Carolyn Schapper says she was harassed by a fellow Army National Guard soldier in Iraq to the extent that she began changing clothes in the shower for fear he'd barge into her room unannounced, as he had on several occasions.
Even as women distinguish themselves in battle alongside men, they're fighting off sexual assault and harassment. It's not a new consequence of war.
But the sheer number of women serving today -- more than 190,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is forcing the military and Department of Veterans Affairs to more aggressively address it.
The data -- incomplete and not up-to-date -- offer no proof that women in the war zones are more vulnerable to sexual assault than other female service members or American women in general. But in an era when the military relies on women for invaluable and difficult front-line duties, the threat to their morale, performance and long-term well-being is starkly clear.
Of the female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have walked into a VA facility, 15 percent have screened positive for military sexual trauma, The Associated Press has learned. That means they indicated that while on active duty, they were sexually assaulted, raped or sexually harassed, receiving repeated unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.
In January, the VA opened its 16th inpatient ward specializing in treating victims of military sexual trauma, this one in New Jersey. In response to complaints that it is too male-focused in its care, the VA is making changes such as adding keyless entry locks on hospital room doors so female patients feel safer.
Rape victim felt numb when returning home
Depression, anxiety, problem drinking, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic abuse are all problems that have been linked to sexual abuse, according to the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides support to victims of violence associated with the military. Since 2002, the foundation says, it has received more than 1,000 reports of assault and rape in the U.S. Central Command areas of operation, which include Iraq and Afghanistan.
In most reports to the foundation, fellow U.S. service members have been named as the perpetrator, but contractors and local nationals also have been accused.
Plappert, 47, said she was raped by Iraqi men in 2003 at a store in Hillah, when she got separated from her group.
By the time the Navy Reserves commander returned home, she felt "numb."
"I didn't feel anything," she said at her townhome in south-central Pennsylvania. When her kids, now 10 and 12, hugged her, "I felt like I was being suffocated."
Plappert's marriage fell apart. She credits treatment at the VA -- as well as her artwork depicting trauma and recovery -- with helping her reconnect with her children. She left the military and is studying at Drexel University to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner while continuing to work as a civilian nurse.
She said it's hard for people outside a war environment to understand how living in high-stress, primitive conditions can affect your ability to make decisions. She didn't report the attack immediately, she said, because she felt an obligation to continue the mission and not burden others. She also wondered how the report would be perceived.
"What I've got to try to think is that there's got to be some reason why this has happened," said Plappert, who first recounted the assault to a VA counselor and eventually told her story to Defense Department and VA task forces. "I try to find something positive in the event."
Moving the victim feels like punishment to them
Schapper, 35, of Washington, served with the Virginia Army National Guard on an outpost with few other women. She worked well as part of a military intelligence team with the men around her. It was in the down time that things got uncomfortable.
She shared a house with about 20 men, some of whom posted photos of scantily clothed women on the walls. She said her team leader, who lived in the house, frequently barged into her room and stared at her. The experience was unnerving, Schapper said, and she began changing clothes in the shower. But she never filed a formal complaint.
If she complained, Schapper figured, she'd be the one moved -- not the other soldier.
"In military intelligence, you work with Iraqis on a daily basis you get to know, and to move me would disrupt the team I was working with as well as disrupt the work I'd already done," Schapper said. "I didn't want to be moved, and basically I'd be punished, in a sense."
Schapper said other female troops she has spoken with described similar experiences. A picture of one was posted with "Slut of Bayji" written underneath. Another endured having a more senior enlisted soldier ask her favorite sexual position over a public radio, said Schapper, who has met with members of Congress on behalf of the nonpartisan advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Since returning to the U.S. in 2006, Schapper has gotten help for post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA in Washington. Group therapy with other Iraq veterans has been helpful, she said, but she wishes there were a women-only group.
Connie Best, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who retired from the Navy Reserves, said that people typically think of sexual harassment as someone making a comment about someone's appearance but that it goes well beyond that. In a war environment, living and working with someone exhibiting harassing behavior can potentially have long-term effects on troops' health and performance.
"There's automatically this thing that 'sexual harassment is not a big deal, it's not as bad as rape,' and indeed it often is not as distressing as a completed sexual assault, but it still can be something that highly affects a person," Best said. Research also has found that working and living environments where unwanted sexual behaviors take place have been associated with increased odds of rape.
