Aimee Allison served as a medic in the Army Reserves and received an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector during the Persian Gulf War.
But my day-to-day experience was full of evidence that racism was alive and well. High school classmates would chant the n-word when our team played its biggest rival the next town over. Slurs against gay people were so accepted that teachers used them without thought. And after winning a local Junior Miss competition, a first for a black contestant, I was excluded from the local news and town parade. When I brought my Ivy League college acceptance letter into the career center, a counselor suggested that I got in because of my race.
So I rushed to sign up for the Army Reserves, in part because it was the only place I knew of that promised I wouldn't be judged or limited by my race or gender. We women, people of color, and immigrants are especially attracted by the idea that we could live our lives on equal footing with other Americans. But the military isn't the egalitarian nirvana that its multi-billion dollar advertising blitz -- with a budget of almost $4 billion in 2003 -- claims.
Like most female soldiers, I learned the hard way that men dominate military culture. We are stuck in a system that makes it difficult to report abuse because of fear of reprisal. Even the military itself admitted in a June 2005 report by the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, "harassment is the more prevalent and corrosive problem, creating an environment in which sexual assault is more likely to occur."
Just ask any woman in uniform -- sexual harassment is a common experience on base. I remember on the day of boot camp graduation, the same drill sergeant who had threatened to "rip off my head and shit in my neck" for a minor infraction during training grabbed my arm in the on-base store and pressured me for a date. This was a man that had exercised incredible power over me and my unit for twelve weeks, and through my fear I mumbled, "Drill sergeant, no" three times before he let me go. I didn't know at the time that about 60 percent of women who have served in the National Guard and reserves said they were sexually harassed or assaulted, but less than one-quarter reported it. Many who did complain were encouraged to drop their complaints.
When I first joined the military at age seventeen, a military doctor administered a demeaning and uncomfortable pelvic exam during my induction physical. He didn't wear gloves. It turns out that my experience wasn't unusual.
At last year's National Summit of Women Veterans Issues in Washington, D.C., former Air Force officer Dorothy Mackey told of several instances of abuse during OB-GYN exams. "He sodomized me," she said. "I started looking into what happens in a normal OB-GYN examination, and that is definitely not supposed to be part of it."
Nine out of ten women under fifty who had served in the U.S. military and had responded to a survey reported being sexually harassed while in the service. In an episode of "60 Minutes," New Jersey National Guard Lieutenant Jennifer Dyer revealed that she was treated like a criminal after accusing a fellow officer of rape in early 2004. She reported the rape immediately to the military criminal investigation division (CID), who took her to a civilian hospital for a rape kit -- then held her in seclusion for the next three days with no counseling and no medical treatment. The CID agent advised her of her Miranda rights and threatened to prosecute her for filing a false report. Her command announced her rape and accusation to the entire unit. By the time she returned to her unit after a two-week leave, she was "fearful for [her] health, safety, and sanity." Her assailant was roaming free on base and was later acquitted of any crime.
All the bad press about rape in the military has led to congressional demands for reform. For the eighteenth time in sixteen years, the Pentagon has studied the problem and proposed changes, including designated victim advocates in every command and a promise of confidentiality, according to "60 Minutes."
It's too bad that fully funding this need isn't a high priority. A Department of Veterans Affairs report released in September 2005 found that the annual cost for health care, including mental health for National Guard members like Lieutenant Jennifer Dyer who experience sexual trauma, is about $20 million. Only $13 million is budgeted for the 2006 fiscal year.
Reports of sexual assaults have skyrocketed recently, especially in hostile environments like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Washington Post reported, "In many U.S. military camps in Iraq, for example, signs are posted in female showers and other locations requiring U.S. servicewomen to be in the company of a 'battle buddy,' especially at night, for their safety."
The military has rules and structures to direct every aspect of a person's conduct. Why does abuse still occur? One answer is that a male commander most often decides when to prosecute for abuse or misconduct. In 2002, the number of female active Army officers was about 20 percent. This means that the vast majority of officers in the military are men.
