Command discretion. Enlistees and officers. PTSD. Courts-martial. Military Sexual Trauma. The military institution is replete with unfamiliar language whose connotations and meanings are best understood by those who have served. As a civilian employee working on gender and military issues at the Service Women’s Action Network, learning this terminology was a job in itself, as knowing the simple definitions of these words can hardly capture the implications and meanings of military culture. In many ways, the different language symbolizes the vast difference between life and employment in the military versus the civilian spheres—we speak different languages because we live and work in different worlds.
While gender issues have always been my professional and personal focus, as a civilian I knew embarrassingly little about the U.S. military when I applied for a job at SWAN over two years ago, and admitted this upfront during my interview. I remember Anu Bhagwati, SWAN’s Executive Director, asking me if I would be willing to really immerse myself in military and veterans issues, because, in her words, she needed someone who would “get” these issues, even in my limited capacity as an administrative assistant. I agreed to this commitment and naively assumed that the gender dynamics and issues of the military couldn’t work that much differently from the gender politics in civilian life—if I had a firm grasp on the latter, how difficult would it be to apply that knowledge and analysis to the former?
That it was difficult to understand military and veterans issues is an understatement; doing this kind of work as a civilian is an uphill battle, as I would quickly learn. To be sure, coming into SWAN with a firm grasp of civilian gender issues definitely helped, but I was quite astounded by how much I didn’t know, and, simply couldn’t know as a civilian. For example, while I am well-read and informed about sexual violence against women, I came into this work believing that the “hypermasculine” military culture was to blame for the rampant rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment of servicewomen. I also falsely assumed that like in the civilian world, sexual violence primarily affected women, not men. How lofty these assumptions seem now! I had no idea that the military as an institution, including its misguided policies, is very much to blame for the sexual violence crisis.
To be honest, I never really thought through what a serviceman or woman might have to go through in order to report a sexual assault. As I gradually came to understand, the influence of command often effectively precludes survivors from reporting sexual violence, and forces them to make a choice between seeking justice for the heinous crime committed against them and their careers. Servicemen and women cannot simply quit their jobs nor sue their employers; they may not even be able to physically escape their assailant but rather are often forced to work and live in close proximity with their attacker on a daily basis. Privacy in the military basically does not exist, and survivors of sexual violence who make the brave decision to report the crime risk deleterious consequences should their command and/or peers find out, including career jeopardy, retaliation, or even increased violence.
While I can now easily name these dynamics that exist in the military, what I will never be able to truly grasp about the sexual violence crisis is the feeling of hopelessness that sexual assault survivors feel, and this is really in many ways what defines a key difference between the military and civilian worlds. Trapped in an institution that allots command too much discretion to control the sexual violence crisis (from the initial decision to investigate a sexual assault report to the prosecution and sentencing), survivors of sexual violence understandably feel helpless. While this feeling is not exclusive to the military, the differences named above generally permit civilians to pursue more forms of redress not available to members of the military. In fact, the workplace environment in the civilian versus military world is vastly different in ways beyond treatment of sexual assault. The privileges and benefits I enjoy as a civilian employee, including protections under the law that allow me to make grievances against my employer for things like sexual harassment and gender discrimination to the privacy protections I enjoy when it comes to healthcare choices, disappear in the military world. For example, a woman who becomes pregnant after being raped in the military and who wants an abortion first will have to pay for it herself because the military does not cover abortion in cases of rape (despite the fact the DOD estimates over 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in 2010 alone). Secondly, she will have to ask her commander for permission to leave if she is deployed and cannot access services on-base. In general, the military is an unsafe work environment that threatens the security and health of servicewomen in ways that I simply do not confront as a civilian employee.
The myriad differences in experiences aside, a sense of camaraderie exists among veterans that in many ways unites them because of their military service. Many times in this work I have felt distrusted by veterans, or at least encountered skepticism of my ability to properly do this work as a civilian. In many ways, the skepticism is not unfounded, as there are things about the military experience that I can never understand, no matter how many books I read, how long I’ve been doing this work, or how hard I try to “get it.” For this reason I think it is important to defer to veterans to define their own experience, tell their own story, and be the leaders in the important work we do. To be sure, there are many skills that civilians like me can contribute, and sometimes it may help to have a non-military person weigh in on decisions. Still, in order for the community to trust me, I have to trust them and their experiences as knowledge.
In the two years that I’ve been at SWAN, I have moved from Administrative Assistant to Executive Assistant to our ED, Anu Bhagwati, to my current position as Policy Writer under Greg Jacob. I am grateful to the SWAN staff and to the many servicemen, women, and veterans who have patiently helped me understand military issues and who have entrusted me to do this work. Partnerships like this between civilians and veterans that are based on mutual trust are essential to cultivate for this work to succeed, yet the divide between them is currently too vast. Many civilian women’s organizations are hesitant to incorporate servicewomen and veterans issues and similarly, many veterans organizations ignore gender issues. The reasons for these exclusions are surely varied, but are likely related to a lack of communication, misunderstanding, and unwillingness to grasp issues that are outside of their respective expertise or experiences. This is a mistake, as it marginalizes servicewomen and veterans and stalls gender equality. My perspective on these issues as a civilian is still a work in progress, as I constantly learn new things about the military experience that change and inform my views and how I do this work, and I will likely never completely “get” these issues in the same way that veterans do. It is this humble awareness that civilians must bring in order to successfully transform the military institution into one that is safe and equitable.