Another military rape scandal — this one at Lackland Air Force Base. A very few of you might have guessed my first thought: “Ground Hog Day. When will they learn?”
I say that because it’s nearly 18 years since a similar scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground changed my job description and catalyzed the formation of the short-lived Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAAMP— the link is to its ghost site at archive.org, since STAAAMP stopped existing as a nonprofit org a decade ago.) Back then, scandals at Tailhook, the Air Force Academy (the 1993 one), and a monumental 1995 Veterans Administration study had cracked the ice somewhat, and I was already talking to survivors of what we now call MST every week. Then came December 1996, when those brave young basic-training women came forward. Above, the image I chose to illustrate the peerless Kathy Gilberd‘s article about it all, for a magazine I edited.
A lot has changed since then for the good, of course. Congress mostly gets it, which is why they scheduled hearings on Lackland for January 23. Columbia University’s Helen Benedict wrote an iconic book on the subject.Visionary filmmaker Kirby Dick made the documentary those brave survivors deserved, which has been nominated for an Oscar this year. And STAAAMP has largely been replaced by the super-competent Service Women’s Action Network and the grassroots VetWOW and Protect Our Defenders.
And still, per the LA Times:
Last week, Staff Sgt. Christopher Jackson, 29, became the sixth basic training instructor convicted of sexual misconduct since April. Jackson received 100 days in jail, 30 days’ hard labor and was demoted to airman first class, but was allowed to remain in the Air Force.
Ten others are headed to court, including Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford, who waived an evidentiary hearing this week, and faces up to 22 years in prison is convicted on charges sodomy, adultery and giving a false official statement, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
At least now, when it happens, even the current Defense Secretary (thanks to that film!) knows the problem is both endemic and systemic. And next week’s hearings will feature both SWAN and a multi-generational group of MST survivors, including the impressive Jenny McClendon (seen here when the scandal first broke). McClendon has”cautious optimism” about the hearings, she told reporters this week.
But as my dear friend Lily Casura (founder of Healing Combat Trauma.com) points out in San Antonio News-Express, the hearings will lack one important ingredient: representation from male Lackland victims. None have yet come forward. Yet the national numbers imply that there must be some. Casura reflects on the possible reasons:
It’s hard for men (or women) to talk about it, and apparently even more so for men. Of the same active-duty males of every service surveyed who were assaulted, more than four in every five (85 percent) didn’t report.
Men don’t report for reasons ranging from thinking it wasn’t important enough or not wanting anyone to know, to doubting the report would stay confidential, or being afraid of retaliation, reprisal, being labeled a troublemaker, or concerns about affecting promotion.
But there’s also personal shame involved when a man is assaulted. I recently interviewed a former Marine, one of the few men featured in “The Invisible War” documentary on MST. He was gang-raped on active duty by other Marines he worked with. Did he report? Absolutely not. “I was embarrassed, scared, didn’t know what to do at the time, so I denied everything,” he says. “Big mistake.”
He also went back to work after the assault. “I sucked it up like a man,” he said, adding, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I know the culture.”
I know the culture. That sentence summarizes why, I think, the issue has been stinking up the military for so long — despite all the earnest commissions and exposes. There’s deep work to be done on making the system’s jurisprudence and reward system more just, and SWAN and POF are right to fight for it. But I fear that there’s a far broader conversation about military “masculinity” that few are ready for yet, and without it you might get no more than cosmetics.
Still, I wish them all – the survivors, the groups, Congress — godspeed on trying to move this forward. And the reporters covering these hearings should also ask the probable new Secretary of Defense how he plans to confront this, especially as these wars wind down.