A landmark lawsuit was filed last Tuesday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld alleging that the military’s repeated failure to take action in rape cases created a culture where violence against women was tolerated violating the plaintiff’s Constitutional rights.
The story from The Daily Beast begins with a story from former Army sergeant Rebecca Havrilla describing multiple sexual harassment violations she experienced during her time in the military culminating with her rape by a fellow solider she considered a friend. Havrilla described how many solidiers’ complaints of sexual assault are ostracized by their units for reporting their assaults, or in other cases are simply cast aside. The lawsuit, brought by attorney Susan Burke charges that despite ample evidence of the problem, both Gates and Rumsfeld “…ran (an) institution in which perpetrators were promoted…in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliation and ordered to keep quiet.”
Unfortunately this issue of sexual assault in the military is hardly new. It wasn’t until 2005 that Congress mandated that the Department of Defense form a task force on military sexual assault. However in 2009 reported sexual assault went up 11% according to Department of Defense statistics with one in three women reporting having been sexually violated in the military and the Pentagon admitted that report incidents probably represent just 20% of sexual assaults that actually occur. Even when rape cases are reported, the ACLU finds that only 8% of them are prosecuted and trials are often mishandled.
While Havrilla and the other women pressing charges realize that their lawsuit is not enough to change hearts and minds overnight, it is an important first step in holding military leadership and soldiers accountable for their actions and sexist behaviors. Critics may claim that with the country entangled in two seemingly endless wars, this issue could be labeled as “minor” but as long as female (and some male) soldiers feel unsafe, harassed and unequal, the military cannot ever hope to be successful and function as a cohesive unit. Every soldier deserves to feel safe and support by his or her fellow soldiers and leadership.
The hyper-masculine culture of the military while certainly not responsible for sexual assault, does tend to foster an environment where women are seen as inferior and men are consistently encouraged to prove their masculinity, either through violence or in cases like Havrilla’s: putting down and assaulting women. All of us need to work harder to encourage a culture of respect and equality between genders to ensure that situations like this do not happen in any occupation, military or not.