After high-profile attacks in Kuwait and Iraq, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld convened a 2004 task force on the treatment and care of sexual assault victims. One change that followed was the creation of a confidential component in the military's reporting system, so a victim can come forward to get help without necessarily triggering an investigation.
In the fiscal year that ended October 1, 131 rapes and assaults were reported in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Kaye Whitley, director of the Defense Department's sexual assault prevention and response office. Comparing that to previous years isn't possible because of changes in the way data was collected, she said.
The actual number is probably higher than what's reported. Among members of the military surveyed in 2006 who indicated they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, about 20 percent said they had reported it to an authority or organization.
Female veteran warns daughter
This summer, the Pentagon is bringing experts together to come up with a more aggressive prevention strategy. It also is working with the nonprofit group Men Can Stop Rape to help teach troops how to identify warning signs of problems around them.
When victims do complain, too often the perpetrator is not moved out or punished, said Colleen Mussolino, national commander of the Women Veterans of America.
"You have to be able to trust fellow soldiers, and if you can't do that, you're basically on your own. So it's really rough, really rough for them," said Mussolino, of Bushkill, Pennsylvania.
A vast majority of women at war feel safe with their comrades in arms, "but for the ones who feel unsafe, it's hell," said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who directs the Women in Military Project at the Washington-based Women's Research and Education Institution.
At a recent women veteran's conference in Washington, Leanne Weldin, of Pittsburgh, who deployed in Iraq with the Arizona National Guard in 2003 as a 1st lieutenant, described arriving in the Kuwait staging area and seeing signs warning of rapes. She said she endured some minor sexual harassment while deployed and was groped by an Iraqi teen while sitting in a Humvee.
When her own daughter wanted to join the Army, Weldin said later, she didn't discourage her. But she offered some sobering advice.
"Watch out for yourself. Don't party with the soldiers in the barracks. You've got to watch out for date rape. Watch out for yourself. It's still a male culture. Don't let yourself get taken advantage of. Don't let yourself get sucked in. Don't let your guard down," Weldin said.
"But at the same time, go in there and show them what you're made of."
The VA now provides free care to any veteran from any era who has experienced military sexual trauma. That's a change from the 1991 Persian Gulf War and earlier wars. Since 2002, about 20 percent of female veterans from all eras and 1 percent of male veterans have screened positive for military sexual trauma.
"We believe that identifying people early and providing care early is going to be important and really make a difference in people's lifetime trajectory, but that story remains to be followed and told," said Antonette Zeiss, a psychologist who is the deputy chief consultant in the VA's Office of Mental Health Services.
It's unknown whether incidents of rape and assault are higher in the military population than the civilian population. One study, however, of 1991 Persian Gulf War veterans found that incidents of assault, rape and harassment were higher at war than in peacetime military samples, according to the VA's PTSD center.
It's only in recent years that the military and VA have kept comprehensive statistics, and even the two agencies define military sexual trauma differently.
What is known is that the effects of a military sexual trauma can be long lasting, particularly for those who don't seek early help.
One does not need to read Cynthia Enloe to comprehend the continued problem of sex crimes being habitually committed against female service members. Remember Tailhook or the story a few years ago indicating a fifth of female soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force were sexually harassed? Like torture, prostitution, and other crimes, a culture of violence, encouraged by having half of the world's military spending (and the continued use of that military by policy makers who, with few exceptions, have ever experienced real combat), has correlative consequences. The violation of women being high on the list of those consequences.
None of this should be surprising. The word rape was originally a military term, denoting the violent plunder of lands and peoples by an invading army. It became intertwined over the centuries with sexual violence because of the propensity of armies to use sexual violence as a weapon of war. Consider the recent stories of female soldiers being assaulted and murdered.
Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?
by Ann Wright
The Department of Defense statistics are alarming — one in three women who join the US military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. The warnings to women should begin above the doors of the military recruiting stations, as that is where assaults on women in the military begins — before they are even recruited.
But, now, even more alarming, are deaths of women soldiers in Iraq, and in the United States, following rape. The military has characterized each of the deaths of women who were first sexually assaulted as deaths from “non-combat related injuries,” and then added “suicide.” Yet, the families of the women whom the military has declared to have committed suicide, strongly dispute the findings and are calling for further investigations into the deaths of their daughters. Specific US Army units and certain US military bases in Iraq have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of “non-combat related injuries,” with several identified as “suicides.”
