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Thousands Leave the Military Traumatized, But Not From War

Military sexual assault is on the rise, and made worse by the fact that many victims feel like they can’t talk about it.

As a young child I remember learning that my aunt was serving in the Army. At the time I didn’t have the knowledge or perspective to grasp what that meant — just that she was far away sometimes and my cousins missed her.

She retired in 2008 and cared for her children while her husband, also in the Army, was deployed multiple times. I never asked much about her service, but I knew she was proud of it. 

We come from a family that’s cautious of military service. My grandfather served as a doctor during Vietnam, but neither of my grandparents wanted any of us grandchildren to take the oath. During high school, I expressed an interest in joining the Marine Corps; my grandmother, panicked, offered to pay for a college education instead. 

But my aunt was proud — I never heard a word of complaint about her tenure in the Army, despite the fact that she was routinely separated from her family; despite them stationing her husband at Ft. Bragg, hours away from their Maryland home; despite her own service-connected PTSD. She was four-feet-ten-inches of “Army Strong.” 

When I was older I learned that she had showered with a gun the entire time she was in Iraq. Not to defend herself from insurgents, but from the American men that were there with her. And I wondered, if a woman as strong as my aunt needed that gun in there with her, how bad must it have been? 


Military Sexual Assault Statistics

The year after my aunt was deployed – 2003 – the VA reported that 28% of women experienced at least one sexual assault during their military service. 

Between 2002 and 2007, 976 reports of sexual assault were filed by women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these reports included instances of “offender-known rape”, more commonly known in the civilian world as date rape. There were also cases of gang rape. 

Recent statistics are even more alarming. A Department of Defense report states that approx. 20,500 active duty service members were sexually assaulted in 2018. That number is up 38% from 2016, and the assault rate for women is up by a staggering 50%. 

While these numbers were taken from anonymous surveys, the number of actual reports filed has also increased by a substantial margin; this may be an indication that more soldiers feel safe talking about their sexual trauma, but it is still estimated that only a third of military sexual assaults are ever reported.

Here’s a couple other facts: 

  • 90% of the time, the assault is by another service member
  • Most of the time it’s by an acquaintance 
  • Alcohol plays a role 62% of the time
  • It tends to happen to and by junior enlisted service members

Women as a whole have a 1 in 17 chance of being sexually assaulted. For young military women, those odds go up to 1 in 8

Mike Lukovich, the artist, points out how the risk of military sexual assault is normalized for female service members.

The Fear Factor 

Going to war in and of itself is terrifying. The chance of being maimed or killed by errant mortar fire or enemy bullets… more than that, the chance of stepping on an unseen IED or being mowed down by an enemy sniper you never could have predicted. It’s a completely different life than the ones lived on the homefront. 

For women who deploy, there is another, more sinister fear: being sexually assaulted, perhaps even by one of their platoonmates. 

An article by The Atlantic titled “I Wish I’d Known About Sexual Assault in the Military” is a raw account of what it’s like to live with this fear. The writer isn’t even military — she was a civilian contractor who provided analytical support at an embassy in Baghdad. 

Before she deployed, the then 21-year-old detailed an interaction she had with another contractor at Ft. Benning while waiting for their physicals. 

“Have they issued you a firearm?” I shook my head. He nodded and looked out at the line of men behind us. The creases in his forehead were like rails of a train track. He turned back to me and leaned close. “A tall blonde? Get a weapon,” he said. They called his name. He looked up at the nurse and then back to me. “Get a weapon,” he repeated, and walked away. I’d thought he meant for insurgents.

The rest of the article depicts her year spent in Iraq; how at first, she would watch what she wore — never dressing in shorts despite the oppressive heat, and always donning closed-toed shoes. She constantly counted the ratio of men to women whenever she entered a room. She made friends with the few other women there, and stuck close to them for some sense of safety. 

One female soldier confided that she’d slept with all the men in the unit, but not because she wanted to. Another was assaulted near her trailer, where her husband was sleeping inside. The author of the article, Sandra Sidi, soon found herself fending off unwanted advances from a colleague old enough to be her father. 

Later, when bombings forced everyone inside the embassy, she slept in a hall full of floor-to-ceiling windows because she knew it was the only place the men wouldn’t come near. 

While Sidi was never assaulted, her story is one that all too many women can relate to. One that my aunt probably related to. One that causes trauma all by itself. 


