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?

Pi Day news: some rational writing to go w/the irrational number

AintMarchincoverbyAlexOK, that title’s a reach. But here goes:

 

A veteran #suicide story that’s about much more

mstflash A day rarely passes when I don’t hear of a suicide by a vet of these 21st-century wars.I’d do little else if I tried to note each one, but this story out of Tampa tells us that the MST struggle is so far from won:

“I suspect she was assaulted, and she didn’t feel comfortable reporting it for some reason and internalized the incident so she could finish her deployment, which she did with flying colors,” says Leverich. “It’s not anything she told me, just from talking with all her friends this past week, and piecing those things together. I am female active duty, 18 years in the Coast Guard. I am well aware of those issues, and that’s my gut feeling.”

 “Didn’t feel comfortable reporting it.” Think of that next time someone tells you Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act is unnecessary.

Men and MST: getting to the core of it


!  airplaneAce-croppedAnother 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:

Hearings began this week for Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez, a Houston recruiter facing life on charges of rape and pursuing illicit relationships with 18 women, according to Air Force 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.

Some late ‘Veteran’s Day’ reading

imagesI’ve been so glued to reports from Fort Meade that I keep putting off commenting on the way it’s being framed by the media; I will soon, with links to cogent analyses by others. But in the meantime, one piece of unfinished sorta- Veterans Day business: I wanted to hype an amazing resource on soldiers, civilians and struggle, with some of the best writing out there.

The Dart Society, composed of journalists interested in trauma, devoted the November issue of its newish magazine Dart Society Reports to veterans, edited by star journalist Jina Moore. Included in its super-rich contents:

I did want to mention that in connection with the issue, the Society editors asked me for a Q&A or the Dart Society blog.  They asked me to talk about soldiers who dissent, which got me to elaborate on my definition of same:

Some of the early dissent was quite private —  a letter home bemoaning the war, a cryptic but elegiac poem — and some public but wordless, like desertion or a refusal to cross a border when ordered. When troops desert, it doesn’t always mean they’re dissenting — they could be homesick or felonious  – but when large-scale desertion occurs, it’s a symptom that something has gone very wrong.

From 1754 on, though, enlistees were also not afraid to confront their commands when they felt it necessary. They considered themselves citizens with rights and formed “committees” like the ones that started the Revolution. In a famous 1779 “riot,” Philadelphia militiamen marched on the home of the Treasury Secretary to protest inflated bread prices.

Wars that followed, especially wars more obviously of choice, were rife with both crises of conscience and insubordination. Two hundred years ago this year, we were trying to invade Canada in the War of 1812.  One of the reasons it failed was because some troops refused to cross the border, others deserting whole platoons at a time.

Even what most folks consider the “good” wars, the Civil War and World War II, engendered the most passionate critics of the wars that followed. Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis spoke out against the Spanish-American War after fighting in the Civil War’s famous Massachusetts 54th, and William Kunstler was an army major in Asia in 1944, before leading the early movement against the Vietnam War.

Then there are what I call the gender-dissenters: gay troops surviving purges and persecution, and women at first dissenting simply by serving. Harriet Tubman led operations in the South and recruited black soldiers, which at the time felt as revolutionary as you get. And the recent movement on behalf of survivors of military sexual trauma is so profoundly, brilliantly disruptive that it sounds chords with so many prior dissenters.

Whatever you think of my ramblings, go over and look at the issue: the writing over there will delight and change you. And the Society knows what she knows – that every day should be Veterans Day.

Just read. Leon Panetta, there’s an epidemic on and your job to deal with it.

At Common Dreams, Annette Bonsignore asks the questionI hadn’t got around to: ” Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?” She lays out the challenge very well:

The media now has an opportunity to confront and question the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  Will the media give him a pass too?  Will the media continue to ignore those in Congress that have been addressing the issue?  On June 9th Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) questioned Panetta about the rape and sexual assault crisis – but where was the media coverage?  Oh, that’s right the media frenzy over Representative Weiner’s “crisis” was blanketing the airwaves.  Panetta’s boiler plate “zero tolerance” policy response to Senator McCaskill needs to be questioned as well as the ongoing narrative that women are the only victims of sexual violence in the military.

I’m starting by sending you to her. Read it, then forward it to your Congresscritter and ‘cc our new SecDef.