Capt. Margaret H. White began a relationship with a warrant officer while both were training to be deployed to Iraq. By the time they arrived this year at Camp Taji, north of here, she felt what she called “creepy vibes” and tried to break it off.
In the claustrophobic confines of a combat post, it was not easy to do. He left notes on the door to her quarters, alternately pleading and menacing. He forced her to have sex, she said. He asked her to marry him, though he was already married. He waited for her outside the women’s latrines or her quarters, once for three hours.
“It got to the point that I felt safer outside the wire,” Captain White said, referring to operations that take soldiers off their heavily fortified bases, “than I did taking a shower.”
Her ordeal ended with the military equivalent of a restraining order and charges of stalking against the officer. It is one case that highlights the new and often messy reality the military has had to face as men and women serve side by side in combat zones more than ever before.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault, which the military now defines broadly to include not only rape but also crimes like groping and stalking, continue to afflict the ranks, and by some measures are rising. While tens of thousands of women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, often in combat, often with distinction, the integration of men and women in places like Camp Taji has forced to the surface issues that commanders rarely, if ever confronted before.
The military — belatedly, critics say — has radically changed the way it handles sexual abuse in particular, expanding access to treatment and toughening rules for prosecution. In the hardships of war, though, the effects of the changes remain unclear.
The strains of combat, close quarters in remote locations, tension and even boredom can create the conditions for abuse, even as they hinder medical care for victims and legal proceedings against those who attack them.
Captain White said she had feared coming forward, despite having become increasingly despondent and suffered panic attacks, because she was wary of she-said-he-said recriminations that would reverberate through the tightknit military world and disrupt the mission. Despite the military’s stated “zero tolerance” for abuse or harassment, she had no confidence her case would be taken seriously and so tried to cope on her own, Captain White said.
A Pentagon-appointed task force, in a report released this month, pointedly criticized the military’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse, citing the “unique stresses” of deployments in places like Camp Taji. “Some military personnel indicated that predators may believe they will not be held accountable for their misconduct during deployment because commanders’ focus on the mission overshadows other concerns,” the report said.
That, among other reasons, is why sexual assault and harassment go unreported far more often than not. “You’re in the middle of a war zone,” Captain White said, reflecting a fear many military women describe of being seen, somehow, as harming the mission.
“So it’s kind of like that one little thing is nothing compared with ‘There is an I.E.D. that went off in this convoy today and three people were injured,’ ” she said, referring to an improvised explosive device.
By the Pentagon’s own estimate, as few as 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported, far lower than the percentage reported in the civilian world. Specialist Erica A. Beck, a mechanic and gunner who served in Diyala Province in Iraq this summer, recalled a sexual proposition she called “inappropriate” during her first tour in the country in 2006-7. “Not necessarily being vulgar, but he, you know, was asking for favors,” she said.
She did not report it, she said, because she feared that her commanders would have reacted harshly — toward her.
“It was harassment,” she said. “And because it was a warrant officer, I didn’t say anything. I was just a private.”
Her fears were common, according to soldiers and advocates who remain skeptical of the military’s efforts to address abuse. A report last year by the Government Accountability Office concluded that victims were reluctant to report attacks “for a variety of reasons, including the belief that nothing would be done or that reporting an incident would negatively impact their careers.”
When Sgt. Tracey R. Phillips told a superior about an unwanted sexual advance from a private the night their unit arrived in Iraq in May, the accusations unleashed a flurry of charges and countercharges, an initial investigation of her on charges of adultery, a crime in the military justice system, and, according to her account, violations by her commanders of the new procedures meant to ease reporting of abuse.
In the end, she was kicked out of Iraq and the Army itself, while the private remained on duty here.
The military disputed her account but declined to state the reasons for sending her out of Iraq. Her paperwork showed that she received an honorable discharge, though with “serious misconduct” cited as the reason. The so-called misconduct, she said, stemmed from the Army’s allegation that she had had an inappropriate relationship with the private she accused. She denied that.
“If I would have never, ever, ever said anything, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” she said in an interview at her parents’ home near San Antonio. “I’d still be in Iraq.”
