Friday, January 19, 2007

Looking the other way

Below the belt: 1.10.07
Looking the other way

Last week the feminist community cheered one woman's unprecedented ascent to political power and rallied around another woman's release from prison. Both women, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Army Pvt. Suzanne Swift (as well as Swift's mother Sara Rich, who organized an international campaign to free her daughter), are leaders in today's feminist movement to end violence against women, and to end the abuse of women in and by the U.S. military -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and right here at home.

The Bush administration would do itself a favor (and do right by the rest of us) by heeding Pelosi, who is calling, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for an end to the war in Iraq, and by tuning in to Swift's experience, which not only tells the story of thousands of women who have been abused and violated by their fellow soldiers and superiors, but also gives one example out of the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already returned from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- a mental illness that will affect an estimated 15 to 29 percent of all returning soldiers.

We know that the current pro-war leadership couldn't care less about the countless Iraqi civilians who have been displaced, impoverished, separated from their families, injured and killed. But you'd think they might show some interest in the health and well-being of the women and men they send over there -- many for multiple tours of duty -- to fight their war.

Suzanne Swift is all too familiar with the consequences of "look the other way" leadership. She was deployed to Iraq a month after enlisting in 2004, and throughout her deployment reported being sexually harassed and assaulted by two sergeants. Swift's attempts to seek recourse were met with threats and disrespect. When she was sexually harassed by another commanding sergeant back in the U.S., after returning from Iraq, the perpetrator was merely transferred to another unit after she reported the incident, and Swift got immediate reprisals from the other soldiers in her own unit.

Eight months after returning from her first tour of duty, Swift was ordered to re-deploy to Iraq. Acutely traumatized by her experiences, Swift went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and sought treatment for PTSD. She was arrested for going AWOL in June 2006, sentenced to 30 days confinement, and demoted in December. Swift was offered a "deal" that, according to Swift's mother, involved continuing her military service for 19 months, with no agreement that she wouldn't be sent back to Iraq, and signing a statement saying that she was not raped in Iraq. Swift rejected this offer and spent the next 30 days in military prison. She was released on January 3, 2007, greeted by many supporters and advocates.

Throughout her ordeal, Swift's mother, Sara Rich, campaigned with other activists, women's rights and peace organizations, and legislators seeking fair treatment for Suzanne. Swift is one of countless military women who got the cold shoulder from the Bush administration -- from its failure to protect, and prevent violence against, women serving their country, to its eagerness to recruit, arm and deploy men with criminal records for the sake of increasing troop numbers (more on these "moral waivers" later). Indeed, the administration has repeatedly shown that the safety and well-being of servicemembers are not a priority -- consider reports that soldiers have inadequate protection against biological and chemical warfare, along with Bush's proposals to cut funding for veterans' programs, and his willingness to send traumatized soldiers back to Iraq over and over again.

While "compassion" rolls so easily off conservative tongues, the Bush crowd seems to have some qualms when it comes to practicing what they preach.

Check out the numbers: Over 3,000 U.S. service personnel dead and counting, and more than 50,000 wounded. Over 650,000 soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and 170,000 have served multiple tours -- increasing their likelihood of returning with PTSD and other conditions requiring intense medical care.

Women in the military are at especially high risk for PTSD, facing the threat of sexual assault, rape, and harassment on top of the daily life-threats associated with deployment into a war zone. Twenty to forty soldiers are evacuated each month due to serious mental health problems. Military statistics show that a majority of the soldiers, perhaps as many as 80%, who have been diagnosed with mild symptoms of PTSD have been sent back to Iraq and Afghanistan again -- equipped with anti-depressant pills. How's that for compassion?

What's especially disturbing is that Bush is hell-bent on increasing the number of troops deployed to Iraq. Even Pentagon officials admit that certain standards would have to be lowered to accomplish this goal -- one policy official described it as a "trade-off between quality and quantity." Perhaps he was referring to disturbing trade-offs that have already been made: 17 percent of first-time recruits were accepted despite records of medical, moral or criminal issues such as drug problems and drunk driving arrests. These 13,000 recruits' records were "waived."

Of course, this strategy of "moral waivers" makes a lot of sense if you're just in the market for armed warm bodies, but if there's some other goal (let's say, maintaining a corps of healthy, competent service personnel with the highest potential to achieve military goals), it's problematic. Common sense says that someone with problems like chemical dependency, depression, and prior misdemeanor convictions will probably be less likely to handle combat stress well, and may be more likely to assault fellow soldiers or civilians. Combine that with the risk factors for PTSD that are inextricably tied to deployment -- like displacement from familiar surroundings and threatened loss of life -- and the chances for dysfunction are multiplied.

The result? A soldier whose waived entrance into military service may put himself and/or everyone else at added risk. Think of the soldier with a moral waiver who raped and murdered a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her family. Think of the soldiers who assaulted Suzanne Swift.

But right now, all Bush can think of is more warm bodies with guns. Perhaps we should remind the Decider that presidents don't get moral waivers.


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