In this Sunday's New York Times magazine, Sara Corbett took an extended look at women serving in Iraq, in a gazillion-word feature titled "The Women's War" pegged to the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. Like Helen Benedict's Salon article on women soldiers in Iraq earlier this month, Corbett examines the intersection between post-traumatic stress disorder and this war's high reported rates of sexual harassment and assault, combined with a military culture that many say discourages women from reporting these crimes. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, but for anyone seeking a digest version, a few compelling snippets:
Corbett notes that "two years after deployment to the gulf war, where combat exposure was relatively low, Army data showed that 16 percent of a sample of female soldiers studied met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as opposed to 8 percent of their male counterparts." She acknowledges that many possible factors could explain this discrepancy: Women might react more strongly to trauma, or women might tend to describe their experiences differently and thus be more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. But she suggests that rape and sexual harassment might also be factors, noting that sexual assault is usually classified as an especially traumatic experience. A 2003 Defense department survey found that a third of female veterans receiving health care through the Veterans administration reported having been raped, with 37 percent of that group reporting that they'd been raped multiple times and 14 percent of the groups reporting gang rape; a separate V.A. study found that rates of sexual assault rise in wartime. Corbett flags the statistic that, after the Defense department began allowing soldiers to report sexual assault confidentially, in 2005, "the number of reported assaults across the military jumped 40 percent, to 2,374." Still, she writes, the military doesn't seem to prosecute a high percentage of those cases that are reported: "Of the 3,038 investigations of military sexual assault charges completed in 2004 and 2005, only 329 -- about one-tenth -- of them resulted in a court-martial of the perpetrator." And Thomas Berger, the national chair of the Vietnam Veterans of America's PTSD-and-substance-abuse committee, told Corbett, ''I think women are more likely to fall through the cracks. The fact is, if a woman veteran comes in from Iraq who's been in a combat situation and has also been raped, there are very few clinicians in the V.A. who have been trained to treat her specific needs.''
Abbie Pickett, a 24-year-old combat-support specialist with the Wisconsin Army National Guard who was also quoted in Helen Benedict's story, summarized female soldiers' situation disturbingly and evocatively for Corbett's piece: ''When I joined the military, a lot of people at home said things like, 'Oh, are you really going to be able to handle it?' So then you're in Iraq, driving down Highway 1 with an M-16 in your hand. You have those doubts people had about you in the back of your head. You're thinking 5,000 things at once, trying to be everything everybody wants you to be. And you still have to take the crap from the men. You're 20 years old and growing into your own body, having an actual sex drive. But you've got 30 horny guys propositioning you and being really disgusting about it. Women are set up to fail in a very real way, in an area where they could get killed. If your mind isn't 100 percent on the battlefield, you could die. That's the bottom line.''