94 US military women in the military have died in Iraq or during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). 12 US Civilian women have been killed in OIF. 13 US military women have been killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). 12 US Civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan.
Of the 94 US military women who died in Iraq or in OIF, the military says 36 died from non-combat related injuries, which included vehicle accidents, illness, death by “natural causes,” and self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or suicide. The military has declared the deaths of the Navy women in Bahrain that were killed by a third sailor, as homicides. 5 deaths have been labeled as suicides, but 15 more deaths occurred under extremely suspicious circumstances.
8 women soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas (six from the Fourth Infantry Division and two from the 1st Armored Cavalry Division) have died of “non-combat related injuries” on the same base, Camp Taji, and three were raped before their deaths. Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq. Two military women have died of suspicious “non-combat related injuries” on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as “suicides.”
19-year-old US Army Private Lavena Johnson, was found dead on the military base in Balad, Iraq in July, 2005 and her death characterized by the US Army to be suicide as a self-inflicted M-16 shot. On April 9, 2008, Dr. John Johnson and his wife Linda, parents of Private Johnson, flew from their home in St. Louis for meetings with US Congress members and their staffs. They were in Washington to ask that Congressional hearings be conducted on the Army’s investigation into the death of their daughter, an investigation that classified her death as a suicide despite extensive evidence suggesting she was murdered.
From the day their daughter’s body was returned to them, the parents had grave suspicions about the Army’s investigation into Lavena’s death and the characterization of her death as suicide. In charge of a communications facility, Lavena was able to call home daily. In those calls she gave no indication of emotional problems or being upset. In a letter to her parents, Lavena’s commanding officer Captain David Woods wrote : “Lavena was clearly happy and seemed in very good health both physically and emotionally.”
In viewing his daughter’s body at the funeral home, Dr. Johnson was concerned about the bruising on her face. He was puzzled by the discrepancy in the autopsy report on the location of the gunshot wound. As a US Army veteran and a 25-year US Army civilian employee who had counseled veterans, he was mystified how the exit wound of an M-16 shot could be so small. The hole in Lavena’s head appeared to be more the size of a pistol shot rather than an M-16 round. He questioned why the exit hole was on the left side of her head, when she was right handed. But the gluing of military uniform white gloves onto Lavena’s hands hiding burns on one of her hands is what deepened Dr. Johnson’s concerns that the Army’s investigation into the death of his daughter was flawed.
Over the next two and one-half years, Dr. and Mrs. Johnson, and their family and friends relentlessly through the Freedom of Information Act and Congressional offices requested the Department of the Army for documents concerning Lavena’s death. With each response of the Army to the request for information another piece of information/evidence about Lavena’s death emerged.
The military criminal investigator’s initial drawing of the death scene revealed that Lavena’s M16 was found perfectly parallel to her body. The investigator’s sketch showed that her body was found inside a burning tent, under a wooden bench with an aerosol can nearby. A witness stated that he heard a gunshot and when he came to investigate found a tent on fire and when he looked into the tent saw a body. The Army official investigation did not mention a fire nor that her body had been burned.
After two years of requesting documents, one set of papers provided by the Army included a xerox copy of a CD. Wondering why the xerox copy was in the documents, Dr. Johnson requested the CD itself. With help from his local Congressional representative, the US Army finally complied. When Dr. Johnson viewed the CD, he was shocked to see photographs taken by Army investigators of his daughter’s body as it lay where her body had been found, as well as other photographs of her disrobed body taken during the investigation.
The photographs revealed that Lavena, a small woman, barely 5 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, perhaps a weapon stock. Her nose was broken and her teeth knocked backwards. One elbow was distended. The back of her clothes had debris on them indicating she had been dragged from one location to another. The photographs of her disrobed body showed bruises, scratch marks and teeth imprints on the upper part of her body. The right side of her back as well as her right hand had been burned apparently from a flammable liquid poured on her and then lighted. The photographs of her genital area revealed massive bruising and lacerations. A corrosive liquid had been poured into her genital area, probably to destroy DNA evidence of sexual assault.