Men Experience It, Too

Two days ago the New York Times released six accounts, each from a veteran who had been sexually assaulted during his military service. Most of them didn’t tell anyone for decades. The ones who did weren’t taken seriously, or were considered “less of a man” because of it. 

Though women are sexually assaulted in the military at a rate seven times higher than men, there is still a disturbingly dire issue of sexual assault among male service members. Around 10,000 experience sexual assault each year, according to the NYT. 

If you recall back to that 2018 statistic of 20,500 sexual assault victims… that means that half of them were men. 

Of the six veterans who are featured in the article, all had the same feeling after being assaulted: shame. Shame so deep and pervasive that it cost them their military service, and haunted them for many years to come. 

Jack Williams was assaulted multiple times by his drill sergeant in 1966. Injuries sustained from the assault caused him to be medically released from the Air Force, and his command ignored his report of the incident. 

Jack Williams, 71, emotionally tells the story he’s been keeping inside since he was 18 years old. Credit: New York Times.

Paul Lloyd was attacked by a fellow recruit in the shower, and ended up deserting boot camp as a result, receiving a dishonorable discharge. 

Bill Minnix also deserted, but during technical school. He and other recruits had been assaulted by a group of senior enlisted soldiers. After his arrest and subsequent less-than-honorable discharge, Minnix’s family never talked to him again. He is just now beginning to attend veteran’s events. “I had military service taken away from me. For years, when I heard the anthem or saw the parades, I would cry. I can feel like a veteran now.”

Then there’s Billy Joe Capshaw, who was roommates with Jeffrey Dahmer in the military, and wears an Army cap to disguise the scars on his face. There’s Ethan Hanson, who can’t take showers without having a panic attack. And Heath Phillips, who was routinely beaten and raped by his bunkmates in the Navy. 

The article highlights the extent of their trauma in ways most of us never see or hear about. These men never spend a day not thinking about what happened to them. Now it’s time for the military to take real action in preventing it. 


Military Sexual Assault Prevention

In the past decade or so, the military has been much more active in its attempts to prevent sexual assault. They have implemented mandatory courses, launched campaigns, and encouraged service members to be open about past traumas. 

If last year’s numbers are any indication, it hasn’t worked. Why? 

First off, they have treated it almost exclusively as a women’s issue, alienating the many thousands of men who have experienced sexual misconduct in the ranks. Posters that discourage drunk sex aren’t doing much to help them. 

More than that, they have done nothing to address the root of the problem, which is within military culture itself. Sandra Sidi examines it in her piece for The Atlantic. 

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s the nature of warfare itself that is to blame for the persistence of sexual abuse in the military. We ask men to do violence in service to the state, to be paragons of hypermasculinity. Can we simultaneously ask them to change the way they perform masculinity toward women?”

This graphic examines the expectations we put on boys from a very young age; to be “man enough” to fit into society. Credit: Houston Forward Times.

The issue of hypermasculinity extends itself to perpetrating violence on other men, as well. Often, when a group of men who are highly trained to kill are thrown into the desert, they start to think that American laws and rules don’t apply to them; that they can do whatever they want, and they’re entitled to it because they’re fighting in war. 

For there to be any real progress against sexual assault in the military, behavior like this needs to go under a “no tolerance” policy, and those who exhibit it need to be held accountable. Many sexual assault victims fear for their careers should they speak out, and that needs to change, too. 


A Call To Action 

The Department of Defense released a call to action for the prevention of military sexual assault on May 1, 2019. It was released after their findings in the 2018 report on sexual assault. 

“This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better,” Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan prefaced. The plan has six parts. 

  1. Implement recommendations from the SAAITF report by September 30, including a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment. 
  2. Develop new ways to assess challenges within specific units, and maintain discipline.
  3. Launch the Catch a Serial Offender (CATCH) Program. 
  4. Increase standards for new recruits; only recruit those with high moral character.
  5. Better prepare new leaders and supervisors to prevent sexual assault, and respond properly when one occurs. 
  6. Execute the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention Plan of Action (PPOA).

While any improvement under this call to action remains to be seen, it is, at least, the best effort the military has yielded thus far in response to a rising problem. 

For the six veterans featured in the NYT, and the hundreds of thousands of silent victims, it’s too late. Even when their trauma is recognized, a stipend from the VA can’t make up for decades lost to mental illness and shame. But it is high time we fix the issue of military sexual assault, and that means more than just talking about it. 

Read about how Steven Elliott, the Ranger who may have shot Pat Tillman, dealt with his trauma and shame; and how he’s helping other veterans, too.


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