Acceptance of military violence against women must stop

The Miscellany News.

[CW: This article discusses sexual assault and death.]

 

In 2012, I joined the United States Army. During basic training, the two female drill sergeants assigned to my company rounded up all of the women to explain the standards we would be expected to maintain while we were there. We learned about hairstyles that would work best for us based on different hair types, they gave advice on the best feminine hygiene products to use in the field and they ended the crash course with a conversation about perception. In the military, perception is everything. How people saw you was how you would be treated and, according to these drill sergeants, women had two choices: We could be a bitch, or we could be a hoe. Both meant being hated, just for different reasons. It was a harsh thing to hear at 20 years old, especially from the women who would be training me over the next two months. I wish I could tell you that they were wrong, that my experience in the military wasn’t made more difficult because of my gender identity, but that would be lying. Worse, it would be feeding into a narrative about women’s military service that allows for the violence against women to continue to be swept under the rug. 

Why am I writing about this topic though? I got out of the Army in 2019, and I’ve been a college student for the last three years. Why am I speaking out now about violence against women in the military? Because last week, during a mindless scroll through TikTok, I came across a video about Private Second Class (PV2) Ana Basalda Ruiz, a 20-year-old active duty Army soldier who was found dead at Fort Hood, TX. The video was short and simple: Basalda Ruiz was dead, the military police claimed that there were no signs of foul play and she had complained to her family shortly before her death that she was being sexually harassed at work. I went to the internet to verify, and there in black-and-white was NBC reporting the same thing. Ruiz was found dead at the same base that made national news in 2020 when Private First Class (PFC) Vanessa Guillén went missing and her body was later recovered. Guillén’s family had to demand an investigation—they had to beg for answers, and now another family is being asked to do the same. 

It would be easy to say that this is a Fort Hood problem. That we should shut the base down and let it fade away into nothingness. But the issue isn’t the base. Fort Hood is an inanimate object, a plot of land with buildings and roadways and planes. It’s the people that make Fort Hood a hellscape assignment. Its leadership from the top all the way down convinces people that they can get away with mistreatment. According to Futures Without Violence, less than 14 percent of the more than 19,000 estimated sexual assaults in 2010 were reported. Of the reported 3,192 cases, only 191 led to a court-martial conviction. One in three convicted sex offenders remains in the military. Those numbers are bleak. If I had known them before I joined, we’d be having a different conversation right now. 

Women are afraid to speak out. The best-case scenario is to be the stick in the mud who can’t take a joke. During my last year in the military, I was told on at least three different occasions that I didn’t need to report the guys in my shop for inappropriate language because that’s just how guys talk, and it was a compliment that they felt comfortable being themselves around me. Never mind that their “being themselves” made me feel uncomfortable and worried about the safety of their wives and children. The worst-case scenario is reporting the abuse and being killed as a result. 

Guillén reported the harassment, PFC Denisha Montgomery reported her assault in Germany to her family and swore that she was reporting it to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) the next day and Ruiz reported sexual harassment to her family. All three women are dead. Only one has had any form of justice, and her justice never saw a courtroom. Guillén’s killer, a Specialist in her unit, committed suicide when military police arrived to question him about Guillén’s death. Military service comes with isolation. Service members are away from their families, without support systems, often for the first time. In a male-dominated industry, women become especially vulnerable. Sexual Harassment, Assault and Rape Prevention (SHARP) training doesn’t mean anything if the military community treats it as a joke. Providing reporting options doesn’t mean anything if the accused can run their mouth with impunity and win in the court of public opinion. Perception is reality in the military, and right now it is creating a deadly environment for women, trans women, nonbinary people—basically anyone who isn’t perceived as a cisgendered man. 

The experience of women in service isn’t unique. The military is often the perfect demographic for sociological understanding in America due to the diversity within its ranks. If this is how women are treated in a highly respected field, then what does that say for the rest of the women in our country? Demanding accountability and change in the treatment of one woman is to demand it for us all. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Jasmin Kaur, scream now so future generations never lose their voice. 

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