How the Military’s ‘Bro’ Culture Turns Women Into Targets

The sexual-assault epidemic plaguing the armed forces is rooted in a hypermasculine ethos that fosters predation.

Pinned: Williams was decorated in Iraq.
National Journal
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Sept. 5, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

Kay­la Wil­li­ams, an Ar­ab­ic lin­guist, was the only wo­man with a group of about 20 troops pos­ted to Ir­aq’s Sin­jar Moun­tain in 2003, and she was al­most one of the boys. To kill time while off-duty, the men pre­ten­ded to hump everything in sight, in­clud­ing the Hum­vee, dur­ing their re­l­at­ively un­su­per­vised patrol. They put their testicles on one an­oth­er’s faces in a prac­tice called “tea bag­ging.” Their be­ha­vi­or was ri­dicu­lous but com­mon among bros de­ployed in dan­ger­ous, re­mote loc­a­tions. Some­times, the men in­cluded Wil­li­ams when they threw pebbles at each oth­er, aim­ing for holes near the crotches of their pants. “[They star­ted] throw­ing rocks at my boobs when they were throw­ing rocks at each oth­er,” Wil­li­ams re­calls. “Is that sexu­al har­ass­ment, or are they treat­ing me like one of them? Is it ex­clus­ive or in­clus­ive? I can’t an­swer that. It’s com­plic­ated.” But she didn’t let it both­er her too much.

Then one night, while mon­it­or­ing the out­post on the side of a moun­tain, Wil­li­ams went to re­lieve a guard on duty. He grabbed her hand. “He had pulled out his penis and was try­ing to put my hand on his cock,” Wil­li­ams says. She wasn’t quite wor­ried she’d be raped — the ju­ni­or en­lis­ted Army sol­dier, then 26 years old, was car­ry­ing a gun with­in earshot of oth­ers who would hear her if she screamed — but the guard was fright­en­ingly ag­gress­ive. After try­ing to get her to sleep with him, or at least give him a blow job, he gave up and left.

Still, Wil­li­ams was angry. When she told men in her unit about the in­cid­ent, they said she’d joined a man’s mil­it­ary and asked what she ex­pec­ted to hap­pen. “It def­in­itely made me feel guys who were sexu­ally har­ass­ing me, who were vi­ol­at­ing the rules, who were do­ing the wrong thing — that guys felt they were more im­port­ant as sol­diers be­cause they were men.” Wil­li­ams, now a Tru­man Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Pro­ject fel­low and the au­thor of Love My Rifle More Than You, didn’t want to be a vic­tim, so she stopped jok­ing around and came off as un­friendly, she says. It was a lonely de­cision with po­ten­tially steep costs. “It’s hard to be in a com­bat zone when I’m ex­pec­ted to rely on these guys for my life, but [I] no longer felt I could trust them to not sexu­ally as­sault me if I let my guard down.”

The mil­it­ary’s sexu­al-as­sault epi­dem­ic is well-known — and it is not con­fined to high-pro­file cases like the sex-ab­use edu­cat­or dis­covered run­ning a small-time pros­ti­tu­tion ring at Fort Hood, Texas; the Army ser­geant charged with secretly video­tap­ing fe­male ca­dets in West Point bath­rooms; or the 33 in­struct­ors en­snared in a sex scan­dal in­volving twice as many stu­dents at Lack­land Air Force base, also in Texas. Those scan­dals fueled the con­gres­sion­al and me­dia frenzy over the 3,374 re­por­ted sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary last year. The Pentagon es­tim­ates that sexu­al as­saults ac­tu­ally oc­cur far more fre­quently — and that 26,000 troops were vic­tims of un­wanted sexu­al con­tact (6.1 per­cent of the mil­it­ary’s wo­men and 1.2 per­cent of its men) last year alone. Few­er than 1 per­cent of adults in the ci­vil­ian world ex­per­i­enced something com­par­able, ac­cord­ing to data in the most re­cent Na­tion­al Crime Vic­tim­iz­a­tion Sur­vey.

