During the Vietnam War, the zeitgeist spewed venom toward the active-duty soldiers (many of whom were drafted) due to negative perceptions of the war. Jane Fonda and other celebrity activists hurled insults at the broken men for travesties they may or may not have committed and for a war they certainly did not begin.
Today’s Americans have learned their lessons from Vietnam. It is possible to not approve of a war and some of the misconduct which has marred it, but support the men and women fighting it. We’ve realized something: No one asks a soldier’s opinion on the justness of war before they deploy. Their duty comes before their personal convictions. In fact, this dual appreciation of soldiers and disgust toward the wars they fight evolved into a strange place: a bit of hero worship. Every soldier is considered a hero; together, they are “fighting for their country” and making sacrifices beyond any civilian. And partly this is true; soldiers must put their country and its demands ahead of themselves.
But this hero worship has created a mythical soldier—someone of unquestionable moral fortitude and courage, who always serves selflessly. In reality, these soldiers are just people. Sinful, complicated people. Expecting perfection from them is reckless.
Recently, the Department of Defense released its 2012 report on sexual assault within the military. Despite a decades’ long “no tolerance policy,” it estimates 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred within the year—that’s a 35% jump since 2011.
The military has a laundry list of outrageous stories that identify a culture of sexual violence.
One unnamed soldier found guilty of rape (nonconsensual sodomy) was given a “nonjudicial punishment,” which could be a reduction in rank, a fine, restriction of liberty for a period of time, or extra duty. To put it plainly: This person raped a fellow soldier, was found guilty, and wasn’t given any jail time.
Recently, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, head of the Air Force’s branch of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, was arrested for forcibly groping a woman in a parking lot.
An Air Force general inexplicably overturned a jury’s rape conviction.
An Army sergeant first class, part of the sexual assault response team, faces a litany of sexual abuse charges, including allegations that he forced a woman into prostitution.
Despite media attention on these specific reported cases, some of the worst cases may be unknown. Abysmal reporting rates show that the culture of sexual violence is supported by victim shaming. Of the 26,000 assaults, less than 13% were reported (3,374). That compares to a civilian reporting rate of 46%. The victims have a very valid fear: 67% of those who chose to report received some sort of retaliation.
And yet, in all this darkness, there’s a bit of light. The hero myth is crumbling. President Obama, Secretary of Defense Hagel, and several congressional leaders have heatedly addressed the issue and called for reform. Promising bipartisan legislation is in the works. Traditional news media and blogs have all covered the story relentlessly.
Acknowledging that the military has a deeply entrenched problem of sexual assault does not make you anti-solider or anti-military; in fact, I would argue it makes you pro-soldier and pro-military. Dismissing this epidemic puts you at the back of a long line of enablers who ignored the problem and allowed our service men and women to suffer silently. Seeing our soldiers through the lens of their humanity opens our eyes to all their potential: perpetrator, victim, dutiful servant, and sometimes, hero.