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In many ways, what happened to Petty Officer Second Class Rebecca Blumer after she was roofied and raped by three Army officers she met in a bar not far from base was far worse than the attack itself. Her superiors became more intent on prosecuting her for D.U.I. than on finding out what really happened to this promising young intelligence analyst. What’s worse is that her brutal story, recounted in riveting detail by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely in this month’s Rolling Stone magazine, is far from uncommon. The military, as films like The Invisible War and Erdely’s article show, has a rape problem of epidemic proportions. It is estimated that one in three military women are raped by fellow troops, twice the number of their civilian counterparts. One survivor of multiple rapes quoted in Erdely’s article calls the military a “giant rape cult.” In 2010, the DoD found that 19,000 service members were sexually assaulted. Of those a paltry 3,100, or 13.5 percent, were reported, and of those only 17 percent were prosecuted. All too often, attackers receive a slap on the wrist while their victims lose their careers and their futures, sometimes falling into homelessness, despair and suicidal thoughts.
I recently spoke with Erdely about her article, and was surprised to find that despite the horrific experiences of Blumer and other military rape victims, there might just be a glimmer of hope at the end of a long dark road spanning Tailhook, Lackland Air Force, Aberdeen and probably many sexual assault scandals that have never come to light.
Janet Allon: What drew you to the topic of sexual assault in the military?
Sabrina Rubin Erdely: I’ve written a lot on the subject of sexual assault in general, and have long been interested in the way these cases are handled and the way they are perceived by society. In both military sexual assault and civilian sexual assault, there are these rape myths that get in the way of survivors reporting these crimes.
Rape myths are at the heart of sexual assault and how it is handled, but these problems are magnified in the military. The military’s rape epidemic is magnified by military culture.
JA: Describe that culture and how it magnifies the problem.
SRE: For starters, the military is very macho. There is great emphasis placed on strength, for obvious reasons. Weakness is deplored, strength is prized, and femininity equates with weakness. If you can’t do enough pullups, you’re a pussy. Everything is gendered.
What is ingrained in troops is a degradation of women and the ethos is saturated with the harassment of women. It’s a culture of harassment within a closed structure. That message is absorbed and communicated throughout people’s military careers. And this degradation of women paves the way for sexual assault.
This is a problem in general, not just for women. You can’t admit to having any kind of weakness. Soldiers can’t admit to PTSD. Any sort of weakness means you can’t perform your mission. Saying you were a victim of a crime is further evidence that you are not fit for military.
JA: What else in military culture makes it difficult to report having been raped?
SRE: It’s a totally closed and regimented system. People in the military are told what time to do everything. Everything is dictated. This regimentation cannot be overstated: You are told how to walk, how to stand, what time to get up, whether you can walk across the room. It is a very hierarchical system. If the people above you give you orders, like not to report that you were raped, it would be very difficult to go against that. The survivors I spoke to were discouraged from reporting their rapes by their superiors.
The military is also a very closed society. Once a rape victim has reported an attack, or wants to see a doctor, everyone knows. There is a total lack of privacy, because everyone is on such a tight, regimented schedule, your absence would immediately be noticed.
In the civilian world, if you were raped, you could go to the hospital, see a doctor, report the crime, and theoretically you might just go back to your office, and your coworkers would be none the wiser. The military is a very gossipy place. Everyone knows your business, and they might start to shun or ostracize you, which is what happened to Petty Officer Rebecca Blumer, the subject of my piece. It became dangerous to be seen as her friend. In civilian life, if you felt ostracized, you might quit your job, leave the city. But in the military, if you leave you would be AWOL, and subject to court martial. So you are totally trapped.
JA: It seemed that the deeper tragedy of what happened to Rebecca Blumer was her total betrayal by the military.
SRE: Rebecca had a lot of faith in the military – she truly believed they had her best interests at heart. She was completely devoted to the Navy.
The military is not just your job, it is your world. It’s your friends, your family and your structure. In joining, you have agreed to lay your life on the line, so you have to have that level of trust in the organization. That is the level of trust Rebecca had in it. It gave her stability; she was totally invested in it. She was a 23-year-old Navy intelligence analyst, and she thought she had a bright future ahead of her. She was really good at what she did.
JA: So, it seems all the more strange that her superiors just did not believe her when she said she had been roofied and raped. She had a perfect unblemished record of service. But when she came to after the rape, in a sort of semi-conscious state, she tried to drive somewhere, either back to base or to get help, and was arrested for D.U.I. They did not get her treatment for her injuries, which were considerable. They even asked if she might have inflicted them on herself.
SRE: It is unclear how much investigation was done. She had an anal fissure. Her abdomen hurt. There was physical evidence. There was the fact that she blacked out. Her superiors were skeptical though, and more intent on punishing her for D.U.I. And once that decision was made, it was risky to stand up for her. Nobody wants to be a pariah.
JA: They did not get her any medical help for a long time, and when they did, they did not ask for a rape kit, just for her blood to be tested for the presence of a date-rape drug.
SRE: In Rebecca’s case, it was 18 hours after she had taken the shot of Jagermeister sent to her by these Army guys in the bar which she realizes must have been what drugged her. Within a few minutes she reacted. Her head, legs, arms felt heavy -- and she felt dizzy, but not drunk exactly. The noises in the bar rose up around her in a cacophony.
That was the last thing she remembered before waking up in a jail cell, naked, wet from being hosed down because she was apparently screaming for a doctor, and in a lot of pain, including severe rug burns on her buttocks and lower back. By the time they tested her urine 18 hours later, there was no trace of the drug. Date-rape drugs can be metabolized very quickly. All she’d had to drink that night was two beers and that fateful shot.
JA: How did you find Rebecca?
SRE: I found her through an explosive series of federal lawsuits – on behalf of about 59 victims of military sexual assault. I went through all of them, and Rebecca’s experience really stood out. She was an example of someone whose career was really cut short. The twists and turns in her case illustrated how dysfunctional the military is and how it treats these victims.
JA: How did she feel about having her story told?
SRE: She was very open about it, but it was difficult for her. She felt it was important to get her story out there to raise awareness. I am so grateful to all the service women who were willing to be identified and go public. It really communicates that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
JA: This is such a sad sory and with the shocking statistics of one in three women in the military being raped, and most of their attackers not being brought to justice—one victim in your story calls the military “a big rape cult.” On the eve of women joining men in full combat, is there any reason to be hopeful that the military will evolve?
SRE: I think there is a lot of hope. The challenges are huge, but not insurmountable. Now that the military has finally acknowledged that sexual assault is a problem, and responding to it appropriately is a priority, that’s huge. That’s a result of survivors coming forward, advocacy groups and Congress putting pressure.
Ironically, I think in some ways the military could be better equipped to get a handle on rape because it is such a closed society. This could become an asset. It is an organization that regulates behavior, so maybe they can regulate this. If sexual assault is a priority, they could turn that around. And if they do get their house in order, civil society might learn from them how better to deal with rape.
Military is overhauling their training programs for sexual assault investigators and prosecutors. They are learning state-of-the-art stuff. I am told by experts that it is far superior to what civilian police departments learn. It becomes like a little lab, a Petri dish where you can measure things. You can take stock.
It takes enlightened leadership. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has taken a strong stance on making sexual assault a priority, and named a new director, Major General Gary Patton, as head of the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office. He seems like the right person for the job—he implemented Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which went very smoothly, against dire predictions. It’s been a cultural shift.
So that’s encouraging. But it’s not to say the military can fix things themselves. It’s important that there be outside oversight, by both Congress and advocacy groups.
The fact that things are still this bad after more than 20 years of just atrocious sex scandals is pretty deplorable.