It’s a potent environment, with female soldiers working – and living – under hostile conditions with their male counterparts.
One soldier, who asked us to call him Robert, spent three tours in Iraq as a signal unit leader out of Ft. Lewis in Washington state.
“For the female soldiers, it was far harder to adjust,” Robert told CBS News anchor Katie Couric. “Because not only did they have to deal with combat – mortar rounds, rockets, bullets – they also had to put up with male soldiers who were away from their families for a year.”
A decorated soldier in his unit, Robert says he went to his Command on many occasions after female soldiers complained of sexual assaults. Nothing was done.
“The last thing a commander wants, other than a death in his unit, is sexual harassment, or an assault case, because that makes his unit’s command look bad, Robert said.
For Wendy – an idealistic 17-year-old – the military seemed like the answer to her prayers.
“I was mostly going in for school,” Wendy said. “But I was also going in to see the world and travel.”
Deployed as a combat medic, Wendy was thrust into a chaotic and increasingly violent situation. Not long after, she experienced another kind of trauma, when she was assaulted by a fellow soldier in her barracks while she was sleeping.
“He started pushing himself on me,” she said. “And I wasn’t having it. So I started punching him and I actually kicked him in the groin.”
Afraid to go to her Command, she took extra precautions – locking her room with a deadbolt, traveling in pairs. But just weeks later, she found herself fending off the sexual advances of a doctor she worked with in the operating room. Again, she didn’t report it.
“He was a doctor, he was a surgeon. And who were they going to believe?” she says today.
Wendy’s experience is not unusual. Since 2002, the Miles Foundation, a private non-profit that tracks sexual assault within the armed forces, has received nearly 1,200 confidential reports of sexual assaults in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. Those reports have increased as much as 30 percent a year.
Part of the problem for the increase, critics say, is the quality of today’s recruit.
The military is increasingly issuing something called “moral waivers,” so they can enlist military personnel with felony convictions for crimes like rape and sexual assault.
“We don’t enlist convicted rapists in the armed forces of the United States,” said Michael Dominguez, the principal under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “If there’s a consensus ‘that kid needs a second chance, I think he’s got it in him to be a solider,’ then they’ll let him into the armed forces.”
In fact, CBS News has learned that both the Army and Marine Corps did issue a number of “moral waivers” to enlistees with felony convictions for rape and sexual assault – something not acknowledged in a follow-up letter from Dominguez.
But it’s not just who enters the military, it’s how sex offenders are ultimately punished by the Command.
“We have documents showing that a private convicted of rape, who had a bad conduct discharge suspended so he could deploy to Iraq,” Couric told Dominguez. “How could the U.S. military allow a convicted criminal to go back into a situation where he could easily rape again?”
“I’m not familiar with this particular case,” Dominguez replied.
The Army says it is committed to doing better, with plans of adding 15 “Special Victim” prosecutors and 30 criminal investigators by this summer.
“We’ve earned our way through the military, we put in our work,” Wendy said. “And I just think we deserve the same amount of respect, just as everybody else in the military.”
It’s a fight Wendy hopes female soldiers can win.