In addition, military training itself is responsible for further desensitizing men to sexual violence. In January 2003, the Village Voice reported that military training has included efforts to get young soldiers used to the sounds of women being raped so that, if captured, hearing fellow soldiers assaulted would not cause them to crack.
These revelations are not surprising to former Marine Corps Lance Corporal Stephen Funk. During his training in 2002, Stephen told me that his drill instructor gave a rousing speech at the end of Marine combat training: "This is the reality of war. We Marines like war. We like killing. We like raping females. This is what we do." If there was a touch of irony in his voice, it sure wasn't clear to the young, impressionable group eager to prove they were men, Stephen said.
Basic training also reinforces racism. Boot camp systematically breaks a recruit down physically and emotionally. Military discipline depends on eliminating individuality. Anything that makes you different from the "standard" (read: straight white male) makes you a target for abuse. But submissiveness and conformity are not the only goals of training. Soldiers are taught to follow orders in war without question. When the training taps into a person's own racist views, it's easier to convince them to kill people who are different.
Iraq war veteran Aidan Delgado, who served as a mechanic in the 320th Military Police Company in Abu Ghraib, described how his training led to racism against Muslims and Arabs.
"'Hajji' is the new slur, the new ethnic slur for Arabs and Muslims. It is used extensively in the military," he told a reporter. "The Arabic word refers to one who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is used in the military with the same kind of connotation as 'gook,' 'Charlie,' or the n-word."
Stephen, the former Marine corporal, said that his training on operating machine guns included a tip to avoid overheating the machinery: Squeeze the trigger for as long as it takes to chant, "Die, fucking raghead, die." When riling up the troops to take part in a nighttime simulation, the squad leader would yell, Stephen recalled, "Let's go burn some turbans!"
But racism in the military doesn't stop at Arabs. Basic training -- a nightmare for most -- is even more difficult if you happen to be a person of color or gay. If you are in these groups, I don't have to tell you that many times it's seemingly small insults that create a feeling of oppression.
When I was at Army boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, standing in line for chow, I overheard the white drill sergeant tell a dark-skinned recruit with a smile, "You look like Kunta Kinte [a slave from the TV miniseries Roots]."
"Doesn't she? Doesn't she?" he asked everyone within earshot. She moved on silently in the wake of laughter.
It was common for my drill sergeant to ask, "Where are my Chinese at?" when assigning laundry duty. "For some reason, they do it the best," he'd say with a smirk.
I went to training with many new immigrants, since recruiters often falsely promised them citizenship. One Sudanese immigrant was the butt of many of the drill sergeant's jokes. The sergeant would hand him a dark-colored rifle and then loudly comment that they couldn't tell where the rifle ended and the hands began.
In preparation for a night-ops simulation, the drill sergeant announced that recruits were to blow a whistle if they got lost. "Except you," he said, pointing at the Sudanese recruit. "You just smile and we'll see you in the dark."
Then the drill instructor made him stand up in front of the others.
"Give me a pimp walk," the instructor ordered. English wasn't his native language and he hadn't been in the United States long, so he didn't understand what the sergeant meant. Then the sergeant pulled up another black recruit and said, "Give me a pimp walk." The man answered that he didn't know how because he wasn't a pimp. Finally, a white recruit volunteered to show the group. Pretty soon, many others were doing the "black" pimp walk as well.
In the early morning hours during the second week of boot camp, I was forced to leave my barracks with an unfamiliar drill sergeant who decided to punish me for turning my head while standing at attention. I was afraid to go with a strange man to another part of the base, but was just as scared to refuse. He made me stand at attention and gathered his unit around to watch the show. He called me stupid, ugly, dumb.
"Where are you from, private?" he screamed. "You look like a gang member. Are you a gang member?"
I started crying -- he looked at my dark skin and didn't know or care that I was an excellent student on my way to the university.
"Get down into front position!" he yelled at me in front of his own unit of women. "Get up. Get down. Get up."
The thirty minutes of humiliation seemed to last an eternity.
I had never joined the military, but from those I know who have, I always sensed there was more to experience than they could tell me about. So glad, I never did. Can you believe $4 billion dollars a year is spent to market the military and only $13 million for sexual abuse? So much for a volunteer army.