Groundhog Day for women in the military?

When anyone asks me how I got started with all this, I invariably mention CCCO and the G.I. Rights Hotline in the 1990s. But it’s not often that I wake up and feel such a strong echo of those years, as I did yesterday upon news of sexual assault of recruits at Fort Benning.

Back then, the Department of Defense had no Victim Advocates, no admiral serving as a sexual-assault response coordinator. As I write this, I’m hoping to learn more about the Pandora’s box opened by that one brave recruit who reported her abuse and led to the discovery of still more.

But excuse me if I feel flashed back to the old days, some of which appears below in more outtakes from Da Book.

In December 1991, Paula Coughlin was pumped when she got to Las Vegas for the Tailhook Convention. The weather, 80 degrees with no humidity, felt a relief from the near-tropical Maryland coast where she served as a rear-admiral’s right hand at Patuxent Air Force Base. A qualified airman with eight years in the Navy, Coughlin had long looked forward to Tailhook, a prestigious if famously boozy semiannual event. She changed quickly and headed for the third floor, where her friends were waiting.

But no one had told her, she told the Washington Post six months later, about the gauntlet:

When Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin first spotted them – a youthful, clean-cut bunch of guys lounging in a third-floor hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton – it never crossed her mind that she should be afraid. After all, she recalls thinking, these were Navy and Marine pilots. Pilots just like her.

But Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, was quickly enveloped by terror. Grabbed from behind and propelled down the hallway to jeers of “admiral’s aide, admiral’s aide,” Coughlin was repeatedly pawed and molested. One man grabbed her breasts, another tried to remove her panties.

She bit down, hard, on the forearm of one of her attackers, but still the men kept coming….. “Help me,” she said to another man who seemed to be walking away. He turned and grabbed her breasts.i

After Coughlin, the daughter of a World War II aviator who’d joined ROTC as a college sophomore in 1984, told her superiors what had happened, 25 women also revealed similar assaults at the convention and by fliers attending. Six months after Navy investigators, not excluding her own boss, failed to take decisive action, she held a press conference: by the end of that week Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett had resigned, taking responsibility for “the leadership failure which allowed the egregious conduct.” “Investigators from two separate Navy agencies had been stymied by a wall of silence put up by pilots and their commanders,” wrote Eric Schmitt at the New York Times, “but the agencies had each made their own fumbles. The Naval Investigative Service omitted important documents from its report; the Naval Inspector General’s office failed to put its chief investigator on the case.”

That has left the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, a larger agency with subpoena powers, to gather up thousands of pages of Navy interviews and try to make sense of them. That could take two or three months, and lawmakers are exasperated. “We now have investigators investigating investigators,” said Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee is venting its frustration by holding up more than 4,500 Navy and Marine Corps promotions until the officers are cleared of any involvement in the scandal.ii

Schmitt knew that the prospect of delaying promotions, interrupting normal military business, for a question of misconduct toward women was unprecedented, and created enormous backlash. Some pointed out that Tailhook, in particular, was a notorious bacchanal, and that Coughlin had therefore “knew what she was getting into” and now had no cause to complain.

Still others, not for the last time, chose this as the moment to question women’s inclusion in the armed forces to begin with. James Webb’s 1979 “Why Women Can’t Fight” was resurrected, and GI’s howled at now-mandatory sexual harassment trainings. Such abuse, they added, was different than women being molested by the enemy, as two POWS had been during the recent war (a fact unveiled during congressional inquiries in the aftermath of Tailhook).

Then, Major Rhonda Cornum told reporters later, her “mission focus” had completely shifted to staying alive.iii That assault hadn’t been made public for multiple reasons; when it was, it was seized by the Elaine Donnelly crowd as yet another reason women didn’t belong in the military. But the truer challenge to established order came not from some random Iraqi, but from the domino effect of multiple reports like Coughlin’s that would reach critical mass by the end of the decade.

When the call came from ABC News, Kathleen Gilberd sat back: This wasn’t a distressed soldier calling the Military Law Task Force, or even a vet like Margarethe Cammermeyer. Then almost immediately she sat up straight again. “Aberdeen Proving Ground? Yeah, basic training. These trainees are usually only 18.” She listened, swallowing hard. ‘”How many are saying they were raped?”

