With an eye toward the Jewish imperative to support women and children, the Essex County section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) hosted a discussion on sexual harassment and assault of females in the armed services.
“For NCJW this is very much of a woman’s issue,” said board member Lila Bernstein of Mendham, who chaired the discussion. “Many women who serve our country have trauma from being female in the service and when they come out, all they want to do is forget about it.”
Her comment set the agenda for two hours of reflections on military life that sometimes touched on the intimate, as a panel of five women — three of them veterans — addressed the NCJW chapter on March 30 at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
“Many ex-servicewomen experience military sexual trauma,” said Janine Decker, women veterans program manager for the Veterans Administration’s New Jersey Health Care System. According to Decker, one out of every four female veterans have admitted to being subjected to some of form of sexual harassment or sexual assault serving in the military.
“That’s huge,” she said.
Said Barbara Plyer, a counselor with Vista Healthcare, “We’d like to think it doesn’t happen.” Plyer works with clients suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. “It doesn’t have to be a sexual assault.”
One female veteran told Plyer she contracted a number of sexually transmitted diseases in the military. When such problems occur it may be difficult, if not impossible, for a violated woman to complain.
“You cannot go to your commanding officer or…a female commanding officer who could say to you ‘suck it up,’” said Plyer. “It is very difficult to come in for counseling and be validated that you actually had something happen to you. You keep it all inside and then you think ‘It’s my fault. I must have had something to do with it.’”
Those words sounded familiar to Sharon Stroye, assistant dean for the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. Stroye joined the military after high school. Although she served in an all-female battalion, “Everyone in command was a man.”
She said she ended up in a couple of relationships with men whom she couldn’t turn down; one was her drill sergeant. “You think it is consensual, but when that line of authority is established, there is a line that ‘no’ is not always ‘no.’”
The most dramatic moment at the meeting came near its end, when an African-American veteran in the audience, Yvonne Johnson, said, “It really made me mad at what I had to go through as a military female — not only female but black, and not only black, but I was an officer,” Johnson said. “As a female in the military, if you don’t have thick skin you are going to either speak up or shut up. I am a speaker.”
Before her service in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Johnson served as a hospital administrator, transporting injured patients from the battlefield. Once, as she was standing near an airplane, someone turned on the jet engine, damaging her hearing and upsetting her equilibrium. She advised women in the service to “be careful” of what can happen to them in a male-dominated culture.
Priscilla Arias said when she signed up for the Army National Guard at the age of 17, “she did not realize she would be sent to Iraq.”
And, she admitted to the 130 women at the luncheon meeting, “I was scared.”
She said in her infantry unit “you constantly had to prove yourself — not only because you’re a woman, but because you’re around these men.” She said the women in her unit needed to keep physically, mentally, and emotionally fit” to prove they were “capable of having their [the men’s] backs.”
Arias said that contrary to the belief of several servicemen, female soldiers are strong enough to carry men if they need to be rescued. “That’s a stereotype,” she said. “We are trained to do it,” and called the critique “very sexist.”
“When you are in a male-dominated unit they tend to speak as men in sexual terms,” she said, saying that coarse language and cursing is “part of the military culture.”
During her service, Arias was transferred from the infantry to a cavalry unit. “We didn’t have support from the chain of command as women.” After seven years, she returned to civilian life. Leaving the service was difficult for her, as she lacked a support system in civilian life. She “became very depressed and so sad,” she said, her voice cracking.
Women are often coerced into leaving the military when they reveal they are victims of sexual assault, according to Plyer.
“Men are out in the field and they can be horny and it is tough when the respect is not there for women,” Plyer said.
Later, Plyer told NJJN that it’s crucial that people become aware of the treatment of women in the male-dominated military. Despite the challenges, women can rely on privacy laws to protect them when they come forward.
“I know men receive sensitivity training,” said Plyer, “but they need more of it.”