Have the deaths of some female soldiers in Iraq been covered up?

Former commander Janis Karpinski testifies that women died from dehydration because they were afraid of being sexually assaulted.

Published January 30, 2006 8:07PM (EST)

A shocking editorial posted at Truthout reports that Janis Karpinski, former commander of Abu Ghraib prison, testified last week that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, ordered that the cause of death for some female soldiers who served in Iraq be covered up. Karpinski told a panel of judges at the Commission of Inquiry for Crimes against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York that several women had died of dehydration. The women wouldn't drink liquids late in the day because they were afraid of being raped or assaulted by male soldiers if they used outdoor bathrooms in the middle of the night.

Karpinski also testified that after an Army surgeon stated in a briefing that "women in fear of getting up in the hours of darkness to go out to the port-a-lets or the latrines were not drinking liquids after 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and in 120 degree heat or warmer, because there was no air-conditioning at most of the facilities, they were dying from dehydration in their sleep" he was told not to give specific details during briefings anymore, especially about female soldiers.

And there's more: "Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, Sanchez's top deputy in Iraq, saw 'dehydration' listed as the cause of death on the death certificate of a female master sergeant in September 2003," Truthout reports. "Under orders from Sanchez, he directed that the cause of death no longer be listed, Karpinski stated. The official explanation for this was to protect the women's privacy rights."

"Sanchez's attitude was: 'The women asked to be here, so now let them take what comes with the territory,' Karpinski quoted him as saying. Karpinski told Truthout that Sanchez, who was her boss, was very sensitive to the political ramifications of everything he did. She thinks it likely that when the information about the cause of these women's deaths was passed to the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld ordered that the details not be released. 'That's how Rumsfeld works,' she said."

Last year, Karpinski leveled similarly damaging charges against the military when she told a group of students that even though there was an 800 number in Iraq where women could report sexual assaults, it was useless because most soldiers didn't have phones, and even if they did, there was no one on the other end of the line to talk to. Even after more than 83 incidents of sexual assault were reported during a six-month period in Iraq and Kuwait, the 24-hour rape hot line was still not staffed by a real person, only a recording.

If true, Karpinski's allegations -- and there are more in the editorial -- are horrifying and show a complete disregard for the safety of women in the military. What needs to be investigated now is whether these kinds of offenses are the exception or the rule. Either way, leaders like Sanchez need to be held accountable.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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