A new novel captures the anguish and emotional turmoil of a mother’s relationship with her Navy SEAL son. Matt Gallagher salutes Lea Carpenter’s 'Eleven Days' and says it joins the first rank of war fiction.
There’s a strange, persistent undercurrent of thought in military writing that’s unlike any other in literature. It suggests authors shouldn’t write about war unless they’ve participated in it as a combatant or otherwise survived its ravages. This prejudice can be as creatively destructive as it is mistaken—some of the finest works on the subject, from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage to Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier were penned by individuals not directly involved in fighting, but who still wrote about it with poignancy. Like writing of any type, good military literature benefits from research, care, and skill. It suffers when those things lack. Turns out, there are many ways to prove true Hemingway’s adage “Write what you know.”
John Scorza/U.S. Navy
The latest evidence of such is Lea Carpenter’s incisive, graceful novel Eleven Days, which is certain to vault to the top of any list of high quality literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A military daughter who once worked for The Paris Review, Carpenter meticulously weaves together the story of a single mother and her son, and their deep love and respect for one another, with that of the molding of the son into a young, idealistic Navy SEAL. Though some readers will no doubt be attracted to the SEAL angle in all its tattooed, loud glory, it is the SEAL’s mother, Sara, who serves as the novel’s heroine and most dynamic force.
There’s a determined stoicism to Sara, coupled with a tender, inner anguish, which will ring true to anyone who ever sent a loved one off to war. She’s proud of her son Jason but terrified for him; disdainful of any man her age who didn’t serve but wary of those who did; and fascinated but skeptical of the SEAL ideology being absorbed by her son. Her relationship with the military and the wars aren’t black and white, but a messy, ambiguous swirl of gray, something that doesn’t exist in Internet commentary. This swirl of gray is at its most churning in the novel’s opening pages, as Sara awaits word regarding the fate of her son, who’s gone missing in action during a mission overseas. From there, Carpenter alternates between the past and the present, showing us Jason’s idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Sara’s own private battles as her son goes on deployment after deployment, and then overseas with Sara herself trying to find her missing son.
This is an earnest book, a rare thing for a post-Catch-22 war novel of the literary ilk. The characters in Eleven Days are privileged in pedigree and possess access to power, but still find purpose in wearing the uniform, a refreshing break from the “Poor boy goes to battle, finds only destruction” narrative that’s been mimicked repeatedly since Tim O’Brien’s masterful works on the Vietnam War. While 99.9% of military mothers wouldn’t be allowed the access and information Sara is, that’s beside the point. Good fiction like this bears emotional authority that transcends the question of whether something “could” occur. Even as we journey with Sara from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. and beyond, the specter of the family members who have served their country on the home front in such isolated silence since 9/11 goes with us. Sara lives out a dark, twisted fantasy so many of them must’ve begged the heavens for on sleepless nights or long days without an email or phone call. Like many before her, Sara is called to fulfill a duty she never signed up for, but does so with resolve, because she understands that’s what must be done.
As the issue heats up, it’s time to cool off the conversation and focus on the facts, writes Kayla Williams.
Sexual assault in the military is nothing new, but it recently exploded into the public sphere with unsettling new survey results showing a sharp rise in reports by service members of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact, a senior Air Force official in charge of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office arrested and charged with sexual battery, and a general overturning the rape conviction of a subordinate. Those stories, coming after the Department of Defense announced earlier this year that it was ending its ban on women in combat positions, have led to a wave of reportage and opinion writing that too often has been misguided or misinformed, further confusing the issues.
Here are seven of the biggest myths and misconceptions about sexual assault and women in the military:
1. This Is Why Women Shouldn’t Be in Combat
It’s disturbing how many commentators dismiss women in the military as a “social experiment” and sexual assault as an inevitable outcome of it. If women must serve, this argument continues, they should be barred from combat deployments or remain in separate units.
I’ve yet to see anyone making this argument call for gender-segregated universities or other institutions, so presumably they believe these issues are unique to a military setting. Are they arguing that military men are more likely to be rapists than civilian men or that our troops are completely incapable of controlling their behavior? That seems an astonishing proposition, and one that I think the vast majority of law-abiding, responsible military men would find profoundly insulting.
