This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War. The news coming out of Iraq today is far from cheerful, as bomb blasts and sectarian violence continue. What is also worth serious consideration on this anniversary is the fate of the men, and particularly more and more women who have fought in this war. and return home with complicated baggage we are only beginning to unpack.
On March 18, 2007 — around the 4-year anniversary — Sara Corbett published a lengthy piece in the New York Times called “The Women’s War.” Corbett had set out to better understand “how being a woman fit into both the war and psychological consequences of the war,” and conducted a number of interviews with women who had fought in Iraq and returned with PTSD.
She points out that in this war an “unprecedented number of women have been exposed to high levels of stress.” At that point in 2007, 160,000 female soldiers had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to, for example, the 7,500 who served in Vietnam.
What Corbett discovers over the course of her research is not just that these women are witnesses to “historic levels of violence,” but that in fact it is also experiences of sexual assault that are contributing to incidences of PTSD. She points to a 2003 report released by the Department of Defense which found that almost 30% of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the Veterans Association (V.A.) said they had experienced rape, or attempted rape, during their service. In another study financed by the V.A, researchers “looked at the prevalence of PTSD symptoms … and found that women who endured sexual assault were more likely to develop PTSD than those who were exposed to combat.”
This issue of sexual assault in the military has been making headlines over the past few months. The release of a documentary called The Invisible War, which delivers a harrowing investigation into rape in the military, has really placed the question of reporting procedures on central stage. Just last week the U.S. Senate heard from victims of sexual assault who have asked that lawmakers “require independent review of claims, taking the final authority out of the hands of high-ranking officers who have in some cases reversed decisions by military juries.” Corbett herself speaks at length about how the women she interviewed felt that attempting to seek justice for the assaults they endured would be pointless: “If Suzanne Swift's why-bother approach to telling her superiors about the harassment in Iraq initially struck me as curious, it began to make more sense as I spoke with a number of other female Iraq veterans. There was a pervasive sense among them that reporting a sexual crime was seldom worthwhile.”
Just last month, another piece came out in the Times discussed returning servicewomen and their struggles in dealing with their experiences, and readjusting to life back “home.” We are informed that these women make up the “fastest growing segment of the homeless population” in this country. More poignantly still we are told that “a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists said, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Six years ago, Corbett chillingly asked, “How will this new crop of female war veterans respond, recover or act out the traumas of their military experience? While it is still too early to know, paying attention to small stories, usually tucked inside local newspapers, may indicate the early flickers of a larger fire.”
A larger fire indeed: all these years later and we are still just barely beginning to take steps towards addressing what is no longer disputed to be a pandemic in the U.S military. We are only beginning to talk about men as victims of this kind of sexual assault, and only really starting to change the laws that may facilitate the reporting of these crimes. Meanwhile, the very women Corbett was bringing our attention to 6 years ago are finding it hard to maintain steady jobs and house their families. Despite efforts made to accommodate veterans, a large number of women continue to struggle a great deal. In the more recent Times article, the author quotes Steve Peck, the president of a non-profit organization called U.S. Vets, which had a special program for female vets: “We began to understand that so many of them suffered from sexual trauma … Their inability to cope with those feelings made it impossible for them to put one foot in front of the other.”
It is clear that women who serve in the military often face not only the violence and trauma of combat, but also the crushing demoralization of assault endured from their fellow service members. Ten years later, those women who have returned from Iraq continue to find themselves alone — just as Corbett had described back in 2007: “What struck me again and again, meeting and talking to female Iraq veterans grappling with PTSD, was their isolation. So many … seemed uncertain of what to do next. It was as if their mistrust of the world had led them to mistrust themselves.”
It’s important that we are talking about sexual assault in the military — and suffice it to say there is much to be learned and done in that domain. But we also need to be talking about how we can better help the women, and men, who have returned home, and how their experiences may have been shaped, both by what they experienced in combat, as well as within their own barracks.