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Services Move to Lower Instances of Rape in the Ranks

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va.,, April 5, 2001 – Many women say they were sexually assaulted while they served in the military, but did not report it at the time. A top DoD mental health expert examined reasons for this April 3 in a presentation at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial here.

Dr. (Lt. Col.) E. Cameron Ritchie said the actual extent of the problem is unknown. One recent study found that 23 percent of women seeking treatment for depression and alcohol abuse through the Department of Veterans Affairs report that they were sexually assaulted while on active duty. Ritchie is the program director for mental health and women's issues for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

Yes, It Happens to Men, Too

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va., April 5, 2001 -- Officials estimate about three-tenths of a percent of men will be sexually assaulted while serving in the military -- compared to 8 percent of women. But men are considerably less likely to report the event.

"Men rarely come forward unless something precipitates disclosure, for instance, if somebody else comes forward first," said Army Dr. (Lt. Col.) E. Cameron Ritchie, one of the military's top mental health experts.

Ritchie said she believes men experience more shame after such an event, and worry more about what other people will think of them afterward.

"Men might not want to report a rape because they're afraid they'll be called gay or womanly," she said.

She cautioned that it's hard to gauge just what this "23 percent" means because it only refers to women seeking treatment and relies on self-reporting. There is no way to verify the accuracy of such reports.

Many circumstances make rape and sexual assault particularly hard to prove, Ritchie explained. "Often, it comes down to 'he said, she said' with no physical evidence to back it up," she said. "There may be physical evidence of intercourse, but not of force."

Other difficulties in proving a rape occurred, she said, are that the victims usually know each other, weapons are seldom used, alcohol is a common contributing factor, and the victim's credibility is at issue.

A common defense in a rape charge is that the sex was consensual. However, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the code of laws affecting military personnel, consent cannot always be assumed, even if the victim didn't struggle or scream.

"Often in a trial, people will say, 'Well she didn't scream,' or 'She didn't cry out, so it must be consensual,'" Ritchie said. But this isn't necessarily true. The UCMJ states, "Consent, however, may not be inferred if resistance would have been futile, where resistance is overcome by threats of death or great bodily harm, or where the victim is unable to resist because of the lack of mental or physical facilities."

Ritchie said a drunk victim can also be considered as lacking mental and physical facilities.

Many circumstances specific to the military environment can reduce the likelihood of a woman coming forward after she's been assaulted. The military's rank structure strongly affect whether a woman comes forward. Ritchie said this was a large part of the problem in the 1997 cases at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in which several drill sergeants were eventually convicted of raping trainees.

"These trainees felt the drill sergeants had absolute power over their lives," Ritchie said. The problem was compounded because the trainees were isolated with the drill sergeants at Edgewood Arsenal, a small training area about 10 miles outside the base. The healthcare providers, chaplains and company command -- all people the trainees could have confided in -- were on APG.

"The trainees needed permission from the drill sergeants to go to Aberdeen," Ritchie said.

Isolation can also be a contributing factor in the military. Victims are isolated from their families and from pre-military friends, and they may be stationed in remote locations. Often a victim may be one of only a few women in a unit, she said.

Because fraternization and adultery are crimes in the military, women who have been raped may also fear they'll eventually get into trouble if the rapist later claims the sex was consensual, she added.

Ritchie said the services are working hard to educate both possible victims on their rights and potential offenders on the consequences of such actions. "I don't think the military gets enough credit for the things they're doing to prevent assaults," she said.

DoD has also increased training to make investigators more sensitive to victims and to make healthcare providers more effective in gathering physical evidence.

"Part of the problem is, we just don't see this in most military hospitals. On large training installations, they may be fairly adept at completing a rape kit," Ritchie said. "In a small rural base, they may have no idea what to do."

The bottom line, she said, is the military takes the issue seriously. "It's a readiness issue. It's a medical issue. It's an issue for all of us," she said.

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Women in Military Service for America Memorial

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