Gilberd was by then well known for her brilliant advocacy for military personnel’ . Bridget Wilson, a former Navy captain and full-time attorney in San Diego, told me that Gilberd’s legal strategies had often “set the bar, especially during the AIDS crisis.”iv In 1992, Gilberd and MLTF had initiated a lawsuit when the Pentagon instituted mandatory AIDS testing in the early 1990s. In their mission to keep the information confidential, Gilberd told the Associated Press: “The rights of people in the military need to be protected against a system which is both institutionally and informally discriminatory.” v

And as the gender wars unfurled, Gilberd became a national expert on dealing with women who reported sexual assault as well as discrimination. That phone call in 1996 was about a rape scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground, described at the time by Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner:

From the first allegations of rape late last year to the acknowledgment by the Army that something had indeed gone terribly wrong. To the filing of criminal charges against 11 sergeants and one captain. To the further acknowledgment that there were problems Army-wide. To the national hot line set up that recorded 1,288 complaints of abuse in its seven months in operation, 353 of which resulted in criminal investigations. To, most of all, the trial this spring of Delmar Simpson, an Aberdeen drill sergeant who was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for raping six female soldiers under his command.vi

Those six young women, whose behavior contained all the paradoxes of eighteen-year-olds but who knew that you weren’t “supposed” to complain about your sergeants, also knew five years after Tailhook that they could. They knew partly because of Paula Coughlin and the other 20 women who’d refused to let it go after Tailhook. They’d seen, as kids, the 1995 TV-movie made about the case, and the ongoing reports about the lawsuits Coughlin and her co-plaintiffs won against the Tailhook Association and Hilton Hotels, charging that their safety had been endangered. They might even have heard of the landmark study out of the Minnesota VA, in which nearly a third reported some level of abuse.

After all these years, “women in the military” was as fiercely contested an issue as ever – but now, after 6000 women served in the Gulf, female trainees like those at Aberdeen were seen as essential by both sides, and after Coughlin their charges more likely to be taken seriously. Thousands more women came forward, of every rank and branch of service, giving testimony to their members of Congress, reporters (as did Dorothy Hanson, the WAC mentioned in Chapter Seven) or to their local VA hospital, some of which were developing treatment programs for rape survivors. By 1998, the volume would spur a Department of Defense Task Force headed by General Evelyn Foote, another former WAC who told me, years later, that sexual harassment and abuse had long been endemic.

Foote’s participation in the debate placed the issue as one of “readiness,” a move away from dissent welcomed by advocates pressing press for the final lifting of all restrictions on women in combat.Similar arguments bolstered hopes for gay personnel, who over the decade secured victories in the courts and in the establishment of nonpartisan research and advocacy groups that recorded the costs of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It would take a few more decades for all this energy to be translated into change, and military gender issues would remain a trope of partisan politics.

“History isn’t repeating itself. It isn’t even rhyming,” I tweeted yesterday. “It’s condensing into a poisonous fog.”

A fog that mostly doesn’t belong in Ain’t Marching. But maybe it’s the book after this one?

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VIDEO: Millennials and conscience

Some video reminders why this book has to exist. A simple question, posed 6 years ago by a respected journalist to an author, was already being answered Chelsea Manning, soon to be echoed by the voices of the whistleblowers above.

I discovered the first as I was reshaping – for the last time, I hope! — my World War I chapter, featuring the iconic conscientious objector Evan Thomas. His great-niece Louisa wrote a book about her family, and was interviewed by Jon Meacham below:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?300240-1/conscience

Watching this six years later, I was struck first by how much Thomas resembles her uncle. Then, after an engaging discussion of conscience, war and social responsibility, Meacham asks Thomas “Why does your generation not engage in this kind of dissent?” Meacham asks this despite knowing about then-Private Manning, who at that very moment was in the same prison where Evan Thomas had been tortured. (In that case, Meacham was taking the government’s side.)

