Women Warriors & the War on Terror
More female soldiers have been injured or died in the so-called war on
terror than in the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined. The numbers
tell the story: approximately 7,500 women served in Vietnam and 41,000
served in the first Gulf war; 350,000 women are now serving in the U.S.
military, approximately 14 percent of active duty personnel; 160,500 female
soldiers have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East since the
start of the “war on terror”; 450 military women have been wounded in Iraq;
and 82 female soldiers have died (U.S. Senate, Joint Economic Committee,
“Helping Military Moms,” May 11, 2007).
The Pentagon officially prohibits women from serving in combat units, but
women are fighting, getting injured, and dying in combat assignments. The
latest Department of Defense (DoD) data (as assessed by the Congressional
Research Service) shows that during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,
from October 27, 2001 to February 27, 2006, there were 272 U.S. military
fatalities, of which 8 (2.9 percent) involved females soldiers. Operation
Iraqi Freedom, from March 19, 2003 to May 18, 2006, resulted in troop fatalities
of 2,397, of which 52 (2.2 percent) involved women (CRS Report to Congress,
June 8, 2006).
While the scandal over wounded male soldiers and veterans was exposed by
Mark Benjamin on Salon and by Dana Priest in the Washington Post, equally
scandalous conditions faced by female soldiers and veterans remain underreported.
The nefarious treatment of Jessica Lynch by the U.S. military and media
at the opening of the Iraqi invasion set the standard for the treatment
of women soldiers. On March 23, 2003, Lynch and other support soldiers
of the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company were caught in a firefight
with Iraqi troops outside Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers were killed and five
were taken prisoner, including Lori Piestewa, a Hopi, and Shoshana Johnson,
an African American.
Taking up the false reports issued by the military that the wounded Lynch
had bravely engaged in a gun fight with her Iraqi captors, the U.S. media
had a field day of patriotic fervor. The Washington Post, to cite one example,
ran with the front-page headline: “She Was Fighting to the Death.” It reported:
“Lynch, a 19- year old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even
after she sustained multiple gun shot wounds…an official reported” (April
This false report was further embellished by Newsweek (April 14, 2003)
under its cover story, “Saving Private Lynch”: “Moving stealthily through
the night, Special Forces execute a bold raid to save a private.” This
staged “rescue” mission at a Nasiriyah hospital only added to the misinformation
Today the truth has come out that all this was false information. In recent
House testimony Lynch and Pat Tillman’s brother Kevin made clear that the
experiences of these two soldiers were shamelessly exploited to manipulate
public opinion to support the war effort.
The horrendous conditions faced by women soldiers became a national issue
in January 2005 when Col. Janis Karpinski (retired) exposed them at a hearing
organized by the Commission of Inquiry for Crimes Against Humanity Committed
by the Bush Administration.
Karpinski, a former Brigadier General who was demoted before being forced
to retire, feels that she was the scapegoat for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
She says she took the fall for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former senior U.S. military commander
in Iraq, who, in keeping with the military’s well-established chain-of-command
procedure of passing the buck to lower-ranking officers and service personnel,
neither heard nor saw evil at the prison. Sanchez, in particular, was actively
involved with the torture at Abu Ghraib. He approved the use of unmuzzled
dogs and forcing prisoners head-first into sleeping bags with their mouths
taped and the bag tied with an electrical cord; at least one person died
as the result of this interrogation technique.
Karpinski reported that a number of women soldiers had died of dehydration
because they refused to drink liquids late in the day, even with temperatures
topping 100 degrees. She said that women were fearful of being attacked
and sexually assaulted by male soldiers if they went to the women’s latrine
Karpinski stated: “And rather than make everybody aware of that—because
that’s shocking, and as a leader if that’s not shocking to you then you’re
not much of a leader—what they told the surgeon to do is don’t brief those
details anymore. And don’t say specifically that they’re women. You can
provide that in a written report, but don’t brief it in the open anymore.”
She testified that in September 2003 Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski (Sanchez’s
top deputy, operating under his direct instructions) ordered dehydration
as the cause of death removed from the death certificate of a female master
sergeant. In keeping with the spin culture that defines the Bush administration,
the Pentagon insists that it would no longer list cause of death so as
to protect the soldier’s personal privacy.
Speaking with obvious bitterness, Karpinski insisted, “There were countless
such situations all over the theater of operations, Iraq and Kuwait, because
female soldiers didn’t have a voice, individually or collectively.” She
added, “Even as a general I didn’t have a voice with Sanchez, so I know
what the soldiers were facing. Sanchez did not want to hear about female
soldier require- ments and/or issues.”
