The U.S. military is the largest employer in the world, with approximately 1.3 million active workforce members, but women comprise only 15% of military personnel. In the Marine Corps, women account for the smallest number of personnel, only about 9%, compared to just under 19% for the Air Force and 18% for the Navy. Women are difficult to recruit due to the military’s toxic misogynist, macho culture. If you need a refresher, "misogyny" is defined by Wikipedia as "the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls. Misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including social exclusion, sex discrimination, hostility, androcentrism, patriarchy, male privilege, belittling of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification." In the military, mental and physical training and the bonding rituals are male-oriented and often extreme to promote the ideal warrior mindset, which clashes with the traditional male view of women as the weaker sex. I grew up in the military as the daughter of an officer of NATO Intelligence and Member of the German General Staff, and the servicewomen I met were highly competitive, intelligent and tough, both mentally and physically. They were role models for me and I admired their sense of confidence and strength. I witnessed how some of these service women were treated by their male counterparts and I understood early on that serving in the military as a woman required extraordinary patience, resilience, and strength. Regardless of her ability to perform and compete in training, the traditional male view of women as a weaker gender prevails, and women who enter the armed forces continue to be unfairly tested by their male counterparts and superiors.
Sexual harassment and assault, and retaliation for reporting it, remains a serious problem in the military. After a series of sexual misconduct scandals rocked the military in 2013, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were summoned to give testimony before Congress on the issue of whether the military justice system was too antiquated to handle the problem of sexual harassment and assault. The joint chiefs acknowledged the problem had been neglected for years and promised to devote new resources to training and law enforcement. The Pentagon released a new report in April 2018, noting that the number of sexual harassment complaints jumped by 16 percent, and the number of sexual assault complaints jumped from 6,172 in 2016 to 6,769 in fiscal year that ended September 30, 2017, a 10% increase—the highest number since the United States military began tracking reports more than a decade ago. The increase in reports is claimed to be due to broader confidence in leadership and response action to hold violators accountable. However, only one in three victims file claims, and most cases are handled quietly, behind closed doors.
The 2018 Pentagon report also noted an increase in complaints of retaliation from 84 in 2016 to 146 in 2017. "Fear of ostracism and retaliation remains a barrier to reporting sexual assault or filing a sexual harassment complaint," the report said, adding that many women fear it will damage their reputations and haunt them for the length of their careers. Martha McSally, the freshman Republican senator from Arizona appointed to take the seat of the late John McCain, made a stark disclosure of her own earlier this year while testifying at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on sexual assault in the military. McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and first woman to fly a fighter jet and command an air campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11, while serving her country with distinction, was raped by a superior officer who she did not name. At the time, she did not report her assault because she did not trust the system and was ashamed. Successful female recruiting will require the military to overhaul its training to become gender-neutral and allow sex crimes to be reported and investigated outside the chain of command, in military or civilian courts, with a transparent, consistent process—to avoid potential conflicts of interest and to foster impartiality. It’s fair to ask how far along we’ve come towards that goal and the answer is, not far and definitely not far enough.
A 2015 case involving Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base is another indicator of lack of progress. In that case, it didn’t matter to the commanding officer that a young female officer was repeatedly sexually harassed by a superior through inappropriate texts, emails, and videos (including video recordings of himself masturbating) repeatedly demanding sex, all of which were provided during the investigation. It didn’t matter to the commanding officer that Air Force investigators confirmed her accounts when she finally reported the abuse. Despite the fact that military law allows for court-martial and a sentence of up to seven years for this type of abuse, that same law also permits the commanding officer to determine if a criminal case should be pursued, and the commander here, declined. Instead, he decided to impose non-judicial discipline for conduct unbecoming of an officer. After subsequent review, the alleged violator was demoted one rank and forced to resign—with a full pension.
In an effort to remove the prosecution of felonies, including sexual assaults, from commanders (who are often perpetrators themselves) to experienced military prosecutors, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand re-introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act. According to Gillibrand, sexual harassment and assault remain pervasive in the military despite years of efforts and minor reforms, and “Top officials in the military continue to assert that they alone will fix this, but little has changed.” After receiving support of a bipartisan majority of Senators for the second straight Congress, the act was filibustered again.
Another, possibly more, shocking story broke in January 2017. Marine veteran Thomas Brennan, who runs a nonprofit news organization called “The War Horse,” uncovered scandalous activity on the “Marines United” Facebook page first launched in 2015, with membership limited to only male Marines, Navy Corpsmen, and British Royal Marines. When the page was exposed, it featured hundreds of posts in which female Marines were disparaged, made the subject of vile and sexually inappropriate comments, and were displayed in explicit pictures, sparking outrage. A joint military task force comprised of Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine and Navy investigators was formed in short order to jointly investigate the culture that gave rise to the Marines United Facebook posts, to develop and implement corrective changes to policies and procedures, and to modify education and training to help prevent any such activity in the future. According to reporting one year later, few changes have been made to reform the misogynist culture. Students at the Coast Guard, Army, Navy and Air Force academies are all experiencing an increase in sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact ranging from unwanted touching to rape according to recent surveys. A recent probe involves the USS Florida and the discovery of a sexually explicit list (rumored to be a "rape list") compiled by Navy submarine sailors. The commanding officer was fired and other sailors terminated or subjected to administrative punishment after the probe concluded safety concerns to female sailors were not addressed after the discovery of the list and "lewd and sexist comments and jokes were tolerated, and trust up and down the chain of command was nonexistent." In another Navy case, an investigation was launched this past month after a hidden camera was discovered in the women's bathroom aboard the USS Arlington. This same ship came under fire when a 2015 report disclosed that sailors spent 10 months filming and sharing shower changing room videos of its female crew members (without their knowledge). According to a recent Rand Corp. study ordered by the Defense Department, of all of the military branches, women and men at Navy installations (and specifically ships) are at greater risk for sexual assault. The reasons for this risk disparity were not reviewed.