Despite the bruises, scratches, teeth imprints and burns on her body, Lavena was found completely dressed in the burning tent. There was a blood trail from outside a contractor’s tent to inside the tent. She apparently had been dressed after the attack and her attacker placed her body into the tent and set it on fire.
Investigator records reveal that members of her unit said Lavena told them she was going jogging with friends on the other side of the base. One unit member walked with her to the Post Exchange where she bought a soda and then, in her Army workout clothes, went on by herself to meet friends and get exercise. The unit member said she was in good spirits with no indication of personal emotional problems.
The Army investigators initially assumed Private Johnson’s death was a homicide and indicated that on their paperwork. However, shortly into the investigation, a decision apparently was made by higher officials that the investigators must stop the investigation into a homicide and to classify her death a suicide.
As a result, no further investigation took place into a possible homicide despite strong evidence available to the investigators.
Another family that does not believe their daughter committed suicide in Iraq is the family of Army Private First Class Tina Priest, 20, of Smithville, Texas, who was raped by a fellow soldier in February, 2006 on a military base known as Camp Taji. Priest was a part of the 5th Support Battalion, lst Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. The Army said Tina was found dead in her room on March 1, 2006, of a self-inflicted M-16 shot, a “suicide”, 11 days after the rape. Private Priest’s mother, Joy Priest, disputes the Army’s findings. Mrs. Priest said she talked several times with her daughter after the rape, and while very upset about the rape, she was not suicidal. Priest continues to challenge the Army’s 800 pages of investigative documents with a simple question. How could her petite daughter, 5-foot-tall daughter with a short arm length, have held the M-16 at the angle which would have resulted in the gunshot? The Army attempted several attempts explanations, but each was debunked by Mrs. Priest and by the 800 pages of materials provided by the Army itself. The Army now says Tina used her toe to pull the trigger of the weapon that killed her. The Army never investigated Tina’s death as a homicide, but only as a suicide.
Rape charges against the soldier whose sperm was found on her sleeping bag were dropped a few weeks after her death. He was convicted of failure to obey an order and sentenced to forfeiture of $714 for 2 months, 30 days restriction to the base and 45 days of extra duty.
On the same Camp Taji, 10 days later after Tina Priest was found dead, on May 11, 2006, woman US Army Private First Class (name known to author, but not identified for the article), 19, was found dead. She died three days after she suffered what the Army called “a self-inflicted gunshot”. The Army claimed that she too had committed suicide. In her room where her body was found, investigators discovered her diary open to a page on which she had written about being raped during training after unknowingly drinking a date rape drug. The person identified in the diary as the rapist was charged by the Army with rape after her death. Many who knew her did not believe she shot herself, but there is no evidence of a homicide investigation by the Army.
The September 4, 2006 death at Camp Taji of Private First Class Hannah Gunterman McKinney, 20, of the 44th Corps Support Battalion, Ft. Lewis, WA was investigated and rather than having been run over by a military vehicle as she crossed a road from a guard tower to the latrine as initially claimed by the Army, she fell or was pushed from and run over by a vehicle driven by a drunk Sergeant from her unit who had first sexually assaulted her. The Sergeant pleaded guilty to drinking in a war zone, drunken driving and consensual sodomy with an underage, incapacitated junior soldier to whom he had supplied alcohol. A military judge ruled that McKinney’s death was an accident and the Sergeant was sentenced to 13 months imprisonment, demotion to private, but he would not be discharged from the Army.
Other suspicious “non-combat related injury” deaths on Camp Taji include Fort Hood’s 1st Armored Cavalry Division PFC Melissa J. Hobart who died June 6, 2004, 1st Armored Cavalry Sergeant Jeannette Dunn who died November 26, 2006), 89th Military Police Brigade Specialist Kamisha J. Block (who died August, 2007), 4th Infantry Division Specialist Marisol Heredia who died September 7, 2007) and 4th Infantry Division Specialist Keisha M. Morgan who died February, 22, 2008. None of the deaths have been classified as suicides, but the circumstances of their deaths should be investigated further because of serious questions concerning their deaths.
The US Army has classified the deaths of four other women as suicides. In the space of three months in 2006, three members of the U.S. Army who had been part of a logistics group in Kuwait committed suicide. Two of them were women. In August 2006, Lt. Col. Marshall Gutierrez, was arrested at a restaurant in Kuwait and was accused of shaking down a laundry contractor for a $3,400 bribe. He was allowed to return to his quarters and found dead on September 4, 2006 with an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills an open container of what appeared to be antifreeze.