Some, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued that the military policy banning women from combat jobs and units contributed to a climate that tacitly tolerated sexual harassment and assault of women—and that increasing women’s access to combat roles will drive down rates in the long run. I agree: studies show that when women gain greater equality, sexual assaults decline (although there may be a short-term “backlash effect” as men react to women’s shifting status).
How do you return from war? That was the question that Roxana Robinson set out to answer in her new novel, ‘Sparta.’ She spoke to Jane Ciabattari about how she researched the experiences of veterans—and why she used that title.
Roxana Robinson’s haunting new novel, Sparta, is a harrowing account of an Iraq War veteran’s homecoming. Robinson is author of four previous novels, a critically acclaimed biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, and three distinguished short-story collections. Over lunch in midtown New York, she told me that she read extensively while working on the book and spent four years interviewing Iraq War veterans. Getting to know the soldiers, she said, was a “like moving to a new country: I found myself in the middle of it, and then I wanted to learn the language and the culture and everything there was to know about the people.” Here’s more from our conversation.
“Sparta.” By Roxana Robinson. $27; Sarah Crichton Books; 400 pages. (Wesley Bocxe/Getty; Sarah Crichton Books)
Why did you choose to write your new novel from the perspective of Conrad, a 26-year-old Marine returning from tours of duty in Ramadi and Haditha?
Six or seven years ago I read an article about our troops in Iraq—how they were being sent out in unarmored vehicles, and being blown up by IEDs, and receiving traumatic brain injuries as a result. These were often undiagnosed, partly because the military was reluctant to remove troops from combat and partly because treatment was expensive. I just couldn’t get those three things out of my mind: the unarmored vehicles, the injuries, and the reluctance to treat. It was clear that we weren’t really protecting our troops. This made me wonder about the consequences of this war. So that article was the beginning. It was a new world for me—I’m a Quaker. I hardly even knew anyone who was in the military.
Conrad is a Marine officer who joined up in 2001, while he was a classics major in college. “The classical writers love war, that’s their main subject,” he tells his parents. “Being a soldier was the whole deal, the central experience. Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, the Iliad. Thucydides, Homer, Tacitus.” What was the meaning of ancient Sparta to you as you worked on this book?
My first encounter with the connection between the Marines and the ancient world was in a memoir called One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick. Fick was a classics major at Dartmouth, and he became a Marine lieutenant in Iraq, and the combination fascinated me. As I learned more about Marine culture, I was intrigued to learn that Fick was not alone. References to the classics are rife among Marines, and their culture is full of intellectual threads: Marines are very conscious of their ancient forebears. They read the classics. One of Fick’s enlisted men was reading The Iliad during their trek across the desert toward Baghdad. The Spartans (who are the attackers in The Iliad) are commonly used by Marines as references to a heroic-warrior culture—they name their units the Spartans and their combat outposts Sparta. And the word “Sparta” is sometimes used as an adjective to mean “awesome.” Sparta itself is a very present and powerful idea among Marines.
What was World War I really like? Richard Rubin set out to interview the last surviving American veterans of World War I. Michael Korda salutes the result.
Richard Rubin’s The Last of the Doughboys is a brilliant and unexpected delight. Interviewing the last surviving American veterans of World War I, all of them of course well beyond a hundred years old, is the kind of idea which would make any nonfiction writer clap his (or her) hand to the forehead and say: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
WWI Veteran Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I, passed away in 2011. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post, via Getty)
His subtitle on the other hand is a little strange for a European to assimilate: “The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War,” is not only cumbersome, but also puzzling. In Britain and Europe, no event is less forgotten than World War I, or “The Great War,” as it was called until 1939. Speaking as somebody who is half English and half Hungarian, World War I still seems to me a familiar and seismic event, as if it had only just ended. My father fought on the side of the Central Powers, as a soldier in the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army, my maternal grandfather fought in the British Army, on different sides, and both were so traumatized by the experience that they never talked about it.
The war left its mark on every part of British life, no town too small not to have a war memorial, with a long list of the dead carved in stone, no college, school or public building without a plaque inside the door bearing an endless list of names of those who were killed in Flanders, on the Somme or elsewhere, no poetry more often recited than that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves. To this day, I, like many in Britain, still wear a poppy on Nov. 11.