At bases around Iraq, many said that acceptance and respect for women in uniform were now more common than the opposite. In part, they said, that reflects a sweeping change in military culture that has accompanied the rise of women through the ranks and into more positions once reserved for men.
“It’s not tolerated — it’s just not,” said Lt. Brenda L. Beegle, a married military police officer, referring to sexual harassment and abuse.
In an interview at Liberty Base, near Baghdad’s airport, she said: “Everyone has heard stories about bad things that have happened. I’ve never had an issue.”
Although exact comparisons to the civilian world are difficult because of different methods of defining and reporting abuse, Pentagon officials and some experts say that the incidence of abuse in the military appears to be no higher than in society generally, and might be lower. It appears to be even lower in combat operations than at bases in the United States, because of stricter discipline and scrutiny during deployments, as well as restrictions on alcohol, which is often a factor in assaults, for example, on college campuses.
The number of complaints, though, is rising. Across the military, there were 2,908 reported cases of sexual abuse involving service members as victims or assailants, in the fiscal year that ended in September 2008, the last year for which the Pentagon made numbers available. That was an 8 percent increase from the previous year, when there were 2,688.
In the turbulent regions from Egypt to Afghanistan where most American combat troops are now deployed, the increase in reported cases was even sharper: 251 cases, compared with 174 the year before, a 44 percent increase. The number in Iraq rose to 143, from 112 the year before. Everyone agrees that those represent only a fraction of the instances of assault, let alone harassment.
“A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq,” Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, said at a Congressional hearing this year, repeating an assertion she has made a refrain in a campaign of hers to force the military to do more to address abuses.
At least 10 percent of the victims in the last year were men, a reality that the Pentagon’s task force said the armed services had done practically nothing to address in terms of counseling, treatment and prosecution. Men are considered even less likely to report attacks, officials said, because of the stigma, and fears that their own sexual orientation would be questioned. In the majority of the reported cases, the attacker was male.
Senior Pentagon officials argued that the increase in reports did not necessarily signify a higher number of attacks. Rather, they said, there is now a greater awareness as well as an improved command climate, encouraging more victims to come forward.
“We believe the increase in the number of reported cases means the department is capturing a greater proportion of the cases that occurred during the year, which is good news,” said the Pentagon’s senior official overseeing abuse policies, Kaye Whitley.
The military can no more eradicate sexual abuse than can society in general, but soldiers, officers and experts acknowledge that it is particularly harmful when soldiers are in combat zones, affecting not only the victims but also, as the military relies more than ever on women when the nation goes to war, the mission.
“For the military the potential costs are even higher as it can also negatively impact mission readiness,” the Pentagon’s annual report on sexual abuse said, referring to sexual violence. “Service members risk their lives for one another and bear the responsibility of keeping fellow service members out of harm’s way. Sexual assault in the military breaks this bond.”
Even investigations into accusations, which are often difficult to prove, can disrupt operations. In Sergeant Phillips’s case, she was relieved of her duties leading a squad of soldiers refueling emergency rescue helicopters and other aircraft at Camp Kalsu, south of Baghdad.
Cases like hers suggest that the vagaries of sex and sexual abuse, especially in combat zones, continue to vex commanders on the ground, despite the transformation of the military’s policies.
The majority of sexual abuse allegations end with no prosecution at all. Of 2,171 suspects of investigations that were completed during the fiscal year that ended in September 2008, only 317 faced a court-martial. Another 515 faced administrative punishments or discharges. Nearly half of the completed investigations lacked evidence or were “unsubstantiated or unfounded.”
The Pentagon, facing criticism, maintains that it has transformed the way it handles sexual abuse. In the wake of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as highly publicized cases and revelations of rampant abuse at the Air Force Academy in 2003, the Pentagon created a single agency to oversee the issue and rewrote the rules of reporting, treatment and prosecution. Beginning in October 2007, the Uniform Code of Military Justice expanded the provision that once covered rape — Article 120 — to include other offenses, like indecent exposure and stalking.
