NEW YORK (Reuters) - Female U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have more to fear than roadside bombs or enemy ambushes. They also are at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.
“The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” a book based on 40 in-depth interviews, recounts the stories of female veterans who served in combat zones and tells of rape, sexual assault and harassment by male counterparts.
Some were warned by officers not to go to the latrine by themselves. One began carrying a knife in case she was attacked by comrades. Others said they felt discouraged to report assaults.
“The horror of it is that it is their own side that is doing this to them,” said the book’s author, Helen Benedict, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York. The book was released in the United States on Wednesday.
One in 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are female, and more women have fought and died in the Iraq war than any since World War Two, according to U.S. Department of Defense statistics cited in the book.
Benedict said the book’s title comes from the isolation female U.S. soldiers experience when combining the trauma of their combat duties with sexual harassment by fellow soldiers.
“Because women are under so much more danger now and actually in the battle, it’s a particularly tragic situation because all soldiers are supposed to be able to rely on one another to watch their backs,” Benedict said.
“And how can you feel that way if your fellow soldiers are harassing you all day or trying to rape you or actually even raping you?”
One such soldier, Marti Ribeiro, was a third-generation Air Force sergeant who served in Afghanistan in 2006 as a combat correspondent with the Army’s all-male 10th Mountain Division. Her story includes an account of being attacked and raped by a U.S. soldier in uniform while guarding a post.
After completing the shift and not showering to substantiate the attack, she reported it to authorities, only to be told if she filed a claim she would be charged with dereliction of duty for leaving her weapon unattended. She left the military.
“I had dreams of becoming an officer one day, like my father and grandfather,” she says in the book. “Unfortunately, because I’m female, those dreams will not come true.”
The number of reports of sexual assault in the U.S. military rose by 8 percent in fiscal 2008 from the previous year and by 25 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report released by the Pentagon in March.
There were 2,908 reports overall of sexual assault by members of the military. Such assaults include rape, indecent assault and attempted rape, the report said.
Of the 40 women Benedict interviewed who served between 2003 and 2006, 10 said they had been raped, five said they were sexually assaulted including attempted rape, and 13 reported sexual harassment.
A new play based on Benedict’s work was performed in New York and may tour the United States. After a recent performance, real soldiers hugged the actors who portrayed them. Some wiped away tears.
U.S. officials said the increase in assaults was due to efforts to make it easier to report them.
Cynthia Smith, a Department of Defense spokeswoman, said the department was committed to eliminating sexual assault from the military through prevention and response policies and eliminating barriers to reporting assaults.
“The Department of Defense’s goal is to establish a climate of confidence that encourages victims to report sexual assault and get the care they need,” she said in an e-mail.
Benedict and some researchers say U.S. government figures are much lower than their findings because the government only counts those brave enough to report the assaults.
The problem is not new to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A 2003 survey of more than 550 female veterans who served in wars from Vietnam to the first Gulf war found that 30 percent said they suffered from rape or attempted rape and 79 percent reported being sexually harassed, according to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Beech