More than 500 U.S. servicewomen who have been or are stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries say they have been assaulted by fellow soldiers since 2003, according to the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of violence associated with the military.
The Defense Department says that reports of sexual assaults involving members of the armed forces rose 40 percent in 2005, and 65 percent in the last two years.
Sexual harassment of female soldiers is often blatant, and harassment and assault often go hand in hand.
One recent case involves Army Spc. Suzanne Swift. She is among the estimated 4,400 U.S. troops who have refused to continue serving in Iraq. Swift alleges that three of her superior officers sexually harassed her, and that military officials have ignored her efforts to report the incidents.
The 22-year-old military policewoman says the sexual harassment from her superior officers began almost immediately after she enlisted. When she asked one sergeant where she should report to duty, she says he responded: "In my bed, naked." Another is alleged to have said, "You want to have sex with me, don't you, Swift?" Swift reported the actions to her equal opportunity officer, but was told that her story wasn't believable and that nothing was going to happen.
According to Swift, she was then coerced into having a sexual relationship with one of her sergeants - something her mother refers to as a "command rape." The sergeant reportedly tried to sabotage Swift in various ways, and would show up in her room, drunk, in the middle of the night.
Swift's repeated attempts to report the harassment went nowhere, she says, and while on leave in Eugene, Ore., she made the decision to not return to her unit in Iraq in December.
She sought psychological counseling and legal representation and went into hiding, but was eventually arrested by military police and returned to her unit. Shockingly, she was placed under the direct supervision of one of the same sergeants she says harassed her.
Swift, who is thought to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from her experiences, has been confined to the base at Fort Lewis, Wash., since her arrest in June. She has been transferred to another military police unit.
Swift's family and supporters are urging the military to immediately implement the recommendations of the Pentagon's 2004 Joint Task Force on Sexual Abuse in the Military, which include providing increased confidentiality and protections for victims, and aggressive training and education for every service member.
Swift's charges, and similar ones by other servicewomen, are plaguing a military that is facing growing criticism for the rape, murder and mutilation of teenager Abeer Qassim Hamza, allegedly at the hands of a group of U.S. servicemen on March 12.
Military officials too frequently dismiss accusations of violence against female soldiers or civilians as isolated events, or excuse them with a "boys will be boys" attitude of acceptance.
Until our leaders take specific actions to change the culture of the military, more female soldiers like Suzanne Swift and more civilians like Abeer Qassim Hamza will pay an intolerable price.
Andrea Lewis is co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.