Ever since women began to hold official roles in the United States Armed Forces, with the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, serving their country has been many women’s American Dream. Today women make up 14.6% of active duty soldiers and Marines (www.womensmemorial.org).
It could be argued that a large number of women have achieved their American Dream through military service. In 2006, the Coast Guard appointed the first woman Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, and in the same year the Marine Corps appointed the first female Marine to command a recruit depot. In 2007 the first woman in naval history took command of a fighter squadron, and in 2008 the first woman was promoted to the rank of four-star general (www.womensmemorial.org).
Yet despite these achievements, for far too many women the American Dream has not only eluded them, it has become a nightmare of military misogyny. In fiscal year 2010, 4.4% of active duty women indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the past 12 months (DOD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military). At the nation’s military academies, during academic program year (APY) 2009-2010, 12.9% of women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, and 56% of women indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment (Annual Report of Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies). Among the active duty ranks, there were 3,158 reports of sexual assaults involving service members in fiscal year 2010. At the military academies, during APY 09-10, there were 41 reports of sexual assault, a 64% increase from the previous academic year. The Air Force Academy, located in Colorado Springs, saw an unprecedented 150% increase in reported sexual assaults, from 8 reported in APY 08-09 to 20 reported in APY 09-10. It is important to keep in mind that these statistics do not reflect the total number of assaults, since sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States in general, and in the US military in particular. Research indicates that only a fraction of assaults are actually reported. (DOD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military).
While the US military continues to take steps to improve prevention and response, there is much work that still needs to be done. Michele Roscher enlisted in the Army Reserve at age 17 in order to live her American Dream. She was determined to serve her country: “I liked the idea that I was doing something important” (Bellingham Herald). For Roscher, a victim of both sexual harassment and sexual assault, that dream was destroyed. The military must be committed to ensuring that women have the same opportunity as men to fulfill their dream of serving their country without the fear of being victimized by those who are serving alongside them. If military leaders fall short of this goal, they must be held accountable.