Less un­der­stood is why the mil­it­ary’s cul­ture of ab­use has been so hard to com­bat — let alone erad­ic­ate. Oth­er ci­vil­ian crimes (such as vi­ol­ent as­saults or theft) oc­cur at far lower rates in the mil­it­ary, but rampant sexu­al ab­use among the troops per­sists. The reas­ons are dif­fuse and, be­cause of fun­da­ment­al mil­it­ary val­ues, hard to change. They in­clude a stark gender im­bal­ance (roughly sev­en men for every wo­man), blurry lines between pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al lives, in­tense bond­ing that can foster las­ci­vi­ous rituals, and a hier­arch­ic­al com­mand struc­ture that can in­ad­vert­ently en­able as­saults. The mil­it­ary, of course, is not peopled by rap­ists. Yet des­pite the Pentagon’s ap­par­ently sin­cere ef­forts to change the cul­ture, it is prov­ing al­most im­possible to al­ter the stand­ards of ac­cept­able be­ha­vi­or, es­pe­cially in situ­ations where young people have little su­per­vi­sion — leav­ing in­tact an en­vir­on­ment that can al­low those who would as­sault someone to take things too far. This is the story of why.

A MAN’S WORLD

Pentagon brass ap­pear to com­pre­hend the prob­lem. In a May in­ter­view with USA Today, the dir­ect­or of the De­fense De­part­ment’s Sexu­al As­sault Pre­ven­tion and Re­sponse Of­fice, Maj. Gen. Gary Pat­ton, de­scribed how sex­ism and sexu­al har­ass­ment in the mil­it­ary helps cre­ate a “per­missive en­vir­on­ment” where as­saults can oc­cur. Wo­men who re­por­ted a hos­tile work­ing en­vir­on­ment were six times like­li­er to say they ex­per­i­enced rape in a sur­vey of fe­male vet­er­ans con­duc­ted by the Uni­versity of Iowa So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Cen­ter in 2003; and those who said their rank­ing of­ficers or su­per­visors al­lowed (or made) sexu­ally de­mean­ing com­ments or ges­tures were up to four times as likely to cite rape.

 That’s why of­fi­cials are try­ing to mod­ern­ize the fight against sexu­al as­sault, which has per­sisted through many pledges to re­form since the 1991 Navy Tail­hook scan­dal, in which 83 wo­men and sev­en men were as­saul­ted at a Las Ve­gas avi­at­ors’ con­fer­ence. Back then, “pre­ven­tion” of­ten meant in­struct­ing troops to stay safe by lock­ing doors and win­dows; now train­ers tell them how to identi­fy and dis­rupt a po­ten­tial as­sault. De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel in May said com­mand­ers would be ac­count­able if they fail to foster a cli­mate that pre­vents as­sault, cares for vic­tims, and re­duces stigma as­so­ci­ated with re­port­ing. This month, Hagel ordered that as­sault vic­tims get leg­al rep­res­ent­a­tion throughout the ju­di­cial pro­cess; that the de­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al audit closed in­vest­ig­a­tions; and that seni­or of­fi­cials with­in the chain of com­mand re­ceive fol­low-up re­ports on as­saults and re­sponses. Hagel has also ordered in­spec­tions of mil­it­ary fa­cil­it­ies to re­move sexu­ally ex­pli­cit and de­grad­ing ma­ter­i­al. Yet at­ti­tudes in the mil­it­ary, where those who com­plain of mis­con­duct are of­ten seen as nuis­ances and worse, are not very pli­able.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jen­nifer Smith, pop­u­lar among the fight­ers she worked for, was on track for suc­cess. When a young fe­male pi­lot train­ing at Luke Air Force Base re­ceived the call sign “Grassy” be­cause an­oth­er stu­dent re­vealed she nev­er shaved her private areas, Smith shrugged it off. When pi­lots screened por­no­graphy in front of the crew to amp up for fly­ing mis­sions in Ir­aq, she shrugged it off. When they sang dit­ties from the Vi­et­nam War era that had lyr­ics about mu­til­at­ing and rap­ing wo­men, she shrugged it off. (To the tune of Willy Wonka’s “Candy Man”: “Who can take a cheese grater, / Strap it to his arm? / Ram it in her pussy, / And make va­gina parmes­an? “¦ The S&M man cause he makes it with pain, / And makes the hurt feel good.”) The at­ti­tude of the older male pi­lots, Smith re­calls, was, “If you’re go­ing to run with the men” — es­pe­cially when men are the bosses — “you’d bet­ter learn how to deal with it.”

