Rape in the Military: It Is Time for Real Change
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Rape in the Military: It Is Time for Real Change

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | May 20, 2013 | Comments ()


A week or so ago, I was watching "Real Time with Bill Maher," and toward the end of the hour, the host started a discussion about sexual assault in the military with the headline about Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinsk, the officer in charge of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Program recently arrested for groping a female in a parking lot. Maher stated that the country has been under the mistaken impression that progress is being made, when in fact, attacks are already up 7,000 from the previous year (October 2011- September 2012) . Only a few days ago, more reports involving the Army's prevention officers were brought to light. This raises the question: Will people at the top of the chain of command finally do something that will really change the way the military handles rape and sexual assault? While the Armed Services Committee and others in high places have come at this issue by assessing factors and "causes," training and education, and with optimism that greater reporting will lead to "accountability and transparency," what really needs to be looked at is the military system of law.

When I joined the military somewhat out of desperation (like many other people do), I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. And no matter how I may attempt to explain the basic training experience, I've become unsure it's something that words alone can convey. There are films (Biloxi Blues, An Officer and a Gentleman, Full Metal Jacket) that have tried, and some of them do give people a peek into one aspect of the experience, but there's really no way to give the whole of it a true, complete picture. I could tell you about getting off the bus at Fort McClellan, Alabama with two giant suitcases, drill sergeants screaming their first instructions to our group: "Do not let your bags touch the ground, or you'll be down there next to them, knocking out push-ups!" Terrified, and never having done a push-up in my life, I stood with my overpacked luggage, tears rolling down my cheeks; my bags stayed up. I could tell you that from that moment on, morning till night, every moment of this naive recruit's time was spent being indoctrinated, examined, picked apart, called names, filled with information, collecting equipment, clothing and instruction; told what to do every second of every day. We were told to use the bathroom, how long it could take, when to shower, get up (hello metal trash cans rolling down the aisle); put in line to eat, given five minutes to shove down whatever food we could, sent running, marching, hiking, climbing over, under, through; told when to smoke, where to look, where not to look, what to say, when we could speak and to whom; above all, our minds were being broken down so we would follow orders without question--without even thinking. But even if I tell you that and more, you still wouldn't entirely understand--it is a system of brainwashing one can only perceive through experience. One of the first things drilled into recruits is the hierarchy of rank; "respect" (fear) of any rank higher than one's own is mandated and ingrained. And of course this chain of command is necessary for the military to be effective on the battlefield, but because of the way things work, it also sets up a system of abuse.

Toward the end of my eight weeks of basic training, before advancing to military police Advanced Individual Training (AIT), there was a post "field day" of sports and competition, and part of our unit was assigned to do the equipment set-up and clean-up. A group from my platoon reported to a supply Sergeant Major (SGM) for the day, and we set about whatever tasks he gave us to do. The SGM was different from our drill sergeants; more at ease, soft spoken and friendly, joking around with us and our group had plenty of down time in between jobs; it was a more relaxed day than any of us was used to. It was a good day, until it wasn't. When everything had been cleaned up, electrical wires all rewound, lighting and equipment gathered, the SGM asked me to help him return some boxes to a classroom. I followed him through several hallways, to the door of a classroom he unlocked, went inside and then turned around as he closed the door behind us. We put down the boxes, and he came toward me, starting a conversation by asking about my family. I felt strange as he got very close to me; I wasn't used to anyone of high rank speaking so intimately, and then as he talked about how much I must be missing home and feeling alone, my heart started pounding in fear. He put his arm around me and came in to kiss me. I was terrified. All I could think was that he was a Sergeant Major--nearly the highest ranking non-commissioned officer--and I was at the bottom, a Private. I didn't know what to do, or what I could do. He started touching me, and I responded by saying, "No. Please no. No," over and over again. He didn't listen, pushed me back onto a desk...and I completely froze. I didn't try to run, I didn't scream or beat him or fight, I only said "No." When he was finished, he fixed his clothes and just walked out. I stayed for a while, crying, frightened, trembling...and not knowing what to do. When I was able to gather myself, I left the classroom and went out to the field where my group had been--found a tree and sat by myself, crying again. One of the girls I'd become close with eventually found me there, and after much coaxing, I told her what happened. She said to me, "That's rape, Cindy. He raped you--you have to report him." I was ashamed and afraid. And who would take a Private's word against a Sergeant Major? But my friend was persistent, and she said if I didn't report him, she would do it herself. So we went together...and at first, it was pretty much as bad as I expected. I had to tell the story several times over, I was asked if I was sure--about the person, and exactly what had happened. I was asked if I knew how much trouble I'd be in if it was discovered I'd been out in a field with a fellow trainee. A Private accusing a high-ranking person is automatically suspect, especially in the basic training environment, because some people will try anything to get out. Military Police went to the classroom and found things as I'd described; I was taken to the hospital to be examined (and told I had been in shock)--the evidence could not be denied. My statement was taken and--here is the part where military law gets funny--that was the end of my involvement in the case. As it was explained to me, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) does not "require" the victim to be involved with the legal process, nor informed of the outcome of the case.

