Raped On The Battlefield: What Male Veteran Survivors Know
One of the biggest contradictions in America is the fact that, while we're happy to talk about supporting our troops, we vanish like we just remembered that we left our house on fire as soon as they have an uncomfortable problem. And there's perhaps no issue that makes us more uncomfortable than the sexual assault of men in the military.
Rape is an awkward enough topic as it is, let alone when it happens to men we picture as muscular heroes willing to take a bullet for us -- every societal stereotype comes crashing down at once. But that's part of why military rape keeps happening. So we talked to five male veterans about their experiences. They said ...
Lines Get Blurred When You Send A Bunch Of Young Guys To A War Zone
In war movies, American soldiers usually look like 30-somethings who spend all of their downtime at the gym.
"Bro, do you even airlift?"
But many American soldiers are in fact kids fresh out of high school:
It's a lot harder to look like the movies when someone isn't buffing up your shoulders in post.
That's what the military prefers; they're at the peak of physical fitness, and they've spent their whole lives following orders at school and home. The only downside is that, like every 19-year-old in history, they're usually not emotionally mature at all. That's how you end up with comrades playing "gay chicken," as Roger, a former marine who fought in Iraq, told us. "Who can do the gayest thing?"
Wouldn't that technically be gay rooster? But whatever. The point is that it's not a game isolated to one eccentric unit. Chuck, a nine-year Marine veteran, went into more detail. "I saw marines being forced to show [their] penis to other marines. Some marines being forced to touch penises. People putting their balls or penis on another person's face."
Shenanigans like that are what you're going to see when you take thousands of hormonal young men, separate them from women, and put them under extreme stress. "In 2004 ... I think I saw three women. And you can only beat off to the same porn DVD so many times ... it's not like we had WiFi in the barracks." Internet porn access wasn't the first priority in the early days of the occupation of Iraq, because the government was busy screwing up other things. So Roger and his comrades had a lot of steam to, uh, blow off. "There [were] some strange fucking outlets ... when all you want to do is drink and fuck in a dry country where there's no women."
Iraq's nightlife fared about as well as its oppressive statues once the bombs started falling.
Those outlets included endless jokes about the alleged flaming gayness of someone, because no matter how society's view of homosexuality changes, teenagers are going to make gay jokes until the end of time. And these particular teenagers are isolated and completely dependent on a tiny group of their fellow immature teens for support. "A lot of times you don't realize you're crossing a line ... you're in a place where those 60 guys are [all you have]. There's no one else to turn to ... I know quite a few guys [where] something happened with somebody that maybe was a little too far."
In Roger's case, things went much too far. "[I was] pinned in a porta john. No one was around when it happened, and it absolutely was not a case of 'gay chicken.'" Roger was raped by an officer who "wanted to exert some control for whatever reason. I don't understand it." And here's where all of the weird homoerotic horseplay factors in: Any complaint about an incident like this can be written off as "Boys will be boys."
Not one of the prouder moments.
Roger reported the abuse to his staff sergeant, but as you may have guessed by the fact that this article exists, it didn't go well. "[They said], 'You're a corporal and a big bad Marine, and you didn't do anything to stop it. You liked it, you stupid faggot.'" Oh great, so six-foot-tall, 205-pound men can get the "They didn't fight the attacker, so they must have wanted it" shut-down, too. Hooray for equality.
You Have To Fight Alongside Your Rapist
Because most of the world's sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, it's depressingly common for people to have to spend time with their rapist afterward. But Roger was raped in an active war zone by a man he was expected to go into battle with. It created a bizarre situation where he actually was fine having the guy next to him when bullets were flying ("I wasn't worried that the guy who did it was beside me. It wasn't even a thought."), but was continually nervous away from combat ("[I] didn't want to go anywhere alone"). It didn't matter what happened during their downtime -- in a battle, they would have saved each other's lives without hesitation.
In case this is coming as news, what happens in a war zone doesn't always make a lot of sense.
