Protecting our daughters

Thursday, March 4th, 2004

Rape has more cultural blessing than gay marriage in some sectors of American society, especially out there on the testosterone range, where men are men.

And you don’t need to be a Catholic bishop to coddle sexual predators, apparently. Generals do it pretty well. So did a big-time college football coach.

Let’s be clear about this. Brave, tough women who cross the line, who pioneer in traditionally masculine professions, especially professions that are rawly competitive, or violent, make themselves more than normally vulnerable to rape.

Did you catch the news from the combat zones — Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan? In the past 18 months, 112 female GIs — helicopter pilots, military police officers, etc. — have reported being sexually assaulted, and not by the enemy. Indeed, even as Navy Seals were “rescuing” Jessica Lynch from the imaginary predations of Iraqi molesters, real rapists wearing American uniforms were assaulting American women.

Makes you wonder, who’s the enemy? What’s the war?

At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, senators grilled four-star generals on what The New York Times called “lapses” in the military’s rape-awareness culture, a problem that came to light not because the military “outed” itself but because The Denver Post did an investigative series on the matter. Since then, the scope of the scandal has grown.

That’s the way it usually is. The story finally hits the news and traumatized women, harboring a secret they felt no one would believe or care about, can no longer remain silent.

For instance, a year ago, 60 female cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy initially made waves by reporting that they’d been sexually assaulted. Before the scandal had bottomed out — before the brass took it seriously and started making changes — the victim total had reached 19 percent of the academy’s female population.

The publicity surrounding that scandal illuminated something else: Rape isn’t the half of it. When a woman dared to report an assault (and only one in five did), she was lucky if all she encountered was indifference. She was likely to be humiliated, ostracized and perhaps punished herself. She was also vulnerable to retaliation.

Thus, when Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, at last week’s hearing, declared in exasperation, “I don’t get a sense of outrage by military leadership” — I’d say, Mom and Dad, think twice about letting your daughter enlist.

“Lack of outrage” often means “blame the victim.” Consider the ordeal of Katie Hnida, a top-notch placekicker in high school who was invited to try out for the University of Colorado’s football team — only to walk into groping, crotch-grabbing hell. Her ordeal of verbal abuse, exposed genitalia and footballs aimed at her head culminated in rape, by a teammate who outweighed her by 100 pounds. She endured it because she wanted to make the team. “Football makes me breathe,” she told Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. And no, she didn’t tell her coach, Gary Barnett (not the guy, by the way, who invited her to try out). “I was terrified,” she said. “He didn’t want me around in the first place. I thought for sure he’d kick me off (the team).”

Hnida came forward with her story three years after the nightmare because a new sex scandal involving Barnett’s team — strippers, rape at recruitment parties — reopened her wound. (Barnett, confronted with her allegation, showed his compassion by responding, “You know what guys do — they respect your ability. Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible. There’s no other way to say it.”)

The 112 rapes emanating from Central Command are, almost certainly, just the beginning of this latest scandal. In fact, it’s already widening. The Times reports that some two dozen female recruits at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, a large training facility, recently notified to a local rape-crisis center that they had been sexually assaulted in 2002.

I repeat: Who’s the enemy? The growing evidence of widespread crimes against women in the military begs some soul-searching questions on the nature of our security and, indeed, the war on terror. Who are the terrorists?

The White House propaganda supporting an open-ended war on “evil” depicts an enemy in Iraq of comic-book savagery. Look what they did to Jessica! When I wrote about this shameless lie last summer, one reader countered angrily: “I would sincerely pray that none of your female relatives are ever in the hands of these barbaric people.”

I do pray that.