Salacious details of Gen. David Petraus’s adulterous relationship with biographer Paula Broadwell—and all of the attendant sexist framing—have eclipsed a much more important military story.
Yesterday, the Air Force imposed what it calls a “wingman policy” requiring its trainees at the Lackland base in San Antonio, Texas, to be with at least one classmate at all times. The move comes in response to an Air Training and Command investigation that identified 23 instructors on the base who had allegedly raped, sexually harassed or had “unprofessional relationships” with 48 trainees. Lackland trains all Air Force recruits, Bloomberg reports. So far, five officials have been convicted in court martials on charges ranging from adultery to rape and others could face criminal charges.
Of course the epidemic of unpunished rape within the U.S. military—and the routine silencing of and retaliation against enlisted survivors who dare to report it—isn’t new. Due in large part to the release of the Academy Award-nominated “Invisible War” documentary, the sustained activism of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), and several high-profile class action civil suits filed against former and current Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Leon Panetta, the issue has captured headlines. In April, the Pentagon made several changes to its dysfunctional sexual assault protocol, such as extending evidence retention for 50 years and granting service-people who have been assaulted immediate transfers so that they don’t have to report to or interact with their attackers while the crime is being investigated.
These shifts are the bare minimum.
In 2010 alone, there were at least 19,000 intra-military sexual assaults, according to the Defense Department. Further enhancing the trauma, there remains a ban on military insurance coverage of abortions even in the case of rape and incest.
I haven’t seen sexual assault reports broken down by race. What I can say is that a disproportionate number of servicewomen on active duty are black. They make up a whopping 31 percent of the active-duty population compared to the 15 percent they comprise in the general population. (Fifty three percent of women on active duty are white, compared to 78 percent of female civilians.)
In the coming days or weeks, Congress will take up the National Defense Authorization Act and it has the opportunity to lift the ban on military insurance coverage of abortion in the case of sexual assault. It’s way past time to get rid of class-based restrictions on abortion access, including those for military women and Medicaid recipients via the Hyde Amendment. Now that “women’s issues” are all the electoral rage, we should make that demand, straight no chaser.
Consider using the Center for Reproductive Rights’s handy letter to your Congressperson urging him or her to lift the cruel, backwards ban on military insurance coverage of abortion in the case of rape or incest.
Michelle Chen’s still-relevant, excellent 2008 Colorlines feature “Home from the Military” explores some of the contours of military service and sexual assault for women of color living on low incomes.
For more context, read the (potentially triggering) September 2011 class action suit filed by 28 very brave female and male sexual assault survivors against former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.
The Boston-based Military Rape Crisis Center provides survivors with information, support and opportunities for activism.