Claims of sexual abuse in the military by a US Army specialist show a need for progress.
In January 2006, US Army Specialist Suzanne Swift went absent without leave (AWOL) from her unit, the 54th MP Company, rather than return to Iraq.
She claimed to have suffered repeated sexual harassment and abuse, and blamed a chain of command whose members variously refused to stop it, participated in it, and accused her of bringing it on herself. She was arrested on June 11.
Now, an Army investigation is under way to determine the merits of her allegations and whether she should be punished for going AWOL. Meanwhile, she has been assigned to another unit and is largely restricted to Ft. Lewis, Washington.
Not surprisingly, Specialist Swift's case is attracting attention from the antiwar left. But this case is different. Unlike another Fort Lewis soldier, 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who has refused to go to Iraq on the grounds that the war is illegal and immoral, Specialist Swift claims that her refusal to return to Iraq is based upon the harassment and assault she suffered on her first deployment.
Her lawyer, Larry Hildes, a member of the left-leaning National Lawyer's Guild Military Law Taskforce, is seeking an honorable discharge for Swift, along with full veterans' benefits for the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) allegedly caused by the abuse.
At one level, this case is nonsense. Swift has no legal right to refuse service in Iraq or anywhere else because her fellow soldiers may have committed crimes against her. If her emotional state is such that she can no longer function as a soldier, she should be honorably discharged and receive appropriate treatment and compensation.
But at a deeper level, Swift's case suggests that it is time for the US Army – for all the services – to answer one question: Must American servicewomen continue to regard sexual harassment, assault, and rape as part of the price they must pay for serving their nation in uniform?
When conscription ended in 1973, the services began taking more women (currently 15 percent of the military). With their generally better test scores and behavior, they would make up for all the high-quality men who weren't joining (and are not joining now). But the services expected women to remain second-class support troops even while moving them ever closer to combat.
This profound hypocrisy left women vulnerable. Good men could not depend upon them in a fight, jerks felt free to disrespect and harass them, and predators felt free to prey upon them. All too often, the command structure seemed more concerned with keeping them in their place or getting them out than with either justice or military effectiveness.