Journalists write of battlefield wounds and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. We thank service members for their service on Memorial Day and on Veteran’s Day, and people post images on social media of Arlington National Cemetery, and of soldiers decked out for combat, wielding guns.
Yet as a military spouse, I have met many men and women who have served in the military, whose greatest challenge in serving is not an enemy combatant from another country, but a fellow soldier who makes lewd sexual comments to them or uses homophobic and misogynistic threats to intimidate them into performing better on the job. Public jokes at parties regularly compare men to women in order to put them down (like by giving PMS or menopause medication for men who cry easily), or put female officers down for their capacity to get pregnant. None of the command leadership speaks up.
My husband’s last commander issued a vague threat that something bad might happen to our family, if I refused to come to his house for dinner and receive a public lecture about good behavior when we first came to this command. While I didn’t come to his house, we felt powerless and on edge until he left for another post, because there is no way to hold commanders accountable for unprofessional or threatening conduct without fear of direct retribution. The process for filing complaints with the Inspector General requires that service members list their rank, gender, and race on the application, so the higher up and/or the more of a minority you are, the more likely it is that the person against whom the complaint has been filed will know who you are when they read what has been written about them.
Even run-of-the-mill procedures to check against abuse of power make it hard for people to give honest feedback on military leadership. A woman I met who served in the army, who is also black, told me that she felt she couldn’t reply honestly on command morale surveys (surveys that essentially assess how comfortable people feel with command leadership) if she also indicated that she was a black woman in the demographic section; she was the only black woman of her rank in her platoon.
Why has our government allowed the military to function with little (if any) recourse for safely reporting abuse? Why do we thank troops for their service and express blanket gratitude for what they do, without showing interest in what dangers our service members really face, and asking what we can do to help?