Violence against women in the military is becoming an epidemic. Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, recently told a House panel investigating how the military handles reports of sexual assault that doctors at a Los Angeles veterans hospital told her that 41 percent of the female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military. Twenty-nine percent reported that they were raped during their time of service. "We have an epidemic here," she said, as reported by CNN. "Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."
More likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire? What is really going on in the military, and why aren't these charges being investigated? I am appalled that the military has consciously allowed women to be sexually abused by their male counterparts with few consequences.
You may remember the case of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, a 20-year-old pregnant Marine who allegedly was killed in December by a fellow Marine. Lauterbach's mother, Mary, said that her daughter filed a rape claim with the military against Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean, seven months before he was accused of killing her. The military failed to investigate her claims and placed the burden of proof on Lauterbach. Had the military intervened in some way, Lauterbach may have been spared a brutal, sadistic death. And we may have been spared hearing about this tragic case on every national news outlet in the country.
I don't know about you, but I am sick and tired of hearing about the murder, rape and maiming of women in our society. It is a fixture in pop cultural spaces, to such an extent that Nancy Grace has built a career on these cases. I'm not sure if this is why many of us are numb to these reports, but this insensitivity is reflected in the military's seemingly laissez-faire attitude about women being raped in the military.
Lauterbach's story was all over the news. However Pfc. LaVena Johnson's was not. In July 2005, 19-year-old Johnson became the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq. She was found with a broken nose, black eye and loose teeth, acid burns on her genitals -- presumably to eliminate DNA evidence of rape -- and a trail of blood leading away from her tent and a bullet hole in her head. In the grand tradition of marginalizing African-American female victims of sexual abuse in the media, Johnson's "murder" did not make it into our living rooms. To add insult to injury, Army investigators ruled her murder a suicide, when it clearly was not.
Aside from the obvious signs of abuse, Johnson showed no evidence of depression or suicidal ideation in her psychological profile. Upon further investigation (after her parents outcry) the bullet wound was determined to have been in the wrong place for her to have shot herself with her dominant hand, and the exit wound was the wrong size to have come from her own M-16, as the Army had suggested it did. Why did we need to hear about this woman's brutal "murder" or "suicide?" Because after the story ran in The New Zealand Herald, ten other families of "suicide" female soldiers contacted Johnson's father. What did they all have in common? Rape. Imagine what might have happened had the story run stateside?
For those of you who think that this is military bashing, even the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that "the occurrences of sexual assault may be exceeding the rates being reported." Covering up violence against female military officers, invalidating their truth by labeling possible "murders" as "suicides," and not investigating claims of sexual assault and rape from women who are risking their lives for this country is absolutely unacceptable. If this is how the military is protecting female members, then women should say farewell to arms and find careers elsewhere.
Each time that I believe that it cannot get any worse, I watch the news, read the paper, or receive an e-mail about the murder or rape of a woman. Did you hear about the "honor killing" of Sandeela Kanwal, a Pakistani woman in Atlanta, by her father because she wanted out of an arranged marriage? How about Margaret Allen, an African-American attorney in Cincinnati who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend and then dumped in a park to rot? Like Johnson, their stories are not being told, but it does not mean that it is not happening. Yes, racism plays a factor, but this is beyond race -- it is about humanity. Like the military, many of us are covering up these incidents, not taking it seriously or calling it something different. It is not new or fancy -- it is the same old thing -- violence against women, just wrapped in camouflage.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.