When Smith went to find equip­ment from a stor­age area for a fly­ing ex­er­cise at Shaw Air Force Base in 2008, she found porn in­stead. When she asked com­mand­ers to re­move it, pi­lots star­ted call­ing her a “bitch,” even though her com­plaint was sup­posed to be an­onym­ous and un­of­fi­cial. After that, Smith de­ployed to Ir­aq. There, a ser­vice mem­ber threw her against a wall and tried to rape her when she was work­ing an overnight shift. At first, Smith didn’t come for­ward be­cause, she says, she was dis­cour­aged that her seni­ors had failed to elim­in­ate the porn stash. Mean­while, she lost her tol­er­ance for sexu­al jokes. “I would say, ‘That’s really in­ap­pro­pri­ate,’ and that didn’t go over well. That’s like ques­tion­ing their au­thor­ity.” Fed up, she filed a form­al re­port after she’d re­turned stateside, dis­clos­ing both the porn and her as­sault. Be­cause she “snitched,” her cowork­ers “dropped me like a hot potato,” she said.

The mil­it­ary is full of tra­di­tions that linger from its all-male days, and these prompt some wo­men to com­plain that they are treated as second-class cit­izens — bolstered by ac­tu­al job in­equal­ity: Wo­men are still barred from front-line com­bat (at least un­til 2016) and are out­numbered in the of­ficer corps. They make up only 15 per­cent of 1.4 mil­lion act­ive-duty ser­vice mem­bers; only 16 per­cent of of­ficers are wo­men. Of the mil­it­ary’s 38 four-star gen­er­als or ad­mir­als, just one is a wo­man.

Wo­men’s lower status means that their male col­leagues some­times see them as less trust­worthy in a “he-said, she-said” scen­ario, ac­cord­ing to psy­cho­lo­gist Stephanie Sacks, au­thor of an es­say in a 2005 Wash­ing­ton Co­ali­tion of Sexu­al As­sault Pro­grams pub­lic­a­tion on mil­it­ary cul­ture and sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims. If a wo­man is as­saul­ted, wrote Sacks, who also trains mil­it­ary troops in sexu­al-as­sault pre­ven­tion, many men be­lieve “it is at least a little bit her fault be­cause she didn’t really be­long [in the mil­it­ary] to be­gin with”¦. The line goes that if you are go­ing to vol­un­tar­ily put your­self in the com­pany of large groups of men, es­pe­cially who are on a de­ploy­ment and so not hav­ing easy ac­cess to con­sen­su­al sex, what do you ex­pect?” If a wo­man com­plains, Sacks says, men may feel wo­men are di­vert­ing the mis­sion’s fo­cus with sec­ond­ary is­sues.

Wil­li­ams, who found out the hard way that she wasn’t really one of the boys, says this de­scribes her ex­per­i­ence. Yes, she was easy­going and joked around, but the men some­how thought they could turn their ex­pli­cit jokes in­to real­ity. While Wil­li­ams was lucky to have es­caped an as­sault, many oth­ers were not, and the at­ti­tudes dis­played by her peers after the in­cid­ent help show why so many as­saults go un­re­por­ted in the mil­it­ary. When Wil­li­ams was con­sid­er­ing com­plain­ing, they asked her, “Why would you ru­in a man’s ca­reer just be­cause you can’t take it?” She in­ferred that be­cause she was a wo­man and not al­lowed in com­bat, she was ef­fect­ively a “second-class cit­izen”: “My ca­reer was seen by my peers as be­ing less im­port­ant.”