The war left its mark on history too, erasing empires, replacing Austro-Hungary with a dangerous brood of Eastern European and Balkan mini-nations, carving up the Ottoman Empire into colonies, soon to become statelets, with artificial frontiers containing populations of different ethnic and religious backgrounds who hated each other, and bringing about the birth of Fascism, Communism, and Nazism—for the Second World War, awful as it was, was merely a reprise of the First with some minor switching of smaller powers, and the addition of a war in the Pacific to that in Europe. The years 1914-1918 were, and will perhaps always remain, our mental image of Armageddon: the mud, the trenches, the barbed wire, the squalor, the millions of dead for no good purpose.
Well, the passage of time has done its work, the fault line in the world is no longer the Rhine, but the Yellow Sea, what remains of the trenches is merely a grisly tourist attraction, the seemingly endless landscape of well-tended military cemeteries on the Western Front did not scare us away from fighting a second world war, and will doubtless not prevent us from fighting a third, despite Woodrow Wilson’s hope that it was “a war to end war.”
On Memorial Day, Staff Sgt. Natalie R. Jones remembers her deployment and the young men who didn’t come home.
A journey to war isn’t like the movies. You don’t swoop down in a blaze of glory, Goose and Maverick, taking on the bad guys. I boarded a commercial airline from the United States and hopscotched around the globe. I touched down in the back of a blacked-out airplane in the middle of the night, oblivious to my surroundings. I woke up my buddy drooling on my shoulder, scrambled to get my backpack, counted to make sure my Marines were all there, and listened as an over-caffeinated Marine belted out the camp rules. We had arrived in Afghanistan.
A memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Third Battalion, First Marines. (Natalie Jones)
I was serving with the Female Engagement Team (FET), an all-women unit of 47 Marines and sailors tasked with supporting the First Marine Division in Helmand province. It was September 2010, and the FET was still a relatively new concept: females specially assigned to engage with the local men and women to support counterinsurgency operations in one of the most remote and dangerous provinces in the Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, but I knew I needed to figure it out quickly and get going with the mission.
A few days later we were back on our way, preparing to leave the huge base at Camp Leatherneck and head downrange to the battalion and company positions where we would spend the majority of our deployment. My team of six women and I were headed to Third Battalion, First Marines, or “the Balls of the Corps,” as they called themselves, in Garmsir district. Arriving at the flight deck to catch our helicopter, we were greeted by Oliver North, of all people, and learned he was traveling with us to cover the progress in the area for a news program. Colonel North was excited to see women embracing a new mission and took the time to pose for photos with us. But he was soon reminded of how his beloved Corps sometimes operates: his luggage and gear were misplaced. He ended up waiting for the next flight, but that left an open seat in the helicopter’s cockpit for me.
I was excited to fly through the night on a Marine Corps “bird.” It was blacked out so we couldn’t be easily spotted, but as we approached Marjeh district—a highly “kinetic” area that Marines were still battling to pacify—the pilot swerved sharply as we took fire from the ground. I glanced at the crew chief behind me, clinging to his machine gun and firing into the night. In the cockpit, the pilots vigorously punched buttons and maneuvered the aircraft. I could only think about my girls sitting behind me.
When we finally landed, we disembarked in a field of gravel and were welcomed by a tired female Marine who was ready to go home and see her husband and kids. I could see and feel the excitement in her team members’ eyes that their replacements had arrived.
There were 50,000 American deserters in World War II, whose experiences have been erased from history. But Charles Glass says as former deserters die along with other veterans, we might remember them for a moment this Memorial Day.
When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, thousands of First World War veterans had yet to recover from their physical and mental wounds. “Today, twenty-five years after the end of the last war,” Fortune magazine reported, “nearly half of the 67,000 beds in Veterans Administration hospitals are still occupied by the neuropsychiatric casualties of World War I.” In World War II, 25 percent of all battle casualties in the U.S. armed forces were psychological. From that number came most of the American soldiers who deserted.
There were 50,000 American deserters, whose experiences have been erased from the history of what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower called the “crusade in Europe.” Few if any soldiers deserted in the Pacific. They were not braver, and their conditions were no easier. There was simply nowhere to desert to on Japanese-held islands.
