Saturday, December 02, 2006

America’s Secret War: Victims of sexual assault while serving in the military are the unknown casualties of war

by Joe Piasecki At a forum held earlier this month at Pasadena City College, women vets of the U.S. military went public with their own personal stories to raise awareness of the least-acknowledged casualties of the wars in the Middle East: rapes of U.S. servicewomen by their fellow soldiers. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records obtained by CityBeat show that more than 20 percent of female veterans who used VA health care services nationwide between October 2001 and September 2005 – that’s nearly 44,000 women – reported being victims of sexual assault or harassment, sometimes by fellow servicemembers. Los Angeles-born Maricela Guzman was attacked and raped while on night watch duty during her Navy boot camp training, she explained before some 150 students at PCC. “It was so dark I couldn’t recognize the person who attacked me,” she recalled of her assailant, still unknown after nearly a decade. Guzman, who nonetheless went on to have a decorated five-year career while stationed in Naples, Italy, did not immediately report the crime. When she initially tried to speak with her supervisor, Guzman was punished for not following military procedure, and when finally given the chance to speak was so distraught that she didn’t. April Fitzsimmons served as an intelligence analyst in the Air Force from 1985 to 1989. Going to sleep in the barracks one night after having a few drinks, she was attacked and fondled by a large man who had been hiding in her room. Fortunately for her, she turned on the light, screamed at him to leave, and he ran. But a short time later, another woman on base was raped by the same man, whom Fitzsimmons later identified for military police. “I realized by my silence, my inactivity, passivity, fear, and unwillingness to come forward, that someone else had taken the hit,” said Fitzsimmons, currently a student at Antioch University and the author of a play about her experiences. For years, she said, “I never talked about it. I never told my parents – kept it a little secret like my bulimia [caused by that trauma] all that year.” The same VA records show that only about one percent of men reported sexual harassment or assault to the VA between 2001 and 2005, but that figure accounts for more than 47,000 vets. Hardly any of these cases are discussed publicly or in the media, but in 2004 The Boston Globe reported that a Pentagon study found that 9 percent of more than 2,000 military sexual assault victims in 2002 and 2003, including some serving in Iraq, were men. Unlike Fitzsimmons, Army Specialist Suzanne Swift did tell someone right away, but it didn’t help. In February 2004, the then-19-year-old Oregon native was sent to Iraq where she was harassed and then assaulted by a commander and could find no one willing to intercede, according to her mother, Sara Rich. After going AWOL in January rather than be sent back to Iraq to serve under her alleged attacker, Swift was arrested at her home and taken to Fort Lewis in Washington, where she awaits court-martial on January 7 for missing a troop movement. In the meantime, Swift is suffering from anxiety and depression and is allowed to go home once every two weeks to visit with her psychologist. “I want my daughter to get an honorable discharge because she is a victim here. The military has said she is not a victim, or only a victim a little bit – not enough for her to go AWOL. I want Congress to be asking for her honorable discharge and people that have been getting victimized to get the benefits they deserve,” said Rich, who spoke at PCC on behalf of her daughter. Currently, there are more than 200,000 women on active military duty, and more than 140,000 female reservists and National Guard members. Simply by serving in the military, these women have increased their risk of suffering at least some sort of sexual trauma, says Callie Wight, a therapist who serves as the Women Veterans coordinator for the U.S. Veterans Administration Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. She spoke at PCC and to this newspaper in an unofficial capacity, specifying that her comments should not be attributed to the VA. Wight did say, however, that at the San Fernando Valley’s VA Ambulatory Care Center she leads sexual trauma therapy sessions for more than four dozen female veterans and currently has at least 10 patients who served recently in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several were assaulted by a commander, some were raped by fellow servicemembers after drinking, and one was repeatedly beaten and sexually abused by her husband while they served together in Afghanistan. VA statistics from October through December 2005, the most recent available, report that 1,360 males and 1,618 females who sought government health care said they were sexually assaulted or harassed. While these numbers could refer to incidents not perpetrated by members of the military, Wight and others fear the problem may be quietly growing. “It’s not as easy for the Department of Defense to deal with sexual trauma issues while they wage a war for which they don’t have enough troops to begin with,” she said. “I’m not seeing that many [victims] returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think they just haven’t been discharged yet.” Since late 2003, nonprofit victim advocates the Miles Foundation documented more than 500 cases of sexual assault on women serving in Middle Eastern countries, according to a story posted by Colleen Mussolino, national commander of the advocacy group Women Veterans of America, says she has been contacted over the years by more than 1,000 female veterans and some current servicemembers about sexual assault in the military. From those conversations and her own experience, Mussolino, who served as an Army cook in the 1960s, has learned that perpetrators often go unpunished in an effort to play down the prevalence of assault and harassment. “I was gang-raped by four guys, and I was left beaten and badly scarred in many areas, including the mind. The criminal investigation division of the military picked me up and took me to headquarters and treated me as a prisoner of war for six weeks. I was interrogated from 7 a.m. to four in the afternoon for six solid weeks and threatened with a dishonorable discharge if I pressed charges. I finally signed the papers [to not press charges],” Mussolino said. Currently, claims of sexual assault are dealt with by a soldier’s direct supervisor, but Women Veterans of America are pushing for the creation of a special judicial process within the military to investigate all allegations of sexual assault. Rich, meanwhile, is focused mainly on getting people to visit her web site,, and to write to newspaper editors and their representatives in Congress about her daughter’s case. She’s also urging young women to think twice before joining the military. “The Army has some great things to offer people, but I really encourage people to wait until they’re 21,” she says, believing that level of maturity is needed to better prepare for the lifestyle and potential dangers that come with serving in the military. “I’m not anti-military, but I think we’re abusing our military.” Fitzsimmons and Guzman are also working to raise awareness and encourage others to speak out, but still find it hard themselves to deal with the trauma. At the PCC event, a student asked Guzman if it was difficult for her to talk to her parents about being raped. “I never told them,” she said. “I’m going to tell my siblings pretty soon.” * Japan's Crimes Against Humanity Why Japan's Hitler, Hirohito, Not Hanged? Crimes Against Women Beginning in 1931 or 1932 and continuing throughout the duration of the Asian/Pacific wars, the Japanese Government instituted a system of sexual slavery throughout the territories it occupied.1 During that time, women were recruited by force, coercion, or deception into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. These women were euphemistically referred to as "comfort women" by the Japanese Imperial Army. Although historians often disagree about the number of "comfort women," the most widely used figure is estimated at 200,000.

Photo: A young Chinese girl raped and murdered by Japanese soldiers. Korea's last Queen was raped and killed in a similar way.

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