Because my Platoon and Drill Sergeants were Military Police, they were able to get information and passed some of it to me. The first I heard was, after the news broke that this SGM had been reported, several other female recruits came forward--I was not his first. Secondly, I was told that his wife had been killed in an accident within the past year, and that was his defense of his behaviour. And the last bit of information I received? The outcome of the SGM's Court Martial (military court process) was forced retirement.

While I am no attorney, military or otherwise, I can share some general knowledge (learned in AIT) about how the military justice system works. For minor offenses, non-judicial punishment can be handed down by a unit's commanding officer, at that CO's discretion. Example (possibly a true story): Say a soldier was applying wax to the floor in her barracks room by heating the wax (quickly lighting it afire--a common practice) to melt and pour the wax, which would then be buffed to a shine. And say that soldier dropped the container of wax, causing the flame to spread across the floor, and necessitating the use of a fire extinguisher to put out the flames before the whole place went up in smoke. Well, that soldier's commanding officer could then issue the soldier an Article 15 with discretionary punishment (restriction or extra duty), dock her pay, reduce her rank or merely give her a verbal or written admonishment. Now say that commanding officer was friendly with the soldier; might her non-judicial punishment be less than it would be for someone of whom she was not so fond? The answer is, yes, as a matter of fact, it might. But that's okay; this is military law--not the real world. For criminal offenses though, a Court Martial is required. A Court Martial could involve military lawyers, a military judge, and sometimes, a panel of officers--though the simplest Court Martial might have only one officer (with no special legal experience required) passing down a judgement. If there is a panel of officers, the convening authority (usually the Commanding Officer--again, with no experience in legal matters required)) chooses them. With that power--to choose the officers who will mete out punishment--it's easy to see the possibility of personal relationships also affecting Court Martial procedures and/or the outcomes.

This past Thursday, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) spoke about legislation she is introducing (along with other lawmakers); the bill would affect the UCMJ, how the military handles sexual assault cases, and remove certain felonies from the military chain of command. And in his recent news conference, President Obama made it known that he finally gets it, saying we need swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

If a soldier is sexually assaulted or raped by a person senior to her (or him), that soldier is automatically on the defense. The military system of rank and chain of command isn't something that can be changed, it's the basis for how everything is run. But education and awareness is not enough to deter sexual attacks; it must be the position and philosophy of the organization--what is and is not acceptable--and the consequences that change. If an entire organization knows these offenses are covered up because of offenders' rank, or not held to particular consequences because of relationships between ranking personnel, its law is subverted. It is clear, as they stand, the armed services are unable to deal with this crisis internally. Commanders cannot provide unbiased justice to their own perpetrators and victims equally. When it comes to rape and sexual assault (and perhaps any criminal offense), soldiers should go through the same impartial legal process as civilians. It is high time for this change.

Cindy Davis, (Twitter)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • NTE

    I'm so sorry this happened to you, and appreciate you sharing it here. I hope this bill passes, and that real change is in the works.

  • sally

    I'm so sorry this happened to you. You're so brave for reporting it and writing about it. I really hope things do change and this type of behavior no longer goes unpunished.

  • Basil Papademos

    You want a "civlized" military? Uh, there's this thing. It's called history, and throughout history, one of the main perks of a conquering army was the rape of the enemy's women and children. It was one of the key reasons soldiers fought - the 'booty', so to speak. Nowadays, the expansionist Pax Americana regime wants their conquerors to behave themselves - or at least to appear to be doing so. They want their lavishly funded mob of organized intimidators and murders to be socially acceptable. You must first decide what the function of the military is. To defend the country? I don't see any armies attacking the US. So is its purpose is to go abroad and 'help' other countries attain Western style liberal democracy, whether they're interested or not? War and chaos is America's prime export. In terms of realpolitik (remember that old chesnut?), the more chaos in regions that might be controlled by rival powers like China and Russia, the better for America. For example, political, economic and social stability in central Asia would not be good for American imperial interests - re: The MacKinder Doctrine. Try worrying less about rape in the American military and more about the American military's rape of other countries.

  • Slash

    That's a terrible story. Being made aware of the extent of sexual assault in the military and how it is "handled" by the leadership leaves me with no respect whatsoever for them. From the Secretary of Defense on down.