As former deserters die along with other veterans with the passage of time, we might remember them for a moment this Memorial Day. Their story is part of the war. They fought. Many won decorations for courage. Almost all of them were combat troops in an Army that put only 10 percent of its total force into the frontlines. The rest never saw action. It is a forgotten aspect of American strategy that troops were not rotated by units in and out of battle to give them time to rest, to know the recruits who replaced their dead or captured comrades and to deal with the trauma of constant terror. Many combat veterans who fought resented the 90 percent who spent their time in the rear, sleeping in comfortable beds and enjoying the company of French and Italian women.
Members of the First U.S. Infantry Division landed in North Africa on November 8, 1942, in the first test of American military power against the Germans. They fought until the Germans surrendered in Tunisia the following May. They invaded Sicily three months later. In June 1944, they were among the first troops to hit the Normandy beaches into the face of ferocious German counterfire. Without rest, they drove across France and fought in the Hürtgen Forest, the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Siegfried Line. They suffered almost 20,000 casualties, a loss rate of more than 100 percent for their original contingent of 15,000. Some were bitter that other units did no fighting at all, while they never rested. A minority reacted to the constant strain by shooting themselves in the foot or running away.
It is not up to us to judge them. Dr. Allen Towne, a First Division medical officer, wrote in his memoir Doctor Danger Forward, “It is hard for anyone who has not been exposed to long periods of hard combat to understand what this can do to even the best units.”
Few American boys of the “greatest generation” were prepared psychologically for war. Psychiatrists deferred enlistment for more than 1.7 million men before training began. Those who saw action nonetheless broke down in such numbers that psychiatric units were stationed in forward medical-aid stations to help traumatized men back to the front. The U.S. published a booklet called Psychology for the Fighting Man, Prepared for the Fighting Man Himself in 1943 as a soldier’s guide to mental well-being. Its observations were telling. Two stand out:
Memorial Day commemorates those who were killed while serving in the armed forces, but Brian Castner hopes that we will remember those who survived injuries but might not have if not for bomb suits, armors, and other advances.
In late 2007, as Adam Popp lay next to a smoking bomb crater, his new stump of a leg pouring his life into the awaiting Afghan dirt, he did two things only possible in the last decade of conflict. He called his father from the battlefield on a satellite phone to say that he was bleeding out. And then he lived.
We’re not remembering Adam Popp on Memorial Day. In previous wars, we almost surely would have.
Technical Sergeant Popp was an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician assigned to a US Army patrol in Paktia province, clearing a route to a new Special Forces medical clinic for local civilians. The Improvised Explosive Device discovered by Afghan police on a highway outside of Gardez was classic in nearly every—a bulky bag sprouting wires stuffed into a drainage culvert under the road.
A culvert packed with explosives presents a particularly dangerous and challenging problem. If the bomb remains unfound, and the attack proceeds as planned, the damage to an armored vehicle driving over it is catastrophic. Find the device and simply blow it in place, and you have shut down a highway for weeks or months, until over-taxed engineers can finally fix the span. If the culvert hole is too small, an EOD robot can’t access it. If the bomb is too big, the robot isn’t strong enough to pull it out.
It was because of this last condition that Sergeant Popp found himself on his hands and knees in the bomb suit, 80 pounds of overlapping Kevlar plates, yanking out the device by hand. The bag itself Popp freed with a grunt and tossed harmlessly to the side. No, the bomb that nearly killed him was a second device, hidden in the ground, specifically placed to kill the bomb technician responding to clear the culvert. Popp was set up. He shifted his weight from his left knee to his right, and his world exploded.
At 3 in the morning, the phone rang in a home in tiny Lanesville, Indiana. No one answered, so the answering machine picked up. Shouts, screams, and confusion, silence, pause, and the phone rang again. The home’s occupant was now awake, so he answered.
Many World War II veterans felt lost after returning home. They dropped out of school and couldn’t focus on their postwar lives. Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Dale Maharidge on what happened to them.
Steve Maharidge had no use for hillbillies. Jim Laughridge disliked Yankees. About the only thing they had in common was being in the same U.S. Marine unit during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. Yet starting in early 1946, my father and Jim came home to parallel lives. Both spent several years drunk out of their minds.