"I think that's another reason why, for the most part, I just made myself be okay with it over the years. I will never make this an excuse for him ... but combat does weird fucking things for you. When you're an 18, 19, 20-year-old kid, you're not supposed to see a decayed body, you're not supposed to see [a person explode]. You fundamentally change as a person, whether you admit it or not. Maybe this guy became a predator when he was over there because he did not know what else to do. War is grotesque in every single possible way, and it destroys your soul. Maybe that's just how he reacted."
That is possible. A 2010 study by the Navy found that soldiers with PTSD were eight times more likely to engage in "antisocial behavior." Or maybe he would have been a rapist even if he became an accountant instead of a soldier. We don't know. But we can tell you that ...
The Military Is The Perfect Place For A Sexual Predator
26,000 U.S. soldiers reported being raped in 2012, 14,000 of them men. Those rapes can't all be blamed on the stress and loneliness of a foreign battlefield -- most occurred in America. That shocked Roger, considering the military is known for enforcing this thing called discipline. "This is a rigid, regimented environment. How can you not do anything about it? We can't file a simple sexual assault [report], but heaven forbid you forget your after-action report if you were shot at and had to use a grenade. It's a very weird system."
Roger described the military as the perfect place for a sexual predator to hide. For starters, paperwork of all kinds can honestly get lost, because the military has a bureaucracy straight out of a Terry Gilliam fever dream. "If you file a report and nothing happens about it ... it's like a good 70 percent of the time. Important paperwork can just vanish."
Which kind of makes sense when you see how the military's been handling their paperwork lately.
Also, if your commanding officer doesn't believe you, like in Roger's case, your chance at justice suffers a sudden death. In the civilian world, you can go to your friends, your family, the police, the hospital ... someone will eventually believe you in most cases. But in the military, "You have to request to properly speak to the next person in the chain of command. If I wanted to overstep [my commander], I'd still have to ask permission to go to the next person. I open myself up to being prosecuted for not respecting the chain of command."
Keep in mind, a lot of abuse is perpetrated by higher-ranking soldiers on their subordinates. Chuck told us about an officer who "asked me to perform oral on him, and offered to give me a perfect physical fitness test score. I've heard that same marine had at other times snuck into marine's tents while out on field exercises [and done] stuff like that. I was at a very small, remote unit, so I didn't feel like I could do anything about it without retaliation."
Tim, who served in the Navy, also witnessed that sort of thing firsthand. "I was out at dinner in Israel with a [higher-ranked man] from another department. He came on to me and told me he could help make my time on the ship worthwhile. He also told me if I didn't have sex with him, he could make my life hell. We had sex in the boatswain's locker at the forward part of the ship. I would see him almost daily, but never had any more communications with him and started having panic attacks. I never reported it, as Don't Ask, Don't Tell was in full effect."
That's right, in the days of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, reporting rape by a soldier of the same sex could lead to the victim being discharged. That had the accidental side effect of making "raping a co-worker" a surprisingly safe decision. Tim was sexually assaulted by a civilian in the 1990s, and that created the same nonsensical dilemma. "I could either report the assault and be discharged for violating the military's ban on homosexual behavior, or not say anything and be tested for STDs. I decided to not report it."
There's no way to know how many young men were put in Tim's situation, but other men have come forward with similar stories, because for over two decades, official military policy was implicitly "If you got raped, you probably liked it."
When Justice Fails, You Make Your Own
Roger's commander didn't take his rape report seriously, but his friends who fought and bled alongside him did. "These guys went to bat for me in a way I can't even begin to describe." In this case, "went to bat" means they beat Roger's rapist so badly that his femur snapped and he was sent home. The beating was then covered up with false paperwork, which the rapist didn't contradict because that would have raised the question of why he was a target. "The incident report said he fell out of a seven-ton truck as they were going 50 miles an hour down the highway. [My friends] jeopardized their lives and careers, and I'm eternally grateful for that."
