March 20, 2013

Iraqi Civilians and U.S. Veterans Come Together to Demand the Right to Heal

Posted by Cara Solomon, Deborah Popowski and Stella Kim, JD '13

Yesterday, on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we joined our coalition partners in the launch of the Right to Heal initiative, a collaboration between Iraq Veterans Against the War  (IVAW), the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), as well as other supporting organizations. One by one, standing in front of the White House, members of IVAW and OWFI delivered the message that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not over for them.

On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Joyce Wagner, member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, gives testimony in front of the White House. Drake Logan, a member of the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, stands beside her.

On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Joyce Wagner, member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, gives testimony about the oppression of women on both sides of the conflict. Drake Logan, a member of the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, stands beside her.

The organizations, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, announced that they would file a petition for a thematic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, calling for U.S. accountability for the human cost of these wars. In testimonies that were both moving and motivating, speakers on both sides of the U.S.-led conflict in Iraq described the toll that a decade of war had taken on their communities, including the loss of thousands of lives; devastating trauma and injury with shamefully inadequate or non-existent medical care; a legacy of health and environmental poisoning due to toxic munitions and burn pits; gender-based violence as a weapon and byproduct of war; and a generation of orphans and displaced people.

Joyce Wagner, a longtime member of IVAW, spoke about the violence the war had unleashed on women, and specifically, about her experience with Military Sexual Trauma. We thank her for allowing us to reprint her comments below:

In recent years, the United Nations has taken a strong stance against gender-based violence, calling it a “pandemic” that concerns not only women, but every single person on the planet.

Worldwide, it is estimated that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. In the US military, it is estimated that one in three women will be raped during her time in service. I am the one in three.

Many servicewomen who report rape to their commands face disbelief, retaliation, and various forms of humiliation that some have described as being as bad, if not worse, than the initial assault.  It should come as no surprise then that a large number of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.  Male rape victims are even less likely to report their assault due to stigmas associated masculinity.

This pattern of retaliation and dismissal creates an environment in which sexual harassment and sexual assault are accepted as incidental to military service.  Reporting the crime of rape in the military often results in the victim being treated like a criminal.  Servicewomen are asked what they were wearing or doing to have caused the incident and perpetrators are rarely held accountable.

Those seeking compensation from the VA for Military Sexual Trauma face similar treatment and little hope of closure.  In 2010, after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma, I filed a disability claim with the Department of Veteran Affairs.  After sharing the most personal and painful details of my life, I heard nothing from the VA for over a year. It took over two years before I received a letter stating that my claim was denied because, amongst other things, I had invited my rapist into my tent.  Unfortunately, my case is not uncommon.

The Service Women’s Action Network, along with the ACLU, filed a freedom of information act request for information from the VA concerning gender differences in compensation awarded for PTSD claims related to Military Sexual Trauma.  Their findings indicated that in the fiscal year 2008-2010, the VA denied 2 out of 3 of these claims.  Of the men and women who are compensated for Military Sexual Trauma, men were more likely than women to receive a 70% – 100% disability rating while women were more likely than men to receive a 10% – 30% disability rating.  This means that these women are likely to receive less financial compensation and are entitled to fewer medical benefits from the VA.

A 2008 United Nations document concerning Sexual Violence Against Women and Children in Armed Conflict states:

War-time sexual violence has been one of history’s greatest silences. Long dismissed as the random acts of renegade soldiers, rape has been steeped in a self-serving myth of inevitability.  Indeed, conflict creates a climate for rampant sexual abuse.

In Iraq, this sexual violence has been perpetrated directly by members of the US armed forces and has also occurred incidentally as a result of the occupation.  Rape, among other disturbing forms of torture were exposed at Abu Ghraib prison and subsequently disappeared from American discourse, dismissed as an isolated incident.  What people may not know or may not remember is that the horrific events at Abu Ghraib were first exposed in a letter written by a woman being held in the prison.

The letter explained that the women in the prison were being raped and some were now pregnant.  The lawyers representing these detainees soon discovered that this was a pattern in prisons across Iraq where women were being held without charge.  And the rape of Iraqis has not been limited to prisons, nor has it been limited to adults.  In 2006, a soldier from the 101st Airborne division,  along with three other soldiers, raped a 14-year-old girl and killed her and her parents.  He claimed that he no longer saw Iraqis as human, and that he had been influenced by his peers, his training, and extreme warzone violence combined with lack of oversight and leadership.

Although most occupying troops have exited Iraq, the occupation has resulted in lasting struggles for Iraqi women.  While I am unable to escape my nightmares, I am able to live in relative physical comfort, unlikely to experience many of the things that are inescapable to those still living in Iraq.  And while the Department of Defense and the VA have done an insufficient job at compensating and caring for US servicemembers victimized by their fellow servicemembers in acts of sexual violence, they have done absolutely nothing to make reparation to victims of sexual violence in Iraq.  How can I ask for justice for myself without first demanding justice for the many women in Iraq who were raped and otherwise abused in an occupation in which I participated?

Today, as part of the Right to Heal initiative, we demand acknowledgement, accountability and reparation.  And we will keep demanding these things, until women on all sides of this conflict have their justice, and the world at large understands:  Sexual violence in the military, and by the military, is not an occupational hazard; it’s a violation of human rights.