|Posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 - 11:15 am: ||
The private war of women soldiers
Many female soldiers say they are sexually assaulted by their male comrades and can't trust the military to protect them. "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis," says one woman. "It was for the guys on my own side."
Editor's note: This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
By Helen Benedict
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March 7, 2007 | As thousands of burned-out soldiers prepare to return to Iraq to fill President Bush's unwelcome call for at least 20,000 more troops, I can't help wondering what the women among those troops will have to face. And I don't mean only the hardships of war, the killing of civilians, the bombs and mortars, the heat and sleeplessness and fear.
I mean from their own comrades -- the men.
I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few months, interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on the topic, and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection.
The female soldiers who were at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, for example, where U.S. troops go to demobilize, told me they were warned not to go out at night alone.
"They call Camp Arifjan 'generator city' because it's so loud with generators that even if a woman screams she can't be heard," said Abbie Pickett, 24, a specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company who spent 15 months in Iraq from 2004-05. Yet, she points out, this is a base, where soldiers are supposed to be safe.
Spc. Mickiela Montoya, 21, who was in Iraq with the National Guard in 2005, took to carrying a knife with her at all times. "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis," she told me. "It was for the guys on my own side."
Comprehensive statistics on the sexual assault of female soldiers in Iraq have not been collected, but early numbers revealed a problem so bad that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a task force in 2004 to investigate. As a result, the Defense Department put up a Web site in 2005 designed to clarify that sexual assault is illegal and to help women report it. It also initiated required classes on sexual assault and harassment. The military's definition of sexual assault includes "rape; nonconsensual sodomy; unwanted inappropriate sexual contact or fondling; or attempts to commit these acts."
Unfortunately, with a greater number of women serving in Iraq than ever before, these measures are not keeping women safe. When you add in the high numbers of war-wrecked soldiers being redeployed, and the fact that the military is waiving criminal and violent records for more than one in 10 new Army recruits, the picture for women looks bleak indeed.
Last year, Col. Janis Karpinski caused a stir by publicly reporting that in 2003, three female soldiers had died of dehydration in Iraq, which can get up to 126 degrees in the summer, because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. They were afraid of being raped by male soldiers if they walked to the latrines after dark. The Army has called her charges unsubstantiated, but Karpinski told me she sticks by them. (Karpinski has been a figure of controversy in the military ever since she was demoted from brigadier general for her role as commander of Abu Ghraib. As the highest-ranking official to lose her job over the torture scandal, she claims she was scapegoated, and has become an outspoken critic of the military's treatment of women. In turn, the Army has accused her of sour grapes.)
"I sat right there when the doctor briefing that information said these women had died in their cots," Karpinski told me. "I also heard the deputy commander tell him not to say anything about it because that would bring attention to the problem." The latrines were far away and unlit, she explained, and male soldiers were jumping women who went to them at night, dragging them into the Port-a-Johns, and raping or abusing them. "In that heat, if you don't hydrate for as many hours as you've been out on duty, day after day, you can die." She said the deaths were reported as non-hostile fatalities, with no further explanation.
Not everyone realizes how different the Iraq war is for women than any other American war in history. More than 160,500 American female soldiers have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East since the war began in 2003, which means one in seven soldiers is a woman. Women now make up 15 percent of active duty forces, four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War. At least 450 women have been wounded in Iraq, and 71 have died -- more female casualties and deaths than in the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined. And women are fighting in combat.
Total Fatalities - 3,189 Total Wounded - 23,417
Diseases Medical Air Transport Required - 18,704
Total Medical Air Transported - 32,544
Total Non-Mortal Casualties - 54,910