You may note Roger's real name is conspicuously absent from this article. That's no accident.
We're not going to blame Roger for feeling personal satisfaction, but we also need to point out that vigilante justice never works out in the long run. Movies leave out the part where, immediately after the protagonist's heroic rampage, the bad guy's buddies get pissed off and continue the cycle. Roger's rapist had friends who either didn't believe Roger or didn't care and wanted to defend their own friend. "One of them went to yank my pants down and shove something up my ass. A lieutenant saw it. This was a bad night. We had lost one of the guys earlier that day, and our lieutenant took it hard. He did something he really wasn't supposed to and he pulled his weapon on these guys. He basically snapped and said, 'I will shoot you right here. We need to be in this together, stop fucking around!'"
The Perpetrators Aren't Always Men
Regardless of where and when it happens, most rape victims never file a report. This is especially true in the military, where, like anything else that's considered office gossip-worthy, your co-workers can easily learn about it. There's also a stigma among macho young men who don't want to admit to a supposed weakness, especially one that disrupts the precious cohesion of the unit. Roger explained that the Marine Corps is seen as a hive mind. You don't pollute it with your individual issues, even if the issue is "Hey, I got raped." The obstacles add up.
And while the military's sexual harassment training now acknowledges that men can be victims, it mostly still focuses on male perpetrators. Most rapists are men, but that makes it difficult for anyone who's raped by a female soldier to be taken seriously. John, a 20-year Air Force veteran, was raped twice by women in his first three years.
Which, for the final time, is a thing that happens.
"It's more than not wanting to say anything. 99.99 percent of the training materials we're subject to show males as aggressive rapists who can't be in the same room as a female without committing some type of sex crime. You can't possibly be a victim if you're only capable of being a criminal. [They'll say] you're just being 'proactive' to report that you've been assaulted, when you know that it was really you doing the assaulting and the first one to the Sexual Assault Office 'wins.'"
Since apparently military courtrooms work by Candy Land rules.
John never reported what happened to him. If Roger got laughed off as a "faggot who probably enjoyed it," what the fuck are they going to say to a young man complaining about being sexually assaulted by a woman?
The System Works Better Now, But There's Still Stigma
We mentioned above that training materials only cover male rapists, but even that is a huge step forward. No man we spoke with who entered the military before 2006 received training on how to report sexual assault by another man at all. It wasn't even acknowledged as a possibility -- harassment was something men did to women. That's changed. Rich, who's still in the army, told us about his 2014 assault: "I went to a party, went to sleep on the couch, and woke up being groped by another soldier."
Rich confronted him the next day: "He was kind of surprised at first. And then after I pressed him, he admitted this wasn't the first time this had happened. He was very nonchalant."
Reports by men are so rare that anonymity for attackers is almost guaranteed.
Rich started having nightmares and panic attacks, so he told an officer. The officer convinced him to file a report, and it turned out that the man was already under investigation -- he eventually went to Army Jail. But Rich's hesitance to report came at a price ... for the rapist's other victims. "I know they always try to maintain [that] it's not your fault, it's the [rapist's]. But if I'd come forward sooner, perhaps I could've protected somebody else from being assaulted ... there were three or four other people. I know I'm at least somewhat to blame for it happening to them."
Or, you know, it was the result of a system that made it clear that the victim may be the only one to suffer any consequences of a complaint. That's the situation the military puts rape victims in. Some understandably play it safe, then blame themselves when the rapist takes advantage of an ugly, murky situation. And maybe that's not the position we want our soldiers to be in when they should be more focused on, you know, not getting shot.
A firefight isn't exactly a great time to get caught splitting your attention.
So while the rules and process may be improving, it's also about changing the culture. Roger pointed out that "we can adapt to combat, but social changes are not the military's forte. After the slaves were freed, it took us 80 years to integrate the military."
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For more insider perspectives, check out Most Victims Are Men: 5 Realities Of Rape In The Military and 5 Shockingly Outdated Problems Women In The Military Face.
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