Thomas’ response ignores contemporary soldier-dissenters, telling Meacham “Maybe it’s because we aren’t being forced to go to war” and suggesting that the Shark Tank crowd comprised her generation of rebels. But just as I was listening to that exchange, in my Twitter feed gave us Lisa Ling, one of those who stepped forward in Sonia Kennebuck’s documentary NATIONAL BIRD.

I can’t embed the video, but you should click on the link and watch it. Shaming that 2011 Meacham-Thomas exchange, Ling uses the phrase “poverty draft,” which I’m still astonished is not more common. As she describes her path from aspiring nurse to anguished drone operator, you can almost hear the voices of Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh,both of whom honored me with interviews for Ain’t Marching.

When I’ve thought I should drop this whole project, I remember their faces and voices.

 

Should Reality Winner be spending this holiday in federal prison?

I need to learn and write more about this newest target of the Espionage Act, but for today I’m boosting the signal from Courage to Resist, as ever the first to publicly support a dissenting servicemember. The link above also has a petition, urging that charges be dropped.  (Full disclosure: the latter organization is also a supporter of this book via Kickstarter.)

 

WHAT DOES INDEPENDENCE REALLY MEAN TO AMERICANS TODAY? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF FREEDOM?

By Courage to Resist

This 4th of July millions of Americans will be barbecuing, drinking beers and celebrating independence from tyranny. But one young American will not be enjoying her freedom. This young woman sits behind bars for allegedly acting upon her own commitment to stand up for a government free from tyranny.

Reality Leigh Winner is an Air Force veteran and military contractor who has been arrested for allegedly leaking an NSA document to news media. The classified document in question details Russian cyberattacks against a voting machine software company and more than 100 elected officials. This is the most detailed information that has still yet to reach the American public regarding the government’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Charged under the Espionage Act, which some argue does not sufficiently address needed whistleblower and First Amendment protections, Ms. Winner is now the first criminal leak case of the Trump era. With the White House declaring less than two months ago an imminent crackdown on those who leak classified information, many are concerned that Ms. Winner is a sitting duck in this politically-motivated shooting range. “Espionage Act charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, although conventional leak cases have typically resulted in prison terms of one to three years.”

Held without bail in federal prison since early June, Ms. Winner made her first court appearance this past week for a bond hearing and her court date has now been set for October 23rd. When asked by local news media of the status of his defense strategy Mr. Titus Nichols stated, “At this stage the only thing we have (evidence) is a press release from the deputy attorney general and an application for a search warrant. In all my time as a prosecutor, that’s never been sufficient to either try a case or to even prepare for a case.”

While addressing the dubious political motivations for the aggressive prosecution of Ms. Winner her lawyer stated “My client has no criminal history. She’s a veteran. She served the Air Force for six years but now she’s been pulled into this political windstorm where there’s a much larger debate going on that this administration is choosing not to focus on. Instead of focusing on the question of was Russia involved in interfering with the election, now we’re focusing on the extent of punishment for this low-level government employee.”

A recent video of incarcerated Ms. Winner shows her making use of the prison grounds to practice the yoga poses crow, full wheel and headstand. These are all exercises which can assist one’s focus and gaining a different perspective while managing chaos, fear or inflexibility.

While celebrating our independence this July 4th, let’s also take the time to practice focus and courage. We can ask ourselves what would I do to defend or gain freedom for myself or others? And how can I support and defend those who may seek to do the same?

Reality Leigh Winner (right) with her mother Billie Winner-Davis.

For Reality Winner’s case, she needs widespread, transpartisan public support. Please share this article on social media, or post a photo of yourself with a “I Stand with Reality” sign.

this is joe from gainesville

peacewarhaldOn a Joe Haldeman kick, for reasons perhaps obvious to some of you.

After all, there’s that subtitle on my book, the next stop on my introduction exploration:

From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.

That section of the title has been a shape-shifter. When I first proposed it in 2007 it was “From George Washington to John Murtha,” the latter a tribute to the Pennsylvania congressman and Vietnam veteran who’d just made news by declaring the Iraq war “unsustainable.” Then, it became “From the Boston Massacre to Bradley Manning,” before the latter came out as Chelsea. And there was even a brief period when I replaced Manning with Bowe Bergdahl, who’d spent years as a prisoner of the Taliban after deserting his post in Afghanistan for a range of muddled reasons. But all of those names would date the book before it even came out.

