Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted a ban on women in combat declaring that, as of 2016, women would be permitted to serve in frontline combat roles. Both women in the military and non-military affiliated groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have for years asserted that women have been serving in active combat roles, they simply have not been recognized for it. This formal declaration from the Pentagon has been seen by many as a triumph for the fight for equality between men and women in the armed forces.
While this step towards establishing gender equality in the armed forces is one that we want to celebrate, it’s hard to not be overshadowed by the discussion of the unfortunately high number of women in the armed forces who are victims of sexual assault in culmination with the lack of support that they receive upon returning from service, despite recent efforts to provide more accessible treatment for trauma experienced while serving.
Back in 2010 the Department of Veterans Affairs released a set of new regulations aimed at easing the access to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) benefits to veterans. Previously, veterans were required to provide proof or documentation that they experienced certain stressors while serving that would cause their condition, which is often difficult. Under the new regulation, veterans only had to prove that they served in a war zone in a position where it was likely that they would encounter an event that would cause PTSD.
As an aside, it should go without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway – that you don’t have to support the war to support the troops. Regardless of where you stand on this war or war in general, we all should be standing with those who have served and supporting them in their transition to civilian life upon their return. Veterans returning from a war zone and not receiving the proper and necessary treatment to assist them in their transition is a detriment to all of us.
While the new regulations were an important step in making sure that veterans had access to these benefits, it failed to acknowledge the particular trauma of military sexual trauma (MST) that affects over half a million female veterans. Last year, former Marine Capt. and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Anu Bhagwati, testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance panel, stating that “only one in three claims for post-traumatic stress related to military sexual trauma are approved by the Veteran’s Affairs Department, compared to half of all other PTSD claims.”
Feministing’s Chloe Angyal calls military sexual assault an epidemic, one that is both under-reported and under-acknowledged, despite the fact that Panetta and the Pentagon have made some recent changes in the way that sexual assault is reported. According to Angyla, “Fixing the way sexual violence is reported is necessary, of course, and more effective reporting, prosecution, and punishment will hopefully discourage sexual predators. But we’d all rather see the root cause of that violence eliminated altogether.”
It is difficult to praise the progress towards gender equality in the armed forces by making the move to formally allow women in combat while forgetting the inequality that exists elsewhere and the culture of violence (yes, sexual assault is about violence, not about sex) that cultivates the environment that allows this inequality to persist.. It’s a jarring fact that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted in the armed forces than they are to be killed in combat. It’s a system that allows women to put their lives on the line for their country, but in return fails to provide them with the support and resources that they need – and need because they were victims of this system that failed to protect them in the first place. This is a discrepancy that we cannot ignore.
Featured image via Women of the Military