By Angie King
Something to think about this Memorial Day is what happens to women in the military when they are attacked, raped, harassed, and discriminated against by their own colleagues and superiors. We are in Year 9 of the Iraq War, now operating in Afghanistan as well, and possibly extending to Yemen or Somalia or both, with no end in sight, and our military personnel, men and women, are overstretched. But should the women be attacked by their own side as well as foreign enemies?
When women are traumatized, they’re often traumatized by people who are supposed to love or protect them. In a military setting, your commanding officer is an authority figure who is supposed to protect you. Your fellow officers or soldiers are supposed to have your back. So when one of them attacks you, it’s a huge betrayal. Sexual assault and severe sexual harassment — collectively known as military sexual trauma (MST) — is nearly epidemic in the armed services. And many women veterans report that the sense of betrayal is compounded — and the trauma and shame intensified — when the chain of command fails to act on a reported incident, minimizes it, or even punishes women who report assaults.
More than 190,000 military women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. About 20 percent of servicewomen compared to only 8 percent of men develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating, life-threatening anxiety disorder that may affect as many as 300,000 veterans of the current wars. Women develop PTSD at more than twice the rate men do. The Department of Defense reports that 14.5 percent of female and 0.6 percent of male veterans visiting the Department of Veterans reported military sexual trauma, and these numbers are probably an underestimate. The women’s suffering, generally quieter, is far less publicized, far less researched, and until recently, far less treated. Before this war, its primary cause was sexual trauma, not combat trauma. But now, with women returning from combat deployments in greater numbers than ever before in U.S. history, the Department of Veterans Affairs is scrambling to meet a need whose scope is still unknown.
If you have experienced a sexual assault in the military or otherwise, it is important to take action right away. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (womenshealth.gov/faq/) provides information on sexual assault, as well as on what to do if you have been sexually assaulted. Information on MST and how to get help is also available through the National Center for PTSD (www.vetcenter.va.gov)