Monday, February 1, 2010

Sarah’s War

File under: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

Sarah always considered herself a patriot, love of country and democracy was in her blood. She considered herself fortunate and proud to be an American. She was an average girl, born in an average Midwestern American town, to average Midwestern American parents. When Sarah’s parents were children the town had a successful sawmill and several neighboring farms. These days with the mill’s former customers purchasing cheaper imported lumber, the mill sits closed and eerily silent. The farms that have not foundered already are merely rotting on the vine. Most residents, who remain for one reason or another, drive 45 minutes to the work at telemarketing, fast food, and other service industry jobs in the city.

Sarah, her mother, and younger sister were such residents. When Sarah was younger, she lost her older brother to friendly fire in the Gulf War, and after generations in the family and the death of Sarah’s father, a Vietnam veteran, hard times forced the family to sell off most of the farm. Upon paying back income and property taxes, the family did not gain much on the sale. From the summer after tenth grade, Sarah worked at the local grocery store as a cashier. She knew she did not want to work there forever, thus, when Sarah graduated high school, she faced the same dilemma her brother did years before, and her father did years before that. She wanted out of this average Midwestern town – she wanted a better life. She also lacked direction or a view of the world outside of her sleepy little town. After discussing her limited options with her mother, who though not agreeing with her decision supported it, she made the same decision her brother and her father made. Sarah enlisted in the military.

The military seemed like the obvious choice. This was before September 11 when the world still made sense. The military would train her, provide her money for college, allow her to see the world, give her adventure, and most importantly, provide escape from her eventual fate had she remained in that average Midwestern town. The military prevents women from serving in “combat” roles, so she chose to become a medic, thinking she could possibly work in the hospital in the city when she completed her two years. Sarah worked diligently and served with distinction; by everyone’s account, she had the potential for a long, successful career – for a woman at least. Then September 11 happened and the world did not make sense anymore. Two years came and went; Sarah continued to serve with honor at home and abroad. When her tour was complete, the government did not need to Stop-loss Sarah, no, Sarah volunteered for additional duty. Sarah was a patriot after all and when her country needed her the most, she would be there for her country.

Halfway across the world, alone in a foreign land Sarah faced the most grueling ordeal of her life. Not from the enemy she came to fight, but from an “enemy” that came along with her. Unlike other female soldiers who always had a “buddy,” Sarah was the only female in her unit, and her fellow soldiers made her painfully aware of it. Despite her glowing record of duty and bravery, Sarah found herself constantly denigrated and harassed. Although having a non-combat, support role, Sarah’s unit frequently came under fire. Numerous times Sarah’s actions, actions that would have garnered a male soldier medals and praise, saved the lives of countless allied combatants. However, Sarah received no medals, no praise, no acceptance, and no respect. Sarah became a second-class soldier by virtue of her sex.

It is every soldiers reality that you must be always vigilant, always watching your back and the back of the soldier next to you. Sarah’s reality was no one watched her back, and she expected harm not from the enemy encountered on the streets, but from within her own “brothers” in arms. Not every soldier treated Sarah with disrespect, and of the few who did, only a few of these were more than chauvinistic towards her. Nevertheless, Sarah came to realize there was no time, whether on base or patrol, she was truly safe. Unfortunately, Sarah could not watch her back at all times. One night while her guard was down, isolated and alone, a fellow soldier cornered Sarah, brutalized her, and raped her.

Sarah was far from home, isolated, alone and now violated in an unimaginable way. Nothing in the recruiter’s presentation or brochures mentioned suffering rape for your country. There was nothing covered in basic to prepare her for this. Again, she faced a dilemma, although this time nothing in the military experience of her brother and father could provide her with any guidance. Sarah was already an outcast and now she had to decide would she complicate her terrible plight by accusing her attacker, or would she live her torment in silence? She decided, in spite of the actions of her comrades, to place her faith in her country. Sadly, when Sarah needed her country the most, her country would not be there for her.

Her commanding officer near summarily dismissed Sarah, telling her all the ways her coming forward could destroy morale for the unit. Sarah threatened with further humiliation, court martial, and ouster decided not to make any more noise about her “incident.” In the weeks to come, she would work next to her rapist on a daily basis. She no longer trusted anyone in her company or anyone in general. She carried a knife and a sidearm with her at all times, these became her friends. It is ironic, that while serving in the defense of freedom, Sarah had hers taken from her. When not on duty, Sarah was a prisoner in her own world of seclusion and shame. Remaining silent was more than she could bear any longer. She returned to her commanding officer and insisted he take action. She would not be silent, she would not submit.

Within a few days of making a formal complaint, MPs found Sarah’s dead body on base. Evidence suggests Sarah’s killer again brutalized her before executing her with a shot to the head and mutilating her corpse. The investigation of her death is unresolved, despite her family’s undying persistence in seeking justice. The soldier she originally accused of her rape received a reprimand in his file and one month in the brig; he would go on to receive a promotion before leaving the service under a normal discharge.

Military policy still officially bans women from combat roles, 90% of sexual assaults go unreported, and nearly two-thirds of soldiers actually convicted of sexual assault and rape receive punishments similar to Sarah’s assailant. Sarah is not real, but Sarah’s story is reflective of roughly a third of the women enlisted in the US Armed Services. Though there are signs of increased awareness and intention to end situations such as these, the military is recalcitrant at best when it comes to openness, investigation, and punishment of such offenses. While Sarah’s story ends, other brave women soldier on, continuing her struggle for equal station, acceptance, respect, and justice. Sadly, even in our enlightened, free, and progressive society, these goals remain elusive.

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