Sexual assault of female soldiers is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. military.
However, the increasing number of female soldiers, combined with foreign
deployment in combat zones and longer terms of rotation, have only increased
In February 2004 Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld ordered a review of military
sexual assault policies. “Sexual assault will not be tolerated in the Department
of Defense,” he insisted. In April 2004, the DoD found that the rate of
reported alleged sexual assault were 69.1 and 70 per 100,000, respectively,
for uniformed service members in 2002 and 2003. Later in reaction to mounting
media reports and public outrage about sexual assaults against female soldiers
and the sexual harassment cover-up at the Air Force Academy, Congress tied
passage of the Defense Authorization Act of 2005 to the military adopting
a stronger policy toward sexual assault, and in January 2005 DoD announced
such a policy.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program is the cornerstone
of the DoD’s effort. SAPR includes a special website for soldiers to report
assaults. It also tracks rape and attempted rape as well as sexual assaults
that involve indecent assault and nonconsensual sodomy.
Data from the new reporting efforts are sobering. Reported incidents of
rape, sexual assault, and harassment have skyrocketed by over 75 percent
since 2004. Reports of military sexual assaults in 2004 were 1,700; in
2005, they were 2,374; and in 2006, they hit nearly 3,000. The DoD also
reports action was taken against 780 people, from court martials and discharges
to other administrative remedies. However, the Denver Post found that in
2003 nearly 5,000 accused military sex offenders had avoided prosecution
The DOD insists that its new program is a success. In an email to Helen
Benedict, a reporter at Salon, Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokesperson,
stated: “The success of the SAPR program is in direct correlation with
the increased numbers of reported sexual assaults.” In contrast, Benedict
found that “[m]any female soldiers say they are sexually assaulted by their
male comrades and can’t trust the military to protect them.” She cites
a number of studies that place current sexual assault reporting in a larger
context. A study conducted in 1992-93 with female veterans of the Gulf
War and earlier wars found that 90 percent said they had been sexually
harassed; a 2003 survey of female veterans who served in Vietnam through
the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military;
and a 2004 study of veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted
or raped. She quotes a female soldier who carried a knife: “The knife wasn’t
for the Iraqis. It was for the guys on my own side” (The Private War of
Women Soldiers, Salon, March 7, 2007).
Confirmation of these findings is suggested by reports from the Miles Foundation,
a non-profit organization providing assistance to victims of military violence.
A 2002 DoD sexual harassment survey (released in 2004) estimates that sexual
assault in the military is experienced by 3 percent of female service members.
However, Miles draws on other sources to suggest that the DoD finding is
a significant undercount. Extrapolating from data reported in Military
Medicine, Journal of Industrial Medicine, and Interpersonal Violence, the
foundation estimates that adult sexual assaults among female veterans might
be as high as 41 percent. He also notes that 37 percent of women who reported
a rape or attempted rape had been raped more than once and 14 percent of
the victims reported having been gang raped.
For soldiers, the war on terror does not stop when they return from Afghanistan
or Iraq. The war continues, but in a new, more insidious form. Among the
many conditions that plague these veterans are mental health disorders,
including PTSD, anxiety, depression, irritability, and feelings of isolation.
In November 2006, 34,000 war-on-terror veterans were diagnosed with a mental-health
disorder, with PTSD being the most common; approximately 3,800 of them
In another study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans evaluated from 2002 to
2005, Veteran’s Administration researchers found that slightly more than
a third of 23,635 women veterans had a preliminary diagnosis of a mental
disorder. In addition, it also found that 29 percent of women returned
with genital or urinary system problems, 33 percent had digestive illnesses,
and 42 percent had back troubles, arthritis, and other muscular ailments.
In a third study conducted in 2004 of more than 220,000 Iraq veterans,
23.6 percent of women had a mental health concern—compared with 18.6 percent
for men. According to Col. Dr. Charles Hoge, director of the division of
psychiatry and neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research
and the study’s principal author, this is a significant difference with
long-term consequences. (Dr. Karen Seal, et. al., “Bringing the War Back
Home,” Archives of Internal Medicine, March 12, 2007; Denver Post, April
12, 2007; Col. Dr. Charles Hoge, “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan,
Mental Health Problems and Barriers to Care,” New England Journal of Medicine,
July 1, 2004.) As occurred in the wake of previous wars, U.S. male and
female military casualties—both physical and psychological—will have profound
consequences for generations to come.
David Rosen is a regular contributor on sexuality and U.S. politics for