Women in military, subject to abuse, now on frontlines

Over the past several years, a crisis of sexual assault has taken hold of the U.S. military. Most recently, the epicenter has been an Air Force training base in Texas, where allegations against boot camp instructor and Staff Sgt. Luis Walker triggered a cascade of rape accusations, incriminating five other instructors. An additional thirty-five have been suspended, leaving the Lackland Military Base in San Antonio chaotic and stigmatized. The allegations have cast a shadow on the army, and a long chain of leadership failures has been revealed. In the first weeks of this year, the case of Paula Coughlin, who was abused at Lackland, resurfaced.

In 1992, 29-year-old Navy Lieutenant Coughlin revealed that she and dozens of others had been sexually assaulted at a military base. Once the story had gone beyond the borders of the Army and the military could no longer stifle it, the only thing that could be done from a public relations standpoint was to publicly address the whistleblower. So, Paula Coughlin was asked to meet the president, George H. W. Bush. But Dick Cheney, then Defense Secretary, welcomed her with dismissal rather than compassion. He simply said “You know, I just had to fire the Secretary of the Navy because of you.” When the story blew over—because people made sure that it did—Coughlin found the courage to return to the Naval aviation where she had become a “huge liability.” “The Navy really wanted me to go away quietly,” said Coughlin, according to The Daily Beast. “It became an endurance test to see how many days I could get up and go to work.” As the testimonies of the multiple victims of Sgt. Walker piled up, something became quite striking: the lack of violence with which the officers approached their trainees. It was as if the submission the female trainees were expected to demonstrate according to military procedure was so amplified and unnatural that the line between abuse and obedience had been blurred.

When questions were asked about why the trainees hadn’t reported these assaults earlier, one issue became very clear. The trainees under Walker’s command spent seven of their eight and a half weeks at the Lackland base before they were informed about how to report sexual assault. If you don’t ask, they won’t tell.

The Lackland case has brought attention to the military’s flawed organization. Navy Chief of Operations, Adm. Frank Kelso admitted that the Lackland case “brought to light the fact that we had an institutional problem in how we treated women”. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) also publicly declared she was “sick of excuses.” As insiders stirred up revolt, the current Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, had to take action. But instead of punishing those who have now been branded as unpunishable, he graciously allowed women to go and risk their lives on the battlefield.

On Jan. 24, U.S military leaders lifted the ban of women serving in combat. To calm the controversy about the role of women in the military, leaders moved to allow them to be part of a combat unit. No lobbying, no debates, seemingly out of the blue, women were given the right to die on the field. And it nearly seems to be a sort of compensation. Because addressing the male hegemony is politically unwise, the value of women has been reevaluated. And it seems that the ban’s lift is actually packed with fraud. Panetta has allowed women in a field that until now was officially authorized only to men. But nearly 150 women have already died in war zones. Not only were women on the battlefields, but their presence was publicly praised; women have earned the Silver Star in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans were told women weren’t allowed to be on the battlefield but they were still asked to mourn their deaths.

Although lifting the ban on women in combat now seems opportunist, let us not forget it will in the long run allow women to climb out of the pit of second-class citizen.  Not only are more than 200,000 jobs now available to women but amongst them are positions in elite Special Operations units like the Navy SEALs and Delta Force. Defense Secretary Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey agreed, saying that women and men were “fighting and dying together, and the time has come for our policies to reflect that reality.” It’s good to know that the advantages of the trade now offset the risks.


—Heloise Mercier ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

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