Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I read your contest column on joining the military and I have a different perspective. I’m 18 and female, and I’d like to join either the Marines or the Navy. My parents are also concerned about my safety, but not from combat. They’re afraid I’ll be raped by guys from my own side. I looked this up to try and reassure them, and now I’m scared for the same reason. I want to serve!
Katie: Wes emailed me your letter just days before the media erupted with two disheartening stories on sexual misconduct in the armed forces.
The first was disturbingly ironic. Two separate military officers responsible for sexual assault prevention were themselves cited in the last two weeks for alleged sexual misconduct.
The second is more pertinent as you weigh the honor and risk of serving our nation.
The Pentagon recently released a study on this topic, and the results are discouraging. The last fiscal year saw more instances of sexual assault than in 2010. Some 3,374 incidents were reported and an estimated 26,000 went unreported. Only 238 of reported incidents led to convictions.
The one hope we might take from these stories is that they’re too outrageous to be ignored. The president and the secretary of defense have both demanded action, and Congress is considering bills to change the way justice is implemented in the military’s sexual assault cases.
It’s likely that the DOD will be forced to revamp its inadequate response system. Yet even if that process begins immediately (and, unfortunately, it won’t), there may be little meaningful change in the problem by the time you enlist.
For every perpetrator in the Pentagon’s study, there are thousands of admirable men and women who serve. It is a disgrace to these heroes that the armed forces are marred by such unforgivable acts of sexual violation.
Nevertheless, given the current situation, no one would think less of you for waiting to enlist until the military gets its act together.
Dr. Wes: Responding to this on Memorial Day feels a little awkward, but your desire to enlist really does honor the countless men and women who’ve served throughout our history. You should not be deprived of this by callous acts of sexual misconduct. But the risk you cite is real and it adds an additional layer of concern for your parents and for you.
In 2011, I attended a workshop on “dream rescripting” at the American Psychological Association convention in Washington, D.C. This technique, used with people who’ve had traumatic stress incidents, helps them talk through frightening, repetitive dreams, then rewrite them as they wish they’d come out. Not surprisingly, the best technology for this comes from the true experts in PTSD, psychologists at the Veterans Administration.
In class, the VA teachers provided examples of dreams from young people who’d witnessed combat and injury — friends being blown up by IEDs, violence against civilians and the terror of their own acts against the enemy — vividly replayed each night on their minds’ movie screens.
The most compelling story of all, however, was a young woman’s nightmare of being gang-raped by members of her own unit in a tent in the Iraqi desert. Anyone who’s been in the military knows that these aren’t just your buddies during deployment, they’re your lifeline — the people you depend on to have your back. Instead, these men committed a horrific act of violence against a young comrade, who, like you, only wanted to serve.
I am a staunch proponent of men and women serving together. But I expect our elite, professional military to be a disciplined, well-run machine. The primary risk of service should come from external enemies, not from those within.
While I have a degree in history and know how wrong things can go in these situations, as Americans we expect our children will be, to the extent possible, protected from sexual assault while serving. Anything less is intolerable.
You have a right to apply for enlistment and gain all you can from the experience, while offering our country as much in return.
We will as a nation thank you profusely for your service. But, given the current situation, I must side with your parents and advise against joining up until the Department of Defense has implemented reforms to adjudicate and severely punish sex offenders within its ranks.