By John LaForge
Military recruiters must feel like Hansel and Gretel’s “wicked witch,” fattening up the children to eat them. With sexual violence, endless wars of occupation, fatalities, brain trauma, permanent disabilities and an epidemic of suicides, what they’re selling these days looks like a lot like a bad horror show.
With the chance of being sent into quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc. on one hand, the likelihood of being sexually assaulted on the other¾and the specter of suicide among vets of all stripes¾you have to wonder how recruiters get anyone in the door. Newbies must not be reading the papers; all four active-duty services and five out of six reserve components met their recruiting goals in 2014, according to the Pentagon.
Yet a Dept. of Veterans Affairs study released Feb. 1, 2013 found veterans killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day. After interviewing Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, Stars and Stripes made this rosy conflation Dec. 15: “Suicides have not dropped off the radar, despite increased focus on combating sexual assault.” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told the Washington Post last Nov. 7, “I don’t think we’ve hit the top yet on suicides.”
Among members of the Reserves and National Guard, suicides climbed eight percent between 2012 and 2013. Since 2001, more active-duty US troops have killed themselves than have been killed in Afghanistan, the Washington Post said. Last April, the AP reported that suicides in the Army National Guard and Reserve in 2013 “exceeded the number of active-duty soldiers who took their own lives, according to the Army.”
Stars and Stripes said the suicide rate among Marines and soldiers was particularly high, with those on active-duty suffering about 23 deaths per 100,000 service members in 2013, compared with 12.5 suicides per 100,000 overall in the US public in 2012¾as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control. The suicide rate among sailors also has increased this year, the CDC found.
Even if you never saw combat
An Army study of almost a million soldiers published last March reported not only that suicides among soldiers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than doubled between 2004 and 2009, but that the rate for those who never spent time in war zones almost tripled over the same five years. While many expected military suicide to decline after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were cut back, it has not happened, the Washington Post found.
Sexual assault still growing
Meanwhile, the “increased focus on combating sexual assault” has been declared a short-term failure. A 1,100-page Pentagon report released Dec. 4 found that reports of sexual assault in the military increased some eight percent in 2014, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), responded to the news saying, “I think this report shows a failure by the chain of command.” Sen. Gillibrand has fought to remove jurisdiction in sexual assault cases from commanding officers.
Spinning the findings as if increased reports of assault were positive, Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel had trouble finding the words. He said, “After last year’s unprecedented 50 percent increase in reports of sexual assault, the rate has continued to go up. That’s actually good news.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, said the results showed “great progress,” but admitted, “We still have work to do on curbing retaliation against victims.”
The study found 62 percent of female survivors said they’d suffered retaliation, mostly from military colleagues or peers. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps Captain and director of the Service Women’s Action Network, told the New York Times, “[T]he climate within the military is still a dangerous one for victims of sex crimes.” SWAN.org notes, “A culture of victim-blaming, lack of accountability, and toxic command climates is pervasive throughout the U.S. Armed Forces, preventing survivors from reporting incidents and perpetrators from being properly disciplined.”
One example is the light treatment given Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair last June after he pleaded guilty to maltreatment and adultery. As with most sexual assault cases, Sinclair’s lawyers spent months retaliating, re-victimizing and attacking the credibility of the accuser, an Army captain. Sinclair was sentenced to a rank reduction, full retirement benefits and a $20,000 fine, although he faced a possible life sentence and registration as a sex offender. The captain alleged that Sinclair had threatened to kill her if she disclosed their relationship.
For help regarding sexual harassment or sexual violence in the military, contact Protect Our Defenders at <email@example.com>; the S.W.A.N., at 646-569-5200; or the Veteran’s Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-8255. For help regarding though of self-harm or suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255.
— John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly newsletter, and is syndicated through PeaceVoice.