Conduct Unbecoming of the U.S. Army
New America Media, Commentary, Anonymous Posted: Dec 03, 2009
Editor’s Note: A soldier is betrayed first by her friend and comrade, then by her command. “Anonymous” recounts her determination to prevail over evil and indifference for the Veterans Workshop, a New America Media writing project for combat veterans.
The words stung, like I had just been slapped or spit upon. I couldn't follow the rest of the lieutenant colonel's words. Only that the man who raped me was being given an honorable discharge.
My commander was small in stature and had skin deeply creased with age and experience. He always came off warm, calling me by my first name and offering support and understanding. This time, his friendly demeanor gave a surreal character to his “good news.” He intended to give my rapist, his NCO, an Administrative Discharge under Honorable Conditions.
The same shock, disbelief and denial that I had felt after the rape overwhelmed me. I was back on the couch, trembling and in tears, as J slept on his bed, his gun close by. I had sat there then, trying to make sense of what had happened, how a friend – my supervisor and brother-in-arms – could betray me. Now, I was dazed by the betrayal of the Army.
In the cold, makeshift conference room, I was outranked and outnumbered. I sat across the table from my commander and a major; beside me was a female lieutenant, my cold, makeshift advocate.
I fought to stay in control. Anger, building since the attack, boiled up.
J would keep his rank and his benefits. His record would be unblemished. J could reenlist the day after his discharge, and conceivably return to his place on the state honor guard, carrying caskets and folding flags for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
The thought repulsed me.
“With all due respect, sir,” I said with the intensity of barely controlled fury, “that isn't acceptable to me. I don't ever want to see this man wearing this uniform again, leading troops again, or dishonoring another veteran at their funeral.”
My commander, Lt. Col. M, wrestled away a wry, uncomfortable smile as he looked around the room, unsure of how to react to my challenge. Gingerly, he reminded me that this action would mean that J would be out of the Army and would no longer hold a position of authority. Lt. Col. M said that this was all he could do, that he didn't have the power to deal a harsher punishment.
I looked over at my advocate. She said nothing. Neither did Major R, my commander’s right-hand man. But I knew what they were saying: Occurrences like this were “steady state operations” in the Army.
I'd seen Army indifference of sexual assault before. When the guys at my first unit would grab my ass or whisper vulgar fantasies to me in uniform, the only action my command took was to offer a collective shrug. From drill sergeant to battalion commander, they all told me the same thing: “You need to grow a thick skin and get used to it” because “this is how life is for females in the Army.”
I was hearing it again in the conference room. Get used to it. This is how life is for women in the Army.
But this time, I wasn’t going to be ignored.
Lt. Col. M wasn't willing to push the issue to someone with the power to administer punishment -- fine, then I would, I told him. I couldn't serve in a unit or institution that granted impunity to, even rewarded, those in positions of power and responsibility for an offense like rape.
I had trusted J as a friend, a comrade, and my recently appointed boss. He was a noncommissioned officer, a decorated soldier. He was obsessed with power and control, be it through artful manipulation or intimidation. He projected it through the big truck he drove, the gun on his hip, the combat badge he flaunted. J loved to tell people that he was a combat veteran, so he could do what he wanted. And the Army told him that he could.
Not me. The Army told me that I was worthless. I had felt an obligation to serve, to continue on the deployment that I had trained for and committed to. I had always stepped up when the Army called me, and this time was no different. I couldn't let my unit deploy without me. But this dedication I had to my unit and the Army was one-way. After the initial days of support and after I agreed to still deploy, my command treated me as nothing more than a nuisance, a burden, a liability.
The Army doesn’t like to air its dirty laundry, preferring instead to resolve allegations of misconduct “in-house.” Too often, I’d seen that this meant dismissals and hand slaps. So I went to the civilian police the day after I was attacked. Local authorities collected the physical evidence and taped J’s confession when I phoned him from the police station. Police arrested J the night before we were scheduled to deploy, and he was arraigned days later on four counts of Rape by Duress.
The evidence, confession and criminal charges didn’t seem to matter to the Army. Neither did my pain. My commander's intention to give J an honorable discharge reinforced my feelings of worthlessness and dispensability. I was not worth the dark cloud that might hover over the unit if punishments were dealt. I was not worth the blemish on Lt. Col. M's record of “soldier care.” My pain was not worth even a moment of his or his colleagues’ discomfort. The Army’s apathy and betrayal, however passive, hurt more than J's attack.
This indifference ran through the ranks and across gender lines. The lieutenant appointed as my advocate told me that she had once been raped, but decided not to file a criminal report.
“It was easier to just forget about it,” she told me, and implied that I should, too. I was hearing it again: This is how life is for women in the Army.
When I rejoined my comrades, no one would talk to me. Not even the women. They all faulted me for breaking up the unit, for getting J taken off of the deployment. J had a long history with the unit, while I was the new girl.