They shared something else—they suffered blast concussions that may have caused traumatic brain injury, or TBI. It's the same thing found in some soldiers from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only back then it was called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”
After my father died in 2000, I spent 12 years locating surviving men from his Marine unit. I found 29 of them. From them and their military records, I learned Dad suffered at least two blast concussions. TBI can permanently alter connections between brain cells. One symptom can be occasional explosive rage.
Dad’s temper made ours a house of turmoil. But our family never tied his condition to the war. Not only was TBI an unknown affliction in midcentury America, we pretended that the war was in the distant past. It wasn’t discussed.
This changed as the men from dad's unit neared their ’80s. They were suddenly talking. One told me I was the first person he talked to about the war.
In my new book, I look at how the war affected the rest of their lives. Many never got over it. This is something that we should think about on Memorial Day weekend. Knowing their trauma helps us understand what today’s soldiers and their children face in the coming years.
For more than two years, Richard Rubin had been tracking down all the American World War I veterans still living. But when he started talking to a man named Merlyn Krueger, something didn’t seem right.
On October 15, 2005, I warily knocked on a door at a seedy motel in Pasco, Washington, an industrial town in the desert about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. Pasco looked about right for that motel, as did the man who answered the door: tall and rangy with shaggy white hair and a matching beard, his T-shirt, jeans, and bare feet were all caked with dirt. His name was Merlyn Krueger; a few weeks earlier he’d been mentioned, briefly, by a local newspaper in a short item which noted—and this is why I was there—that he was 110 years old and a veteran of the First World War.
For more than two years, I’d been tracking down and interviewing living American World War I veterans, every old doughboy I could find and get to. It had proven much more challenging than I had imagined at the outset, especially the tracking down part, but by now I was pretty comfortable with the process and confident in my ability to handle whatever the interview might present: spotty memories, deafness, confused names and dates, the intimidating awe that attended being in the presence of a centenarian. I’d become something of a studied hand regarding the superannuated, felt I had a good sense of what to expect. Like the rest of them, Merlyn Krueger didn’t look his age. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t look that much younger.
His little room was well past cluttered, so full of old newspapers and magazines and junk that it took me several minutes to find a spot to sit and set up my video camera. He was a good interview subject, though, articulate, utterly devoid of reticence, clear on details like the date and place of his birth (April 8, 1895; Westwood, California), the town where he’d grown up (Akeley, Minnesota), his parents’ and siblings’ names (Herman and Anna; Mary, Dorothy, and Edmund). He’d left home at 14, he told me, and rode the rails around the Midwest and Great Plains, doing farm work and odd jobs. He enlisted in 1918 in Minnesota, he explained, and was sent east to Camp Dix for basic training. He never made it overseas, he said; just spent his time “drilling, firing the rifle, getting accustomed to shooting.” He described his uniform, and the camp, in vivid detail.
Still, he couldn’t recall the name of his unit. This was not the case for the Second World War, which he was careful to distinguish from the First, and during which he had served in Alaska with the 250th Coastal Artillery. He changed the subject to that second war, too, every chance he got, despite my repeated questions about the first. Concerned, I went online the next day, looked through census records, and quickly determined that Merlyn Krueger had, indeed, been born in Westwood, California, to Herman and Anna Krueger.
But not in 1895.
How did Renaissance masterpieces survive the carnage of World War II? Noah Charney on a team of U.S. soldiers who rescued the world’s greatest objects from being stolen or destroyed by the Nazis.
The Second World War altered the map of Europe, and redistributed art on an unprecedented scale. But few people know the astonishing extent of art looting during the war. Adolf Hitler and his deputy Hermann Göring raced one another to steal artworks. Goring “collected” a private gallery of thousands of stolen masterpieces, displayed in a hunting lodge outside of Berlin as an enormous shrine to his deceased wife, while Hitler ordered art stolen both for his personal enjoyment and to fill his planned “super museum,” a conversion of an entire city in Austria to contain every important artwork in the world. Hitler’s boyhood town of Linz would be leveled and rebuilt, with masterpieces like The Ghent Altarpiece and the Mona Lisa as centerpieces in this definitive collection. It would even feature a gallery of horrors, a wing dedicated to “degenerate” art that did not meet the Nazi standards of racial purity of artist and subject matter. This wing would show the world from which the Nazis had saved humanity. Taking a note from Napoleon, whose army featured the first dedicated art theft unit, the Nazi army established the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), assigned the task of collecting documents, archives, and art for the Nazi cause.
