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Step 5 to end military suicides: Enforce zero tolerance

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and we’ve invited John Bateson to write a series of articles on one group that is particularly vulnerable: military service members. Read Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and Step 4 of 5.

In June 2015, the results of a new study by the Department of Veterans Affairs were released. The study examined more than 170,000 suicides of adult men and women in 23 states between 2000 and 2010, and concluded that female military veterans kill themselves at a rate that is nearly six times higher than their civilian counterparts. The disparity is even greater for women 18 to 29—the primary age group in the military—where the suicide rate of female veterans is 11 times higher than for female non-veterans in that age range.

Women now constitute 18% of our fighting force—the highest percentage ever. They are expected to exhibit the same tough, aggressive warrior mentality as their male peers even though they tend to be more anxious about leaving children and spouses behind. They have to defy stereotypes, including those in which they are considered too fragile for military duty. They also have to deal with sexual harassment and sexual assaults far more often than female civilians.

In a 2010 study by the VA, 90% of female respondents reported that they had been sexually harassed while in the military. Incidences of rape among military personnel occur twice as often as in the civilian population, with 90% of victims being junior-ranking women whose average age is 21, while their assailants tend to be non-commissioned officers whose average age is 28.

Adding to the trauma for women, perpetrators often go unpunished, leaving victims to suffer in  silence. Only 6% of those accused of sexual assault in the military spend any time in jail.

In recent years the Department of Defense has promoted a policy of zero tolerance when it comes to sexual harassment and assaults; however, enforcement is lacking. Investigations still tend to be handled by the commander in charge rather than by independent military prosecutors, and commanders, to this point, have had the authority to reverse convictions, potentially rendering the outcome of any proceeding meaningless.

In “Why Soldiers Rape,” Helen Benedict recommends ways that the Pentagon can show more regard for women and lessen the abuse that they receive while in the service. Her suggestions include:

  • Making a greater effort to promote and honor female troops.
  • Teaching everyone that rape is torture and a war crime.
  • Expelling men who attack female comrades.
  • Banning pornography.
  • Refusing to admit recruits who have a history of sexual assault or domestic violence.

These and other changes, if enforced, would show that zero tolerance is exactly that. For the well-being of every woman who serves, as well as for the overall health of the military, sexual harassment and assaults must end.

Feature Image: Four F-15 Eagle pilots from the 3rd Wing walk to their respective jets at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, for the fini flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Nathan Galbreath

    The author made a significant error in his summation of military sexual assault research, to wit: “Incidences of rape among military personnel occur twice as often as in the civilian population,….”

    This is inaccurate. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of sexual assault between civilian women, military women, and female spouses of military men, after adjusting for differences in age and marital status. In fact, there were no differences in prevalence when measuring at the past year, past three year, or lifetime intervals.

    Sexual assault has no place in the military, but the author is wrong to assert that rates of sexual assault in the military are greater than rates in the civilian population.

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