The Army, which has provided the bulk of the forces in Iraq, has increased the number of investigators and lawyers trained to investigate accusations. Most bases now have kits to collect forensic evidence in rape cases, which was not the case immediately after the invasion in 2003.
Larger field hospitals in Balad and Mosul now have the same type of sexual assault nurse examiners widely used in the civilian world, as well as a dozen other examiners who are not nurses but are trained to conduct forensic examinations.
The military has set up a system of confidential advisers women can turn to who are outside the usual chain of command — an avenue Sergeant Phillips said she had been denied.
If they want to, the women can now seek medical treatment and counseling without setting off a criminal investigation. And all the services have started educational programs to address aspects of a hierarchical warrior culture that some say contributes to hostility toward women. Posters for the campaign blanket bulletin boards in offices, chow halls and recreational buildings on bases across Iraq.
The military’s efforts, however well intentioned, are often undermined by commanders who are skeptical or even conflicted, suspicious of accusations and fearful that reports of abuse reflect badly on their commands. The Pentagon task force also reported that victims of assault did not come forward because they might “have engaged in misconduct for which they could be disciplined, such as under-age drinking, fraternization or adultery.”
'I didn't get any help at all'
Marti Ribeiro, then an Air Force sergeant, said she was raped by another soldier after she stepped away from a guard post in Afghanistan in 2006 to smoke a cigarette, a story first recounted in “The Lonely Soldier,” a book by Helen Benedict about women who served in Iraq and elsewhere. When she went to the abuse coordinator, she was threatened with prosecution for having left her weapon and her post.
“I didn’t get any help at all, let alone compassion,” said Ms. Ribeiro, who has since retired and joined the Service Women’s Action Network, a new advocacy organization devoted to shaping the Pentagon’s policy.
The hardships of combat operations often compound the anguish of victims and complicate investigations, as well as counseling and treatment. The Government Accountability Office suggested that the “unique living and social circumstances” of combat posts heightened the risk for assault. Both the G.A.O. and the Pentagon’s task force found that, despite the Pentagon’s policy, remote bases did not have adequate medical and mental health services for victims. The task force also found that abuse coordinators and victim advocates were often ill trained or absent.
As a result, victims often suffer the consequences alone, working in the heat and dust, living in trailers surrounded by gravel and concrete blast walls, with nowhere private to retreat to. In Captain White’s case, she had to work and live beside the man who assaulted and stalked her until their deployment ended in August and they both went home.
“You’re in such a fishbowl,” she said. “You can’t really get away from someone. You see him in the chow hall. You see him in the gym.”
Captain White’s case is typical of many here, according to military lawyers and experts, in that she knew the man she said assaulted her, circumstances that complicated the investigation and prosecution.
She had dated the warrant officer when they arrived in Fort Dix, N.J., for predeployment training with the 56th Stryker Combat Team. The newly revised article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice says that “a current or previous dating relationship by itself” does not constitute consent.
Once at Camp Taji, a sprawling base just north of Baghdad, she grew troubled by his behavior. He cajoled her with presents and sent her e-mail messages. She said that for fear of running into him, she stopped drinking water after 7 p.m. so she would not have to go to the latrine at night alone.
She never came forward herself. Her case came to light only when military prosecutors questioned her about another investigation involving the warrant officer. He was ultimately charged with 19 offenses, said Lt. Col. Philip J. Smith, a spokesman for the division that oversaw operations in central Iraq. The charges included seven counts of fraternization and two of adultery, interfering with an investigation and, in Captain White’s case, stalking.
After their deployment ended in September, the officer pleaded guilty and resigned from the Army in lieu of prosecution, Colonel Smith said.
Captain White said that she was satisfied with the legal outcome of her case, though her account of it highlighted the emotional strains that sexual abuse causes.
“I’m not saying that I handled it the best way,” she said in an interview after her own retirement from the Army, “but I handled it at the time and in the situation what I thought was the best way, which was just to keep my head down, keep going — which was kind of an Army thing to say: Drive on.”
Kassie Bracken contributed reporting from San Antonio and Houston.
This story, "Another Peril in War Zones: Sexual Abuse by Fellow G.I.'s," originally appeared in The New York Times.