More wor­ri­some, many ser­vice­men aren’t in­clined to be­lieve wo­men’s com­plaints in the first place. Ac­cord­ing to a Corps sur­vey in Septem­ber 2012, Mar­ines lis­ted be­ing falsely ac­cused of sexu­al as­sault as a top con­cern about open­ing com­bat po­s­i­tions to wo­men. A broad swath of re­search in the ci­vil­ian world shows that the rate of false re­port­ing is very low, around 2 to 8 per­cent, as is the case with oth­er felon­ies. But of 3,374 re­por­ted in­cid­ents in 2012, mil­it­ary pro­sec­utors won only 238 con­vic­tions. A big reas­on, says Air Force JAG re­serv­ist Dav­id Frakt, is that “in these he-said, she-said situ­ations, there’s no wit­ness, no oth­er phys­ic­al evid­ence to cor­rob­or­ate the claims. When the stand­ard is bey­ond a reas­on­able doubt, and you have an ac­cused who has a long re­cord of pos­it­ive mil­it­ary ser­vice, no pri­or his­tory, there’s a very high chance of ac­quit­tal in that situ­ation.”

Ac­quit­tal, of course, is not the same thing as in­no­cence, Frakt notes. Yet the mil­it­ary’s ju­di­cial sys­tem can fail vic­tims even be­fore a case gets to tri­al. Seni­or com­mand­ers, who have con­ven­ing au­thor­ity, make the de­cision about wheth­er to refer a case to a court-mar­tial, where the al­leg­a­tion must be proved bey­ond a reas­on­able doubt to earn a con­vic­tion. If a com­mand­er does not want to move the case for­ward, he or she can take no ac­tion; uni­lat­er­ally man­date an ad­min­is­trat­ive re­sponse (such as a rep­rim­and or coun­sel­ing) to cor­rect the ac­cused’s be­ha­vi­or; or preside over a non­ju­di­cial pun­ish­ment hear­ing in which the com­mand­er is the “sole de­cider of facts and pun­ish­ment,” ac­cord­ing to Frakt. Pun­ish­ment op­tions in this case are rather lim­ited — no jail time, no bad con­duct dis­charge, and no crim­in­al con­vic­tions.

With so few courts-mar­tial res­ult­ing in sexu­al-as­sault con­vic­tions, troops may be dis­in­clined to be­lieve there’s a real prob­lem — an en­vir­on­ment that would-be per­pet­rat­ors can ex­ploit to carry out as­saults. So the Pentagon is work­ing to com­bat this per­cep­tion. “Between 92 to 98 per­cent of the time, a vic­tim is telling us the truth. Those are pretty good odds,” Nath­an Gal­breath, a seni­or of­fi­cial in the Pentagon’s Sexu­al As­sault and Pre­ven­tion Of­fice, says. “We’re also try­ing to edu­cate folks on the dif­fer­ence between a false re­port and a re­port where there’s in­suf­fi­cient evid­ence.” Last year, com­mand­ers could not take ac­tion in 509 cases be­cause of “evid­en­tiary prob­lems.” An­oth­er 1,028 were either out­side the de­part­ment’s leg­al au­thor­ity or of­fi­cials thought the ac­cus­a­tions “un­foun­ded” — false or base­less. A base­less re­port usu­ally is pre­sumed truth­ful but does not meet the form­al stand­ards of the crime. It doesn’t mean the per­pet­rat­or is in­no­cent.