Thus this almost-haiku line, starting with the war we all learned about in school and ending with a phrase coined by another Vietnam veteran and science-fiction writer, Joe Haldeman, and since applied to the current (?) Middle East adventure.

After writing the above, I went looking to see whether the author of the 1974 Forever War was even still alive, and what he’d said about how his weirdly prescient novel had mapped out some of the future. I ended up intherquite the rabbit hole.

He lives in Gainesville, somewhere near our friends and heroes Scott Camil and Camilo Mejia. No one seems to have assembled them, though.Nor have they brought them together with Dexter Filkins, author of that other Forever War. (Ideas for my book launch in FL?)

In this NPR interview ,  Haldeman talks to veterans of many wars about PTSD and how war changes you; in the wonderfully named VICE blog All Fronts,   he contemplates what technologies like 3-D printing may exacerbate our current forever war.

Forever_War_1_Cover-A-MARVANO-600x910Meanwhile, I learn I need to ask my local bestie comic-book shop whether they have this series, now reissued in English.

 

storytelling as dissent

youngblood-9781501105746_hrYesterday’s War Horse post only spotlit one small share of the vast number of veteran writers and artists, like the one pictured,  charting the forever war. They’re musicians, they’re poets holding incredible slams, they’re winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

The current bounty has me thinking about how the presence of such artists forms an arc throughout the history we’re charting — one that likely starts with Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, continues with e.e. cummings and Lewis Milestone and and busts out after World War II as Randall Jarrell, Joseph Heller, John Huston — until Vietnam givesi us Bill Erhart, Tim O’Brien and so many others (now on my cutting-room floor). If I include journalists and filmmakers to the mix, it becomes a cacophony.

Why the increase? And does the plentitude of stories just release tension, or begin the process of creating dissent as personnel know they’re not alone?

I don’t know if these questions are for trauma studies,military history or English class. But I do think they’re worth tracing. And maybe we can send today’s veteran stars a questionnaire, to find out if Bierce and Jarrell really do whisper in today’s texts.

privateperrypoe

48 years ago today, a match was struck that helped burn down the Vietnam War.

At least one can make that argument: certainly the war crimes of March 16, 1968 in the village of Son My/My Lai spurred more investigation and controversy than the almost-daily similar incidents more recently covered by Nick Turse in his magisterial Kill Anything That Moves It certainly shook the world of the ‘family’ of vets included in my Vietnam chapter.Their voices, as with the massacre’s impact on our culture,  so strong that my editor just asked me: “Is My Lai the fulcrum of that chapter?”

book-pinkvilleBut for today’s anniversary I wanted to call attention to a different book: The Witness from Pinkville, published today – written by someone who was only 11 when his family was  slaughtered. There are only 1,000 copies of the book in English, and only available at the memorial site established for the events; the author, Pham Thi Cong, is head of the Son My  vestige site. (Image above is from VietnamNet, which bills itself as the first English-language online newspaper in Vietnam.)

Time to contact my VVAW friends, and/or see if there’s any other way to get the book. The fact that he’s only 5 years older than me is heartbreaking.

Cong said the 248-page book recalled the events in the village (now in Tinh Khe Commune) nearly half a century ago….[He] said the massacre was the worst tragedy that he witnessed at the age of 11, when his mother and six brothers were killed by American soldiers in their house. He was seriously injured but was eventually saved by his father.

American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians in the massacre.

“I lost my father in 1970 and became homeless and an orphan,” Cong said.

Ron Kovic’s Convention speech

Kovic at Florida Memory

Which no one ever heard, because the networks had stopped filming in 1972. (They’d already wrecked the candidacy of WWII veteran Edmund Muskie. ) We’ll never know if that speech might have rocked the world of Richard Nixon.

Now, thanks to Studs Terkel’s chat with Hunter S. Thompson, you can hear it starting at minute 36.

The rest of the discussion is worth listening to, especially the conversation about “objective journalism.”

Many thanks to the vets who corrected my initial mistaken impression that this was the Democratic Convention. This was just as Kovic was starting out as an activist, long before we all knew his birthday.