15% of female veterans in v.a. treatment show signs of sexual trauma

It took Diane Pickel Plappert six months to tell a counselor that she had been raped while on duty in Iraq. While time passed, the former Navy nurse disconnected from her children and her life slowly unraveled.

Carolyn Schapper says she was harassed in Iraq by a fellow Army National Guard soldier to the extent that she began changing clothes in the shower for fear he'd barge into her room unannounced — as he already 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 so far in Iraq and Afghanistan — is forcing the military and Department of Veterans Affairs to more aggressively address it.

The data that exists — incomplete and not up-to-date — offers 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 women 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 were 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 women patients feel safer.

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.

Whenever I blog about sexual assault within the military, some wingnut warlovers feel obligated to refute it in their own forums. Military men regard military women as their sisters, they cry. Soldiers would never even touch a fellow female soldier - unless she asked for it. Then later, of course, they regret it and "cry rape".

Military men are apparently honourable and upstanding. Military women, however, are just lying bitches.

Do I really need to say that not all men are rapists? Not all men in the military are rapists, either. But the lawless, dehumanized, violent culture that surrounds war and occupation has transformed many a normal man into something he never was at home.

In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Christopher Hedges describes how in every war zone he covered, in every part of the world, sexual context between men and women was reduced to its most brutal and violent. Rape became a norm, and not only as a weapon against the enemy.

I applaud Diane Pickel Plappert and Carolyn Schapper for coming forward, and standing up with their real names. It's really hard to do, let me tell you. But once done, it gives you strength and courage, and soon you couldn't imagine making any other choice.

I know that other women will also find courage and comfort from Plappert's and Schapper's examples. I thank them.

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