The Allies only became aware of the true, systematic extent of Nazi art theft in 1943, years into the war. They knew of the infamous “degenerate” art exhibition that had toured Nazi-controlled Germany before the war, curated in such a way as to demonstrate the “inferiority” of these abstract contemporary works. They knew of the fire-sale of art seized from German citizens before the war, and sold at an auction at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne—many of these works were bought by American and English collectors, whose desire to add to their collections helped finance Nazi armaments. But it was only in 1943 that a fortuitous toothache brought American soldiers Lincoln Kirstein (who would found New York City Ballet with George Balanchine after the war) and Robert Posey to a dentist near Trier, Germany. The dentist’s son-in-law, who was hiding in a cottage in the forest, was SS officer Hermann Bunjes, former art adviser to Göring. Kirstein and Posey tracked down Bunjes, and, assuming that they already knew of the Linz super museum, revealed to them the ERR’s systematic looting of Europe’s art collections.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies was established in 1943, and the 400 service members in the MFAA were mostly art historians and museum personnel who were known as Monuments Men. In anticipation of the Allied invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower issued a statement to the Allied Army during the summer of 1944, regarding the protection of art treasures:
Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.
The Monuments Men accompanied the Allied armies to locate at-risk art and monuments that may be damaged or stolen in the chaos of war, and then preserve them as best they could in the field. Their story is one of intrigue, espionage and heroism, with the survival or destruction of the greatest treasures of human civilization hanging in the balance. The entire contents of the Uffizi Museum, the museums of Paris, and the treasures of dozens of churches were stripped by the Nazis. The Germans hid the contents of occupied Europe’s museums—tens of thousands of masterpieces—for use after the war. Many were stored in secret underground storage facilities, like the salt mine that was converted into a hi-tech art warehouse in the Austrian Alps at Alt Aussee, which contained 12,000 of the most important works that were destined for Hitler’s Linz museum. The Monuments Men led detective-work searches for hidden and stolen art, and followed just behind the front lines, trying to secure monuments that were damaged, like the Ponte Santa Trinita (Holy Trinity Bridge in Italian) in Florence, blown up by retreating Nazis to slow the advance of the Allies, the fire-bombed monastery of Monte Cassino, and the bomb-shattered Camposanto in Pisa. Robert M. Edsel’s absorbing, thoroughly researched gallop of a history book, Saving Italy, focuses on the efforts of the Monuments Men to protect and recover the art of Italy.
Orders the recertification of military sexual assault prevention staff.
In response to growing outrage on Capitol Hill and in the White House over the ongoing problem of sexual assaults in the military—including new figures showing a jump in the estimates of unreported sexual assaults, as well as the arrest of a Colonel overseeing the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program, on charges of sexual battery—Defense Secretary ordered all U.S military sexual assault prevention personnel to get recertified. Earlier in the day, the Air Force's top general said that sexual assaults in his branch of service were largely due to a lack of respect for women and typically happened after alcohol abuse.
Unreported sexual assaults soared in the ranks last year, even as the problem has reached the White House. Jesse Ellison reports.
Tonight marks the television premiere of The Invisible War, an Oscar-nominated documentary feature and last year’s winner of the prestigious audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Depending on your perspective, the timing is either a stroke of very good luck or an unfortunate embarrassment. The film, which will be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens, is a searing examination of military sexual assault, an issue so endemic within the armed forces that a female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. Its television premiere comes just as the problem has been receiving more attention from the media and politicians—all the way up to President Obama himself—than perhaps ever before.
It started last Sunday, with the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the head of the Air Force’s sexual-assault-prevention program, on charges of sexual battery after he allegedly groped a woman in a Washington, D.C., parking lot. Two days later the Department of Defense released its annual report on sexual assaults within the ranks, announcing that there were nearly 3,400 reported incidents of sexual assault in 2012 alone, up 6 percent from 2011. But the report also included the results of a survey—conducted every two years—that found that the actual number of assaults was far greater: an estimated 26,000, up from 19,000 in 2010. By Thursday, outrage over the skyrocketing figures had reached such a fever pitch that the White House convened a group of lawmakers to meet with senior-level staffers, including Valerie Jarrett and the first lady’s chief of staff, who reportedly asked for immediate executive-level changes that could be made to address the ongoing problem.
