Women in military struggle with family balance, sex assault

Female Marines
Female Marine recruits stand in formation during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a recent NPR series, "America's Woman Warriors," correspondent Quil Lawrence looked at the unique challenges women face in the service, from sexual violence to balancing work and family.

Female Marine
Pvt. Megan Randall of Huntersville, North Carolina cleans a machine gun during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Read the post-show takeaway

"I think there are questions that we started to ask in the series and we realized we would never have asked a man, how do you balance your commitments to your family and your commitments to the military?" Lawrence said on NPR. "It just goes without saying; men are men and they go off to war. Women have all of these other issues that, well, American society asks them about. And when they come back, if they've got the same sort of famous thousand-mile stare from PTSD, for me, again, that's expected; for women, why are you being so numb? Why are you unable to relate with your family? And some women don't make it home."

The military is putting more emphasis on research related to how women react differently to war. Some studies have shown that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs released a strategy report last year that examined how it could better serve female veterans.

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Kayla Williams, former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a military intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), wrote about women at war in "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army."

From her piece in the Huffington Post:

I'm used to speaking out about veterans issues, and the special issues that women veterans face. "Used to biting my tongue when I'm asked if I was allowed to carry a gun in Iraq because I'm 'just a girl.' Used to explaining that yes, women are actually in combat, they have died in combat, earned Silver Stars for their valor in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Used to being patient and calm and citing facts and figures and statistics to prove my points.

What I am not used to is having a little girl think first of someone like me when she thinks of what a veteran is. Not used to feeling so included, having our service recognized by an outsider without prompting, being ... accepted.

THE TAKEAWAY:Military women have been waiting for a "culture change" too long.

Guests and callers described a male military culture that works against women — whether by discouraging their promotion, making them feel isolated or exposing them to an "epidemic" of sexual assault, not to mention making it more difficult to report such assaults when they occur.

NPR's Lawrence said, "We all know that downrange people can get very familiar, and in an all-male environment the atmosphere can get somewhat hostile. I have spoken to a lot of women who felt like, in order to be one of the guys, they had to go along with a lot of talk, a lot of jokes, that trivialized rape, that kind of thing. And that is the sort of thing that many of them said may make the atmosphere difficult to report sexual assault when it does happen."

A caller from Moorhead, Kim, said that she served four years in the military, and felt pressure "to act like one of the guys. And I was looked at as a horrible person when I acted like them, but if I didn't, I was looked at as weak, and it was this weird kind of gray area. ... I had to endure a lot of sexual jokes and things that made me super uncomfortable, but I couldn't say anything about it because I was trying to be one of the guys and fit in."

Lawrence quoted Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, as saying that "it's a culture that needs to change." He added,"Women's rights advocates and servicewomen's advocates say they've been hearing that since the Tailhook scandal in 1991. That they've been hearing it again and again. ...

"The lawyers I spoke with and many of the women who've survived rape in the military say the trials are reminiscent of rape trials in civilian courts 30, 40, 50 years ago, where it was usually the victim who ends up on the stand defending her sexual history, anything she might have been wearing, anything like that. Things that for the most part have been disallowed in civilian courts are still allowed in military courts. It's a culture — but it's also sort of a legal culture that needs to change."


Army Suicides: My Experience. Williams writes about her suicidal thoughts after Iraq. (Huffington Post)

Kayla Williams: 'Love My Rifle More Than You.' Williams talks about her new memoir recounting her experience fighting in Iraq. (Fresh Air)

The Challenges Female Vets Face When Coming Home. "Services designed to help veterans are not always equipped to deal with the needs of the nearly 2 million female vets." (Tell Me More)

More women vets are homeless, but housing scarce. "The population of female veterans without permanent shelter has more than doubled in the last half-dozen years." (AP)

Veterans, Pentagon contend with sexual assault in military. Rapes and sexual assaults are dramatically under-reported in the military. (MPR News)