The mil­it­ary is a highly reg­u­lated or­gan­iz­a­tion, and that is part of the prob­lem. It has rules to cov­er everything from lip­stick shades to suit­able golf bud­dies. These guidelines make it nearly im­possible to frame a dis­cus­sion about con­sen­su­al sex versus as­sault, ar­gues Bruce Flem­ing, a pro­fess­or at the Nav­al Academy, where everything from hand-hold­ing to in­ter­course is out­lawed for all four years. “The mil­it­ary is ba­sic­ally a no-sex zone.” All bases are in­ten­ded to be sex-free. Or­al sex and adul­tery are crimes. Pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion in uni­form are banned. Of­ficers can­not date, sleep with, or even spend too much time with en­lis­ted troops. The same goes for su­per­i­ors and in­feri­ors with­in those ranks. The mil­it­ary’s un­suc­cess­ful strategy has been to “for­bid and pun­ish” everything sexu­al to try to stop as­saults, when in­stead, Flem­ing says, it should be “tar­get­ing the spe­cif­ic de­vi­ant be­ha­vi­or that really mat­ters.”

Blanket reg­u­la­tions against everything sexu­al can cre­ate the per­cep­tion that sexu­al as­sault is some­how a less­er crime. Train­ing to be an Ar­ab­ic crypto­lo­gist for the Navy at the De­fense Lan­guage In­sti­tute in Monterey, Cal­if., Tia Chris­toph­er, then 19 years old, in­vited a fel­low ser­vice mem­ber (a pas­tor’s son who had taken her on a Bible study date) to stop by her room — break­ing the rules. “It went from, ‘Hey, what are you do­ing, stop!’ to him hit­ting my head on the cinder-block wall be­hind my bed.” Two wo­men were drink­ing next door and heard the struggle. But be­cause the mil­it­ary of­fers no am­nesty for “col­lat­er­al mis­con­duct,” they at first re­fused to sup­port Chris­toph­er’s al­leg­a­tion, fear­ing they’d be pun­ished for drink­ing. (They were.)

SEM­PER FI­DEL­IS

In the mil­it­ary’s closed so­ci­ety, there’s a per­vas­ive be­lief that “you know who can be trus­ted and who can’t,” Sacks tells Na­tion­al Journ­al. Any­one you know so well in your unit couldn’t pos­sibly at­tack someone else, the think­ing goes. 

This en­hanced loy­alty is vi­tal in com­bat, but it’s coun­ter­pro­duct­ive when it comes to be­liev­ing that someone has been as­saul­ted. The vic­tim who re­ports an in­cid­ent be­comes the “squeaky wheel” — the trouble­maker, es­pe­cially if per­form­ance starts to suf­fer as he or she pro­cesses the trauma, Sacks says. People think rap­ists are ugly and can’t get sex an­oth­er way, says Chris Kil­martin, a psy­cho­logy pro­fess­or at the Air Force Academy. They’re not. “They tend to be more hand­some, charm­ing, and have more con­sen­su­al sex than non-rap­ists, and [are] very good at cul­tiv­at­ing the ap­pear­ance of be­ing a nice guy. So when there’s an as­sault tak­ing place, people who know this guy say, ‘He’s such a nice guy, there’s no way he can do it.’ ” Af­ter­ward, of course, ci­vil­ians as­saul­ted in the work­place can look for an­oth­er job if they want; troops are locked in for years.

Know­ing they have to stay in an en­vir­on­ment where the group may side with the per­pet­rat­or can dis­cour­age vic­tims from re­port­ing the at­tack. Chris­toph­er heard stor­ies about wo­men who lost their ca­reers and friends by di­vul­ging the in­cid­ent, so she bleached her sheets and tried to for­get that her as­sault took place. But be­cause her at­tack­er star­ted stalk­ing her at the chow hall and en route to class, she fi­nally came for­ward. When her com­mand­er in charge of the Navy de­tach­ment at the lan­guage-train­ing base be­littled her rape re­port, she star­ted hav­ing pan­ic at­tacks, lost 30 pounds, and began fail­ing classes where she’d pre­vi­ously scored A’s. Even oth­er wo­men turned against her. “This girl, she was Pu­erto Ric­an” — like the at­tack­er — “called me a ‘ra­cist bitch.’ ” Vic­tim­ized men may face even high­er hurdles. “It’s hard to ima­gine how could a man, es­pe­cially a strong, tough man with a weapon, be sexu­ally as­saul­ted. So if they are, it brings up ques­tions about their mas­culin­ity,” Sacks says. “Do you want some­body on your team who is a vic­tim, some­body who couldn’t fight back?”