For lawmakers who have long been working to combat the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, the heightened attention has been a cause for hope—a sign that perhaps the tipping point has finally been reached. “It’s a great convergence,” said Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree by phone after the White House meeting. “The whole idea of that guy getting arrested in the parking lot? You couldn’t make that up. You couldn’t stage a publicity stunt that would attract more attention. People are just outraged.”
But for many, including Jackie Speier, a Democratic congresswoman from California who has given dozens of speeches on the House floor detailing the individual stories of survivors and appealing to her colleagues to enact forceful legislation, that hope is tempered by the knowledge that congressional outrage doesn’t necessarily result in real change—at least, it hasn’t in the past. “I don’t want to appear jaded,” she said Friday, “but going up against the military-industrial complex is not an easy task.” She cited a pattern that extends back decades, where high-profile scandals like those surrounding the Tailhook convention in 1991, Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, and, more recently, at Lackland Air Force Base, prompt alarm, followed by congressional hearings, and, inevitably, promises from the military’s top brass to enforce a “zero-tolerance policy.” Yet despite countless pledges to root out the problem once and for all, sexual assaults, according to the Pentagon’s own figures, only continue to escalate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee hears from top officials of the Air Force—Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (right) and Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley (left)—during a hearing on Capitol Hill last week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
For four years, foreign correspondent Heidi Vogt was always one of the first people to file when a bomb went off in Afghanistan. But as U.S. troops begin to draw down, there is also a corresponding press drawdown that will prevent Americans from hearing the full story.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The first thing is always the boom. Then the rattling of window frames. Then I look up from my computer for someone to make eye contact with. My Afghan colleague does the same. “Was that?” “Did you feel?” We both rush for the stairs, running up to the roof to look for smoke. As I go, I flip through other options in my head: Earthquake? No. Gas tank explosion? Unlikely. The military blowing up a weapons cache? Maybe.
Afghan security men inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan in the winter. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)
When I reach the roof, the photographers and cameramen are already there. They always run faster, because they need the images. They're filming a black puff rising across town and debating what building may have been hit—maybe a government ministry, maybe an embassy, maybe a hotel. I go downstairs to make phone calls. From my desk, I hear a car pulling out of the compound—video and photo on their way.
It’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t had coffee yet.
I have spent the past four years as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Afghanistan. I have been one of about a dozen international reporters across various news outlets charged with telling the American public what's going on "over there." It makes for a strange workday: rushing out to bomb sites, counting suicide attacks and emailing with the Taliban.
People call the news the first draft of history. Working for a wire service in Afghanistan is like being there for the brainstorming session, then publishing your notes. It's a terrifying job. There's a lot more chance of getting something wrong than right, and there's the fear of losing a bit of your humanity in covering the daily death toll of war.
U.S. legislators renew their push for civilian oversight of military-sexual-assault cases.
According to the U.S. military, there are 19,000 rapes and sexual assaults each year in the armed forces—most of them unreported—with hardly any cases ending in convictions or even in prosecution. According to the Department of Defense’s own data, 85 percent of victims do not report the crime, mostly out of fear that no one will believe them, or that they’ll suffer retaliation (as many victims say they endure after they report assaults.) As Protect Our Defenders, a human-rights organization dedicated to survivors of military sexual assault, has stated, most cases aren’t prosecuted because of fear of retaliation, and only 2,500 victims reported attacks in 2011. (The numbers for last year will be out at the end of this month.)
Now, U.S. legislators are renewing the push to change those dismal statistics. On Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), Rep. Walter Jones (R-North Caroliana), and Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) held a press conference to reintroduce bipartisan legislation—backed by 83 co-sponsors—for the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP), which would create an independent office for reporting, investigating, and adjudicating military-sexual-assault cases outside of the normal chain of command. Their goal is to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) by involving civilian oversight.