Major Gloria D. Davis, 47, assigned to the Defense Security Assistance Agency which handles the sales of military equipment to other countries, reportedly committed suicide in Baghdad on December 12, 2006, the day after she allegedly admitted to an Army investigator that she had accepted at least $225,000 in bribes from Lee Dynamics, a US Army contractor, that reportedly bribed officers for work in Iraq. Major Davis had a daughter, son and granddaughter. She had worked as a police officer, was a volunteer at women’s shelters and helped get disadvantaged African-American students into ROTC programs.
New York Army National Guard Sergeant Denise A. Lannaman, 46, assigned to a desk job at a procurement office in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait that purchased millions of dollars in supplies. She received excellent performance ratings, her supervisor citing that her oversight eliminated misuse of funds by 36 percent. On October 1, 2006, Lannaman was questioned by a senior officer about the death of Lt. Col. Gutierrez and reportedly told by that officer that she would be leaving the military in disgrace. She was found in a jeep dead of a gunshot wound later in the day. While her family said that she had attempted suicide four different times in her life, the Army has not ruled on the cause of death of Lannaman.
US Army interrogator Specialist Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Ft. Campbell, KY, was an Arabic linguist who reportedly was very concerned about the manner in which interrogations were being conducted. She died on September 15, 2003 near Tal Afar, Iraq in what the Army described as a gunshot wound to the head, a non-combat, self-inflicted weapons discharge, or suicide. Peterson reportedly objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners and refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Members of her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Peterson objected to. The military says that all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. After refusing to conduct more interrogations, Peterson was assigned to guard the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards. She was also sent to suicide prevention training. On the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle. Family members challenge the Army’s conclusion.
US Army Sergeant Melissa Valles, 26, assigned to Headquarters Detachment, Company B, 64th Forward Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Carson, CO, died on July 9, 2003, in Balad from a two non-combat gunshot wounds to her abdomen. The Army has not ruled whether her death was a suicide or a homicide. But Valles’ family stated that although small in stature at 5 foot 3, she was a tough person. “She really put people in their place. She did that since she was a girl. She would put little boys who were bullies in their place.” The family does not believe Valles committed suicide.
One suspicious non-combat death of a military woman occurred in Afghanistan.
On September 28, 2007, Massachusetts Army National Guard Specialist Ciara Durkin, 30, a finance specialist, was found lying near a church on the very secure Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with a single gunshot wound to her head. She had recently told her relatives to press for answers if anything happened to her while she was deployed in Afghanistan. When she was home three weeks prior to her death, she told her sister about something she had come across that raised some concern with her and that she had made some enemies because of it. Members of her family also questioned whether the fact that she was gay played a role in her death. They believe Ciara was killed by a fellow service member, intentionally or accidentally, and they are confident that she did not commit suicide.
In Bahrain, On January 16, 2007, US Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer A. Valdivia, 27, assigned to the naval security force for Naval Support Activity, Bahrain, was found dead 3 days after she was to report for duty on January 14. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has classified her death as a suicide. Valdivia was kennel master of the largest military kennel in the world. In 2005 she was named Sailor of the Year at the Bahrain Naval Base.
Although the data on the number of suicides in the military is vague and purposely underreported by the Veterans Administration, of 69 suicides of men in the military since 2002, 64 committed suicide in the United States, 1 in Kuwait, 2 in Iraq and 2 in Afghanistan. Men are much more likely to commit suicide once they return from a combat zone, than in the combat zone. Of the 8 alleged suicides of women in the military, 3 were in Iraq, 2 in the US, 1 in Kuwait and 1 in Bahrain. The question of why women would be more likely to commit suicide outside the US than once home should be investigated.
The circumstances surrounding each of these deaths warrants further investigation by the US military. Congress can compel the military to reopen cases and provide further investigation.
I strongly urge the Congress to demand further investigation of the deaths of these women.
US Army Reserve Colonel, Retired, Ann Wright is a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a US diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the US Department of State in March 19, 2003 in opposition to the Iraq War. She is the co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.” (www.voicesofconscience.com)