A few days after I rejoined my unit, we reviewed some video footage from training. At one point, J's face filled the screen. I was paralyzed, lightheaded with fear and nausea. I ran to the bathroom and vomited. Minutes later, a female I had trained with and lived with came in to use the bathroom. As I sat on the floor heaving with sobs, she stepped over me to wash her hands, survey her hair, and leave. I was alone. To her, I was worthless.
Back home, a prosecutor facing a backlog of cases and an aggressive opposition from J’s high-priced legal defense offered J a deal. J pled guilty to False Imprisonment, a misdemeanor, and served on the sheriff’s work crew for 90 days. When the military officially began an evaluation of J’s conviction and service record, Lt. Col. M ordered me to not submit a sworn statement, to not get involved with the military's separation board or to talk to the prosecutor responsible for the case. He said that I would not be allowed to testify.
Major R, mindful of his career, backed the commander.
“This is none of your business,” he told me, “and you have no right to involve yourself in it.”
With every step I took, my command tried to silence me with threats and claims that I didn't have this or that right. Often, it was simple harassment and the silent demand that I “get used to it.”
During my deployment, Major R often accused me of being promiscuous, of spending too much time with men (which made up about 85 percent of the post's population and my entire office), and of putting myself in dangerous situations. He once said this must explain J's actions. With tears and anger, and no regard to military bearing, I rebuked the major.
“I have done nothing wrong,” I shouted. “He made his own decision to rape me.” The major cringed at the word “rape,” then stared at me with contempt and told me to leave his office.
I was fighting Army culture, but also myself. I couldn't be honest about how much I was struggling, how depressed I was, or even the nightmares I was having almost every night, at the risk of losing privileges, my rank, my security clearance and my job. So I stayed silent and isolated myself, even from those at home. I couldn't tell anyone that I was starving myself and that I didn't know how to stop. I couldn't tell anyone about the night I cut my arms and thighs, and my continuing urges to cut. I couldn't tell anyone about the phantom child I felt in my womb, wondering if he would have J’s eyes, or what I would tell her when she asked about her father.
I was exhausted, depleted of the energy it took to constantly be on-guard and feign normalcy. I spent almost every off-duty hour in bed, sleeping, reading or watching movies. I lost almost 25 pounds within a few months into my deployment. When Major R heard of my weight loss, he accused me of staging a ploy to make him look bad and to solicit pity or attention.
I was in the Army National Guard, but to get support, I had to go to the command of another state’s Guard unit. I wasn't a liability to them, I wasn't their responsibility, so they were willing to help. They got me in contact with the prosecution back home, and authorized my return to the United States for the separation board.
When I arrived back in the States, I spent my first six hours on the ground with the prosecuting legal officer preparing for the next day's board.
I prepared myself to face J. I was determined to show that I was still succeeding despite the devastation he caused me. I wanted him to know that I was stronger, still fighting and still standing. I wore my Class A’s, decorated with the many awards I had earned while deployed, and a higher rank from a meritorious promotion.
The proceedings began with the defense objecting to my testimony, and it was approved. I had traveled for two days halfway across the world to testify against my attacker, and I wouldn't even be given a chance to speak.
“Get used to it,” I thought bitterly, “this how life is for women in the Army.”
I filled with tears and anger, but I refused to leave. Instead, I sat outside the boardroom, waiting for my chance to confront J.
I sat at the only exit, getting up every once in a while to pace and peer through the blinds. All I could see were J’s sergeant stripes that he didn't deserve, and his beloved combat badge. I looked around the old headquarter building, shaking my head at the typical state of disservice of another Army facility. Peering outside, the world was blurred by layers of untold years of dust and dead gnats on the windows. I glared at others walking through the halls, laughing and talking as if all was right in the world.
After three or four hours, the board called a recess. I sat in a chair, arms folded, bracing myself for our first confrontation since the rape. J walked out, looking down, and then looked up and met my eyes. His eyes widened and he recoiled, responding as if someone had just slapped him. He turned around and refused to exit the room, hiding from my view behind a partition.
I had expected a cocky, arrogant and challenging response from him, but our roles had been reversed. Now I was the one in power, while J wouldn't even show his face. Later in the day when the board tabled their deliberation, I again took my place outside the door to await J’s exit. This time I stood right in his path, arms crossed and staring him down. He dropped his head and refused to look at me, walking briskly away with his lawyer. I didn't say anything; I didn't need to.
The board allowed my presence when it announced its decision the next day. There were few formalities. The panel read a short statement explaining the purpose of the meeting, and recorded who was present in the room. My body was rigid, my stomach in knots. J, who had been ordered to report to the board for only one day, had traveled home. He had been suspended from active duty, and was now listening in on a conference call to learn the fate of his career.
Then the board gave its decision: J was to be given an Other than Honorable discharge, without the possibility of reenlistment and with the loss of all of his benefits. He was stripped of his rank, his awards and his dignity.
And as I left the boardroom, I thought, “Get used to it, J. This is how life is for women in the Army.”
The author is now a university student, and plans to pursue a career as a trauma therapist. She continues to serve in the Army National Guard.
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