As­sail­ants in the mil­it­ary who go un­checked in an en­vir­on­ment skep­tic­al of as­saults can find more vic­tims. Chris­toph­er later found the same wo­man who in­sul­ted her cry­ing in a stair­well. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry. He raped me.’ ” 

Be­cause of the long odds for a con­vic­tion and the high cost (in stigma) at­tached to re­port­ing, the Pentagon wor­ries that vic­tims are dis­in­clined to file com­plaints. New pro­grams al­low “re­stric­ted re­port­ing” so vic­tims can get health care without press­ing charges or nam­ing their at­tack­ers, but these op­tions can re­in­force the be­lief that sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims are weak, need spe­cial treat­ment, or made it all up to milk the sys­tem. “The vic­tim is im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied as a vic­tim,” says Frakt. Fel­low troops may see the per­son re­ceiv­ing “all kinds of perks,” in­clud­ing get­ting off work, ob­tain­ing coun­sel­ing, and tak­ing con­vales­cent leave. “In an en­vir­on­ment like the mil­it­ary, which treas­ures tough­ness and sort of deal­ing with your own prob­lems, all of these ser­vices may feed a per­cep­tion these people … [are] not cut out for the mil­it­ary way of life.” Already, male sol­diers of­ten see preg­nancy as a tac­tic wo­men use to es­cape a war zone. They may now be­lieve that re­stric­ted re­ports are a “guilt-free” way for wo­men to es­cape an un­pleas­ant de­ploy­ment, Frakt says. “Maybe they don’t like their com­mand­er, su­per­visor.”

What’s more, would-be sexu­al pred­at­ors have many op­por­tun­it­ies in a cul­ture where every­one is a dir­ect su­per­i­or or sub­or­din­ate. A train­ee, ac­cord­ing to Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers Pres­id­ent Nancy Par­rish, is told that su­per­i­ors are es­sen­tially “your preach­er, your boss, your fath­er fig­ure, your God.” If the su­per­i­or or­ders, say, an un­usu­al after-hours of­fice vis­it, train­ees go. Oth­er­wise, they can be writ­ten up for fail­ing to fol­low or­ders. Sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims are usu­ally lower-rank­ing. At Lack­land Air Force base, where every re­cruit goes for ba­sic train­ing, 24 in­struct­ors were con­victed re­cently of mis­con­duct with train­ees, ac­cord­ing to re­ports. In Au­gust, the Pentagon re­moved 60 re­cruit­ers, drill in­struct­ors, and sexu­al-as­sault coun­selors from duty after find­ing vi­ol­a­tions re­lated to al­co­hol, child ab­use, and sexu­al as­sault. An­oth­er prob­lem is the dif­fi­culty in screen­ing for pred­at­ory be­ha­vi­or: Un­til a per­son is in a po­s­i­tion of au­thor­ity, it’s hard to tell who will ab­use it.

Be­cause high­er-rank­ing ser­vice-mem­bers are re­spons­ible for what hap­pens on their watch, they have an in­cent­ive to ig­nore ac­cus­a­tions against their sub­or­din­ates or even to at­tack vic­tims’ cred­ib­il­ity, Par­rish says. “So the re­tali­ation be­gins: char­ging them with col­lat­er­al mis­con­duct, be­gin­ning to write them up for a series of so-called mis­be­ha­vi­ors, or send­ing them to psych wards to be mis­dia­gnosed with er­rant med­ic­al dia­gnoses such as per­son­al­ity dis­order.” Those pro­ced­ures can even lead to dis­charge. Ac­cord­ing to the Pentagon re­port, 62 per­cent of vic­tims who filed com­plaints said they were re­tali­ated against pro­fes­sion­ally, so­cially, or ad­min­is­trat­ively. Com­mand­ers can also make ju­di­cial de­cisions, as when a three-star gen­er­al over­turned the ag­grav­ated-as­sault con­vic­tion of Lt. Col. James Wilk­er­son, whom a jury of mil­it­ary of­ficers sen­tenced in Novem­ber to de­ten­tion and dis­missal from the mil­it­ary. 

