In most cases women join the U.S. military for the same reason as their male counterparts: lack of jobs, or an inability to pay for education and health insurance for their families.
The percentage of women in the military is higher now than ever before. The Department of Defense reported that in September 2007, 17.6 percent of the National Guard and reserves were women and 14.3 percent of active-duty personnel were women. In Iraq alone, approximately one in seven U.S. military personnel are women. There are nearly 2 million female veterans.
While women are now sent into combat situations to kill or be killed, they also face attacks from their male peers. The U.S. military has always been and will always be a male-dominated society, with a macho-warrior culture. It is built into basic training when soldiers are desensitized to their respect for human beings, especially of other cultures, nationalities and genders. Soldiers are trained to view others as being inferior. This is an essential mentality for an occupying army.
The U.S. military trains its male soldiers to ignore the sounds of a woman being attacked or even raped. Many women returning from Iraq reported that they were afraid to walk to outdoor latrines for fear of being attacked. A woman in the military has to be on constant guard against such situations.
A March 31, 2008, Los Angeles Times article reported that 41 percent of female veterans seen at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Health Center reported that they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, and 29 percent reported being raped. The DoD reported a 73 percent increase in reported sexual assaults from 2004 to 2006. Despite the particular form of oppression that women experience in the military, only two of the 1,400 Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics have post-traumatic stress disorder programs specifically for women.
We cannot begin to know the actual rate of sexual abuse and violence in the military, since most attacks go unreported. At Fort Bragg alone, four female soldiers have been killed by their male counterparts in 10 months. Retired Col. Ann Wright writes that one in three women who enter the military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. The lack of confidentiality, fear of retaliation and the Department of Defense’s unwillingness to respond appropriately leaves many female soldiers afraid and feeling helpless.
Medscape reported that in the Army alone nearly 5,000 accused sex offenders (including rapists) have avoided prosecution since 1992. Within a five-year period, approximately 80 percent of the abusers who left the military did so with honorable discharges. Of those who remained, 52 percent received promotions.
For women in the military, the war does not end when they come home. About 300,000 U.S. soldiers—men and women—are returning or have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD. They immediately come face-to-face with an inadequate system of treatment, and many soldiers’ lives quickly spin out of control. All too often female family members—wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers—bear the weight of responsibility of caring for these returning soldiers.
On and off the battlefield, in Iraq or back in the United States, the U.S. military is bad for women. It is a sexist institution through and through, an institution that women should fight against instead of fighting in.