    Violent felonies definitely need to be removed from the military "justice" system and handed over to an independent, civilian system. The people in charge of them now have demonstrated they're incompetent at dealing with these things.

  • Ruthie O

    I'm so sorry this happened to you, and thank you for sharing your story. Reading this, I'm also curious about how the military supports survivors. Did you get any leave to deal with this incident? Any counseling? Were you expected to continue with your duties as if nothing happened?

    Internet hugs, and thanks again for your courage.

  • Nicolae

    Sorry you had to go through that.

  • Jack London

    Thank you for sharing that Cindy. From seeing my friends share their stories, sadly too familiar to yours, I know that it cannot be easy divulging something so traumatic. I am sorry that this has happened to you, sorry that more wasn't done to prevent it from happening, and sorry that so little was done to bring justice to you.

    Where I work we have a saying: two kinds of people get to the top - those who earned it and those who are fat pieces of shit that floated there. The military sounds like it needs to flush twice.

  • emmalita

    A couple of weeks ago I was treated to a rant about how we bestow hero status on the wrong people. The ranter was saying that the real heroes are the people who have something to lose but do the right thing anyway, and people who get tested for STDs and practice safe sex. Thank you for doing the right thing in the face of an unwelcoming bureaucracy. I wish someone had done it before he got to you. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. As the unknown ranter would say, "You deserve a fucking parade!"

  • Ian Hall

    I'm sorry this happened to you.

  • flory

    Sexual offenders need to be “prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
    Did I miss the part where they need to be jailed?

  • e jerry powell

    See, now I'm mad.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the UCMJ prohibit "fraternization?" I mean, at the very least, the power differential Cindy described falls under "improper and imprudent" interaction, even without a sexual component, right? It's abuse of power, plain and simple.

    I can't even form coherent thoughts about this shit. It's all just RAGE. Patriarchal hierarchy (and isn't all hierarchy patriarchal at its root?) annoys me, and it's exactly why I could never be in the military. The potential for any types of power abuse (particularly considering that the people who are responsible for preventing this specific type of abuse are engaging in it themselves) is exponentially higher in these types of structures, which makes correcting the culture seem that much more impossible, because, as Cindy notes, it's the basis of what makes the structure work.

    I don't believe in gender segregation within the military, but at the same time, I can't support women being in the military the way it is now, because the fucking military men cannot be trusted to manage their own behavior the ways they're supposed to in the code of conduct. At least taking the mechanism for dealing with sexual assaults out of the chain of command is a step in the right direction, but the core of the culture still reads as irreparably rotten to me. No one should have to deal with rape on top of everything else involved in the (perhaps overly dramatic use of this word) de-personalization process.

    I'm not making much sense, but neither does rape in the military. And now all I can think about is Judy Benjamin getting frizzy hair.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn

    Very difficult to read. I can't imagine what that was like to write.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • DarthCorleone

    Thanks so much for sharing this. The inclusion of personal pieces like this one have always pushed Pajiba to the next higher tier of websites for me, and this should be read by many beyond our usual audience. Much love and respect to you as always, Cindy.

  • Colleen Griffin

    I want to 'like' this comment a million times.

  • MissAmynae

    There's a cheesy quote out there: "Life is like photography. We develop from the negatives."

    If we assume this to be true (as a photographer, I do) this is the photo that makes me think of you. Ansel Adams' Aspens. The bright young tree in the old established forest, determined to grow just as tall as those around her. She will not be stopped, though they will try and block the sun and drain her waters, because they have been there longer and can loom over her. Behind her, still in the shadows but quietly emerging, another brave little tree is following her lead.

    Thank you for sharing. We love you, and are proud to call you friend.

  • Sara Habein

    I'm so sorry this happened to you, Cindy, but thank you for writing this. If it makes anyone feel less alone, you've done your job.

  • koko temur

    Thank you for sharing this. Talking about it helps the cause much more than we give it credit.

    Another thing that will help - ironically - is letting more women into millitary. I served 5 years in an army of a country with a mandatory draft. I started as a private, advanced to being a leitenant. And in all these long, loooong 5 years, sexual harrasment was never an issue. it blew my mind cooperating with armies around the world and hearing the horrifieng stories. My country is not perfect, but sexual harrasment occures less when there are 50% of women doing every job. make women in the militarily a non-issue, it will be easier for military to deal with the issue internally, if not solve it.