The timing comes on the heels of the ongoing scandals at Lackland Air Force Base and Aviano Air Base in Italy. At Aviano, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sexual-assault conviction of fellow fighter pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who had been sentenced to a year in prison and dismissed from the armed forces by a jury of senior officers. Franklin, acting within his authority, overruled the jury verdict and freed Wilkerson, reinstating him back into the Air Force. Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said, “The military process is essentially equivalent to allowing a mayor, governor, or the president to decide whether or not to charge and prosecute the accused, carefully select a jury, then lessen a sentence or override the outcome if the result is not what they desire.”
The DOD is taking military sexual trauma (MST) seriously, and progress has been made. Earlier this month on April 5, it was announced that victims of sexual assault who have sought counseling will no longer have to report that fact when undergoing a background check for access to classified information. “We want to encourage individuals to get the help that they may need,” announced Charles Sowell, the assistant director for special security at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a briefing. “What we understood through communications with DOD and several congressional members was that victims of sexual assault, some number of them, were not seeking mental-health counseling because they were concerned they might [lose] their security clearances.”
Jennifer Norris, a rape survivor during her time in the Air Force, was ecstatic to hear about the change. When it was time to renew her security clearance, she had to answer “yes” on question 21, about whether she’d received counseling for her sexual trauma. That response ultimately ended her military career. During a recent phone conversation, she explained what had happened: “At first I got a phone call from investigators that they needed me to sign a release so they could have access to my records at the VA, where I was receiving counseling. My initial reaction was to say ‘yes’ because I didn’t have anything to hide. Over the next few days I started feeling very uneasy about people reading those records. Rape is a very personal thing, and I didn’t want those conversations available to people I didn’t know.” Norris continued, “I found out that I could rescind my decision and once I did that, I lost my clearance for not complying.”
Rear Admiral Dixon Smith, commander of the Navy’s southwest region, who is in charge of 10 Navy installations in a six-state area, is very concerned about sexual assaults in his ranks. In a meeting he arranged to pull together a group of San Diego leaders, Admiral Smith expressed the need to raise civilian awareness, hoping to learn from large civilian organizations and businesses that face similar challenges in creating workplaces intolerant of sexual harassment. Listening to him talk and engaging in conversation with him, I felt his passion and deep concern for what he calls, “one of the most significant near-term challenges to our sailors’ ability to be ready … sexual assault, a crime that happens to about two sailors every day.” He went on to say, “Sexual assault creates an unsafe workplace and degrades the readiness of our ships and squadrons.”
When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came to visit Marines in Fallujah, John Kael Weston pressed him on U.S. policy—and wishes he had gone further that day.
A lot of articles will be written this week about our experience in the Iraq War from primarily a U.S.-centric point of view. My goal is different: to help convey the stories of ordinary Iraqis and how our voluntary war affected them, and still does, even as Washington and the American public have largely moved on. These vignettes, which will run across consecutive days this week, include: The Teamster (Bassam), The English Teacher (Abbas), The Highway Patrolman (Waleed), and The Last Grand Mufti (Hamza).
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visits Camp Fallujah, December 2004. (John Kael Weston)
Let's hope one day Iraqis will write their own books about the Iraq War. When they do, their stories in their words should be required reading for all.
The Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld glared the whole time.
Years later, I still wonder whether I should have said more. The squinty-eyed Illinois native—and former Princeton wrestler renowned for his quick “fireman’s carry” takedowns—stood before me in a muddy corner of Camp Fallujah under wet, leaden skies in December 2004. His frontline visit happened on short notice, an implied though unacknowledged mea culpa of sorts. He brought a lot of reporters with him. Weeks earlier, with the Iraq war still young—like most who would fight and die in it—the media revealed that the defense chief’s killed-in-action (KIA) condolence letters were auto-penned. The final death tally would reach 4,487 Americans and well over 100,000 Iraqis.
See who’s attending and what’s on tap at the October 10 event in Washington, D.C.
No to Syria. Army veteran Brian Van Reet argues against intervention.
This map, created by the Center for Investigative Reporting, displays 58 VA regional offices and the number of backlogged claims by week on a national, regional and local level. This application will update itself every Monday to show each office's change in pending claims.
From Adm. William McRaven to columnist Nicholas Kristof to Bono, WATCH VIDEO of the summit’s must-see moments.