That case fueled a push on Cap­it­ol Hill for an in­de­pend­ent mil­it­ary ju­di­ciary to handle sexu­al-as­sault cases, but the Pentagon still be­lieves com­mand­ers are best equipped to deal with the prob­lem. Frakt notes they can dole out ad­min­is­trat­ive pun­ish­ments like fines or de­mo­tions when a court-mar­tial con­vic­tion isn’t likely. “They re­cog­nize it’s prob­ably less [pun­ish­ment] than the per­son de­serves, but it’s not go­ing to be in the hands of a jury. People work very hard to do the right thing.” Yet vic­tims of­ten in­ter­pret these moves as just a slap on the wrist for their at­tack­er. De­li­l­ah Rum­burg, who leads the Pennsylvania Co­ali­tion Against Rape and the Na­tion­al Sexu­al Vi­ol­ence Re­source Cen­ter, says the biggest com­plaint she hears from fe­male vic­tims is “not so much they failed to get a con­vic­tion” but that the mil­it­ary sys­tem did not al­low for a fair pro­cess. 

HOL­LOW FORCE

When Chris­toph­er left the mil­it­ary, “I was like, ‘I’m go­ing to go to fuck­ing Oprah.‘ ” Four days later, she watched on tele­vi­sion as the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. “Wal­mart star­ted selling flag T-shirts. You hadn’t really seen a lot of pat­ri­ot­ism in a long time. I thought to my­self, ‘There’s no way I can talk about this. No one’s go­ing to want to hear what happened to me when there’s this fer­vor go­ing around.’ I was si­lent for many years.”

Now that the mil­it­ary is no longer on a war foot­ing, vic­tims like Chris­toph­er and ad­vocacy groups hope they will have a chance to re­shape the mil­it­ary’s struc­ture and fo­cus on com­bat­ing the en­emy with­in. The on­slaught of me­dia re­ports on sex scan­dals has fueled mo­mentum among law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill and seni­or of­fi­cials in the Pentagon.

Des­pite this can-do at­ti­tude, no quick fix is avail­able. Poli­cy­makers can in­stall vic­tim-as­sist­ance pro­grams, but un­til there’s less stigma at­tached to re­port­ing sexu­al crimes, they will go un­der­used. Com­mand­ers can prom­ise to take as­sault cases ser­i­ously, but un­til the con­vic­tion rate rises, vic­tims will see their su­per­i­ors as in­ef­fect­ive or un­trust­worthy. The mil­it­ary can oust ab­users, but in a sys­tem where com­mand­ers ul­ti­mately make all the de­cisions, it won’t get con­sist­ent res­ults. The Pentagon can man­date pre­ven­tion train­ing and the press can sen­sa­tion­al­ize ab­use scan­dals, but when troops see all this as a witch hunt rather than a true prob­lem, they will foster a cul­ture that al­lows true as­sail­ants to op­er­ate re­l­at­ively freely.

And de­fense lead­ers them­selves may be out of touch with be­ha­vi­ors that evolve on the front. When Kay­la Wil­li­ams lived on an Ir­aqi moun­tain­side among all those men, she and her fel­low sol­diers slept in a pen cir­cum­scribed by barbed wire to pre­vent in­cur­sions. Des­pite the many mil­it­ary reg­u­la­tions, they cre­ated their own cul­ture from norms they thought were ac­cept­able. It was powered by sexu­ally ex­pli­cit jokes and ex­posed gen­italia.

CLA­RI­FIC­A­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story iden­ti­fied Dav­id Frakt as a former Air Force JAG of­ficer; he is, in fact, now a re­serv­ist.

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