By Shaun Knittel -
When men in the military rape other men in the ranks, no one wants to talk about it. In this week's Newsweek, writer Jesse Ellison proclaims that male-on-male rape is the Pentagon's secret shame and looks at why the sexual assault of males in the service is finally being confronted.
In the staunchly traditional military culture, writes Ellison, male sexual assault is an ugly secret, kept hidden by layers of personal shame and official denial.
According to the Newsweek article, last year nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for 'military sexual trauma' at the Department of Veterans Affairs, up from just over 30,000 in 2003. For the victims, the experience is a special kind of hell - a soldier can't just quit his job to get away from his abusers.
But now, as the Pentagon has begun to acknowledge the rampant problem of sexual violence for both genders, men are coming forward in unprecedented numbers to tell their stories and hoping that speaking up will help others - and themselves, put their lives back together.
'We don't like to think that our men can be victims,' Kathleen Chard, chief of the post-traumatic stress unit at the Cincinnati Department of Veterans Affairs, told Newsweek. 'We don't want to think that it could happen to us. If a man standing in front of me who is my size [and] my skill level has been raped, what does that mean about me? I can be raped, too.'
According to Ellison, the high victimization rate of female soldiers - women in the armed forces are now more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat - has helped cast light on men assaulting other men.
For most of military history, there was neither a system nor language in place to deal with incidents of soldier-on-soldier sexual assault. It wasn't until 1992 that the Defense Department even acknowledged such incidents as an offense, and initially only female victims were recognized.
But last year, said Ellison, more than 110 men made confidential reports of sexual assault by other men - nearly three times as many as in 2007. The real number of victims is surely much higher.
Even among civilians, sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime. In the military, the silence is nearly complete. By the Pentagon's own estimate, figures for assaults on women likely represent less than 20% of actual incidents. Another study released in March found that just one in 15 men in the Air Force would report being sexually assaulted, compared with one in five women.
ASSAILANTS ARE HETEROSEXUAL
While many might assume the perpetrators of such assaults are closeted Gay soldiers, Ellison found that military experts and outside researchers say assailants usually are heterosexual.
Like in prisons and other predominantly male environments, experts say male-on-male assault in the military is motivated not by homosexuality, but power, intimidation, and domination. Assault victims, both male and female, are typically young and low-ranking; they are targeted for their vulnerability.
'Often, in male-on-male cases, assailants go after those they assume are Gay, even if they are not,' wrote Ellison.
'One of the reasons people commit sexual assault is to put people in their place, to drive them out,' Mic Hunter, author of Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America's Military, told Newsweek. 'Sexual assault isn't about sex, it's about violence.'
According to Hunter and others, the repeal of the military's DADT policy might actually help the institution address the issue. Under that rule, being Gay meant being fundamentally unfit to serve; it meant you didn't belong. It also meant that victims were even more reluctant to report their attacks.
'I wouldn't say that the repeal is going to make it safe,' Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think tank on Gays in the military, told Newsweek. 'But male victims will be a little bit less reluctant to report their assaults.'
Belkin notes that it's not just the military that avoids the issue: even Gay-rights organizations are wary of it. 'We don't like to talk about it because it makes rape look like a Gay issue,' he said. 'The military doesn't want to talk about it because, as embarrassing as male-female rape is, [from their perspective] this is even worse. The very fact that there's male-on-male rape in the military means that there are warriors who aren't strong enough to fight back.'
Fear of a ruined career is a major factor preventing victims from coming forward, said Ellison. 'In 2010, the Pentagon anonymously surveyed active-duty soldiers who had been sexually assaulted about why they declined to report their attacks. Almost half the responding men said they kept silent because they didn't want anyone to know, a third said they didn't think anything would be done, and almost 30% said they were afraid of retaliation or reprisals.'
In recent years, the Pentagon has tried to show that it takes the issue seriously, defining sexual assault in broad terms as a 'spectrum of offenses from rape to nonconsensual sodomy to wrongful sexual contact, as well as attempts to commit these offenses.'
In 2005, it established a special unit, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and provided training for 1,200 officers to handle incident reports. Yet critics believe that the Pentagon has moved too slowly and that military procedures for prosecuting such crimes are far less effective than civilian laws.
'YOU MUST HAVE PROVOKED THEM'
'Greg Jeloudov was 35 and new to America when he decided to join the Army,' wrote Ellison. 'Like most soldiers, he was driven by both patriotism for his adopted homeland and the pragmatic notion that the military could be a first step in a career that would enable him to provide for his new family.
'Instead, Jeloudov arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training in May of 2009, in the middle of the economic crisis and rising xenophobia. The soldiers in his unit, responding to his Russian accent and New York City address, called him a 'champagne socialist' and a 'commie faggot.' He told Newsweek he was 'in the middle of the viper's pit.'
'Less than two weeks after arriving on base, he was gang-raped in the barracks by men who said they were showing him who was in charge of the United States. When he reported the attack to unit commanders, he says they told him, 'It must have been your fault. You must have provoked them.'
In February, Jeloudov and 16 other former and active-duty service members filed a class-action lawsuit against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, charging they 'ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted & and plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation.'
CASES HANDLED WITH LITTLE TRAINING
Ellison says that because reports of such crimes happen outside the reach of police and are handled by a unit's commanding officer, according to the Pentagon's own figures, last year just 15% of reported cases were actually prosecuted.
'There's no investigatory training. They don't tell you to look for evidence,' Greg Jacob, who retired as a captain after 10 years in the Marines and is now policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, told Newsweek.
'Military justice imbued me with the ability to be judge and jury. Honestly, I had no idea what to do.'
Commanders often decline to take any action at all.
'I have nothing bad to say about the military. There's sick bastards in all walks of life,' says Michael F. Matthews, who was raped during basic training in 1972 but didn't tell anyone until 30 years later. 'I get angry with the military system sometimes, but I understand it. What happens is on small levels. You take [a complaint] to your commanding officer. He doesn't want that black eye. He wants the promotion. So he tries to keep it under the carpet.'
AN ONGOING PROBLEM
'What's clear is that the Pentagon has only just begun to figure out how to treat men who have been sexually traumatized,' writes Ellison. 'Until 2006, sexual assault was classified as a women's health issue, and even today, Pentagon awareness campaigns target women almost exclusively.'
Kathleen Chard, the Cincinnati VA psychologist who runs PTSD programs, told Newsweek that more than 11% of the men she works with eventually admit that they were sexually victimized. Nationwide, there are just six programs like hers, and there is a single VA facility, in Bay Pines, Florida, that specifically treats male survivors of sexual trauma.
If you are the victim of a sexual assault and you're seeking assistance, go to the National Center for PTSD to find a service provider in your area. For immediate help, contact the Safe Helpline, the Department of Defense's new crisis support service, via phone call, text, or instant message. Operated by RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual-violence organization, your information will be kept confidential and will not be shared with anyone on your chain of command.