender discrimination. Despite their tripartite oppression, African American women are a critical source of new recruits in the U.S. Military. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the heroism and gallantry of these patriotic women are “contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending this nation…They serve, they’re wounded and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality.” It appears that their sacrifices will not be in vain.

Earlier this year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban that denied women equality in combat roles. By lifting the ban, women can now serve in the estimated 200,000 combat positions in the armed forces (www.defense.gov). According to Panetta, “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation.”  The decision to lift the ban, which will not be fully implemented until 2016, will allow up to 14 percent of women in the United States Military to fulfill jobs officially termed “combat”.  This is a significant victory for women in the armed forces, and for African American women in particular. Determined to serve, African American women are well represented in the U.S. Military. According to the 2011 New York Times article entitled Black Women Enlisting at Higher Rates in the US Military, a study by the Pew Research Center found that “of the 167,000 enlisted women in the military, 31 percent are Black, twice their percentage in the civilian female population…White women, by comparison, represent 53% of women in the military, while accounting for 78 percent of the civilian female population.” The lifting of the ban by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Panetta acknowledges the significant roles women have played in the U.S. Military, in general, and African American women, in particular. Yet, it fails to adequately address the sexual violence women experience in the armed forces by their fellow soldiers.

While the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Panetta have taken actions to guarantee women are granted a more equal role in the military, a point that needs emphasizing is that they have failed to reduce the frequency of sexual assaults and rapes of women in the military. Rape and sexual assault of women is so rampant, that the Department of Veteran Affairs refers to the experiences as Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  Military Sexual Trauma is defined by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”

According to the Military Rape Crisis Center website (http://militaryrapecrisiscenter.org/) in March 2013, “The United States Coast Guard Academy reports 10% of all female cadet’s experienced unwanted sexual contact, a 2% increase from the previous year.”  In 2012, the Service Women’s Action Network website  reported that “30% of homeless women veteran VHA users screened positive for MST, in 2010 alone, as well as 108,121 veterans screened positive for MST, and 45.7% of these survivors were men.”  Not to mention, the Department of Defense believes that the actual number of sexual assaults is highly underreported; the actual numbers are closer to 19,000 assaults annually. If the Department of Defense is right, then it is undeniable that they are not taking a strong enough position to protect women in the United States armed forces from rape, sexual assault, and/or sexual harassment at the hands of the very men they stand beside in the armed forces. According to the Feministe website, in a 2010 article entitled, Class Action Against U.S. Military On Behalf of Sexual Assault Survivors, “over 90% of all females that report sexual assault are discharged from the military before their contract ends. From the 90%, around 85% are discharged against their wishes.” Often these women are discharged and are unable to receive VA benefits and mental health services for MST.

My own view is that the effort of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Secretary to increase women’s combat roles is being taken, at least in part, to help reduce the frequency of sexual assault on women in general, and African American women, in particular.  As I searched the web, I was unable to find statistics on the racial breakdown of women who are sexually assaulted. Yet, we know that Black women are a large part of the Armed Forces, thus, they represent a large percentage of the rapes and sexual assaults in the military. By lifting the ban, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense hope that as women move up in rank and file in the military, the odds of rape and sexual assault will decrease.  There is some evidence to suggest that this effort will be effective. According to a report by Anne Sandler et.al in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine entitled Factors Associated with Women’s Risk of Rape in the Military Environment, states “For a respondent to be one of the first women to perform a traditionally male job, nearly doubled the odds of rape overall” among women who served in the armed forces before the Persian Gulf War (PGW). However, for PGW-era veterans, being one of the first women to perform a traditionally male job was associated with lower odds of rape (0.75 for PGW vs. 3.0 for prior eras).”  Although this evidence seems promising, the U.S. Military will need to do more to eliminate sexual violence, gender and racial discrimination of women in the military.

It is my hope that lifting the ban will lead to a revolutionary shift in consciousness that will help men see women as equals, and in turn, reframe the military culture. Although I agree that gender neutral combat roles is a step in the right direction, I not sure that signing a bill is going to be enough.  I am not convinced that by allowing the large number of women in the military to serve in front line combat positions and potentially elite commando roles will create shared experiences and camaraderie that will stop men from raping, sexually assaulting, and/or sexually harassing women in general, and Black women in particular. We must require the U.S. military to do more. The brave women who serve the United States should not return home suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. We must also consider the broader effects of allowing military women to return to schools, churches, businesses, and communities suffering from the psychological trauma of Military Sexual Trauma. Are we prepared to live in world with thousands of women veterans suffering from combat trauma and the psychological trauma of MST? As a society, we must require the U.S. Military to articulate, implement and enforce standards that will eliminate all the unnecessary gender based barriers women experience in the military. The U.S. Military must cultivate a culture where the majority of women in the military can serve our country without the fear of being raped, sexually assaulted, and/or sexually harassed by a fellow soldier. As a country, we must show great courage, strength, and determination to make our armed forces safe for all soldiers. It is time for America to realize that both women and men are equally responsible for this country, and that it is our duty to protect and serve the men and women who sign up to fight for this country.

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

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