  • Dragonchild

    It doesn't help that the military also enjoys cult-level worship from the American public, and even daring to call THAT what it is is considered treasonous. Now, look, I'm aware the military is one of the worst jobs one can voluntarily undertake, and I'm not here to argue about the inherent qualities of the system, good or bad. Regardless of one's views on the military itself, the calls for the institution to be trusted implicitly has a fatal flaw -- the ONE thing you DON'T learn in the military is how to make decisions. And no, I don't mean what's the best way to get these supplies across the river or how to approach this mission, but MORAL decisions. They pay lip service to it, but they really consider it a PR nuisance, and why wouldn't they? War isn't the type of job where you get to keep your hands clean. But that's precisely why every policy decision by the military must be subjected to harsh, skeptical public scrutiny, yet America gives them the precise opposite. Institutionally, they simply can't be trusted with something like sexual assault cases. They consider such intrusions a pain and will fight it every step of the way, and I've seen this point crapped on by military propaganda and pop culture enablers (the politician is always the Bad Guy on the inside) until people accept military autonomy almost without question, but that's precisely how we got to this problem. The military is an extension of the people they protect, and the more they want to build a wall between themselves and the rest of the country they serve, the more they need to be reminded why they're putting on uniforms in the first place. If they're predating their own, they've completely screwed up their priorities.

    I'm probably going to wind up on a lot of hate lists for saying this, but dammit, it's possible to respect the military AND hold it accountable at the same time.

  • maureenc


    First, I commend your courage in reporting that man and in sharing your story with us.

    Second, as you noted that "The military system of rank and chain of command isn’t something that can be changed, it’s the basis for how everything is run," I wonder if investigating a commanding officer on a rape charge could be considered investigating whether or not that commanding officer is fit to command? I don't know much about the military - in fact, almost everything I know comes from popular culture - but from various sources I've absorbed the idea that a commander has a duty to protect his subordinates* that can only be outweighed by whatever military objective that comes from above.

    Your SGM violated that duty. Moreover, as the military also has a duty to protect the American public, the court-martial's release of your assailant into the general population is a violation of that duty. Which makes me think that Senator Gillibrand's bill is sorely needed, as we evidently can't trust the military justice system to properly discharge its duty not only to the servicemembers under its care, but also to the greater American public.

    Which makes me wonder what, if anything, we can trust the military with.

    *I originally put "men" in quotation marks here. I suspect this may be part of the problem, that some commanders don't see their female subordinates as part of their "men".

  • A. Shamed Veteran

    The strength of Cindy Davis is only a slight stronger than the massive shame and outrage reserved for the system that made her victimization possible.

    As a man, a veteran, an Americans, and a human I feel the chomp of conviction, the crush of lament, and an unfailing motivation to be a part of the culture change that has been too GOD DAMN slow in coming to "traditional environments' like the U.S. military.

  • BWeaves

    Wow, thank you Cindy for being brave enough to share that with us.

    This has to change.

  • MachineGunJeanMaurice

    I cannot express the respect I have right now, for your courage. Words fail me. Much, much respect.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Thank you Cindy. The fact that you would be friends with me makes me feel really good about the kind of person I am.

    Again, Monday, words, no bueno, hope this makes sense.

  • $27019454

    I appreciate you taking the time and trouble to tell your story to us.

  • Snath

    Holy wow.


    Thank you for sharing.

  • dorquemada

    I did that trick with the melty wax as well. Worked great!
    The military gets what society gives it., We glorify sexual conquest, prowess, hate and violence, then wonder why it's present in a microcosm of that society. Folks were having this discussion when I signed up. And that was 1979.

  • Boston Red

    It was against the rules in the Army, especially because so many of the training barracks were old wooden structures built quickly during WW2. Dangerous place to have a fire go out of control.

  • What happened to you is abhorrent and beyond comprehension. I only hope that the continued bravery of the women and men like you who have been similarly victimized one day changes the way which these attackers are dealt.

  • Classic

    That was wonderful thank you for sharing.

    As someone who was in Iraq and Afghanistan and hearing and unfortunately experiencing an awful experience myself I hope that legislation passes. There needs to be real repercussions for assault and rape for both women and men serving.

  • Maguita NYC

    I love you so much Cindy for your courage and honesty. That cannot be easy to share, but you did with so much integrity and determination, it made me cry for your pain.

    It shits to be a woman. Still in this day and age. It is not simply an Army thing, it is an American thing. We laugh at other nations, ridicule their perceived "backward" way of life, and yet here we are still in 2013: Law still protects the abuser, and at the very least, makes it hard for the victim to find solace, support, let alone justice.

    The many tears women and young girls have silently shed to hide their pain in misconstrued shame is beyond despicable an disgraceful. Watch the Invisible War and try to grasp the diabolical and ignominious extent of the rape culture in the military.

    Then try to understand that it represents a nation's way of life. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Colleen Griffin

    Wow. That was powerful, Cindy. I'm sorry that happened to you, and I'm impressed by your ability to report your assailant and talk about it. Thanks for sharing your story.

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