We need brave women in the military, but no one’s daughter should have to suffer an ordeal comparable to that experienced by Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Not in the name of other women’s careers, military necessity, or anything else.
After months of secrecy and media diversion, a book authorized by the former POW reveals the blunt truth. American medical records indicate that she was “a victim of anal sexual assault. The records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage, or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.”
Experts in the field have noted that female captives, unlike their male counterparts, are almost always violated sexually, and that prisoners of war are in greatest peril during the first three or four hours after capture. Lynch has no memory of that period, but the book reflects news reports at from the time of her captivity, quoting embedded MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders. MSNBC reported that Pfc. Lynch was originally held at a nearby military “hospital” building that was also a headquarters for Fedayeen soldiers.
Americans found in this building a metal bed, a car battery, electrodes used for purposes of torture, and the bloody uniform of a female soldier. Intelligence sources later said that the uniform had belonged to Jessica Lynch.
After the blacked-out cruelty stopped, Iraqi doctors saved the barely-alive 19-year-old with emergency first aid. Then she was transported to Hussein civilian hospital, where compassionate doctors and nurses did their best, with few medical resources, to mend her injuries and relieve her pain. Eight days later, special-forces troops rescued Lynch from that hospital. Outside its walls they found shallow graves containing the bodies of American soldiers. Among the dead was Jessica’s best friend, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the single mother of two young children.
Private Lynch initially said that she felt used by the Defense Department, which filmed her rescue and released a morale-boosting video that raised the eyebrows of critics overseas. The point is valid, but the media’s role in sensationalizing her story should not escape notice. Borrowing the credibility of the Defense Department, the Washington Post cited an unnamed “official” in the Pentagon as their source for an infamous April 3 front-page story titled “She Was Fighting to the Death.”
Americans were captivated by the legend of a teenage woman-warrior: shot, stabbed, and taken prisoner only after she had emptied her weapon, killing Iraqis. Combined with the flag-bedecked photo of the smiling Pfc. Lynch–as striking as a movie poster–the story brought to life feminist illusions of gender equality in war.
On April 20 Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post, criticized the piece because it was thinly sourced, inaccurate, and tinged with feminist ideology. Two more months passed, however, before the Post published a second front-page article that retracted most elements of the previous “Jessica as John Wayne” story.
American doctors at Landstuhl Army Hospital had to know, shortly after Lynch’s arrival in Germany, that she had been the victim of a savage rape. Citing privacy considerations, the Pentagon nevertheless kept silent while the appealing legend of Lynch’s capture continued to mislead the world. Even when the British Broadcasting Company attacked the credibility of the special-operations rescue, none of the troops who had participated in the unprecedented four-service mission were permitted to come forward and describe the skillfully executed raid.
It is important to protect a rape victim’s privacy, but military situations are different from the civilian world. There is no need, for example, to know personal details about the alleged sexual abuse of former kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, whose television movie aired opposite that of Jessica Lynch on November 9. The American people do have a right to know, however, what was done to all of the soldiers who survived or died in the ambush, including the men whose bodies were displayed on al Jazeera TV.
How did Lynch get to the frontlines, many Americans may wonder. Under rules issued by the Clinton administration, female soldiers in support units are now being forced into areas involving a “substantial risk of capture.” This policy is inconsistent with privacy rules that deny information about what happens to women who are captured–unless a victim of sexual abuse decides to write a book months later.
During the first Persian Gulf War, then-major Rhonda Cornum, a medical doctor, was subjected to sexual indecencies within hours of her capture in 1991. An ardent advocate of women in combat, Cornum kept silent when Congress debated and repealed one of the laws exempting women from combat. Candor about her experience in captivity, which later appeared in her own 1992 book, could have changed the course of the congressional debate.
Jessica Lynch is not responsible for the media’s irresponsible hyping of expedient myths that many people knew to be false. Nevertheless, the fairytale story manipulated public opinion on the issue of women in combat, which ideological feminists keep insisting is “not a big deal.”
In 1994, Les Aspin, Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, announced new personnel-assignment regulations that were billed as expanded “career opportunities” for women. Female enlistees, including Lynch and former POW Spec. Shoshana Johnson, clearly were not aware that the rules had changed. No one told them, it seems, that women would be assigned to previously all-male units, even in support missions known to involve a “substantial risk of capture.”
These Clinton-era rules remain in effect today. Civilian and uniformed Pentagon officials will not act on their own to initiate change unless the Commander in Chief provides a clear mandate for objective review and constructive change. Without further delay, President Bush should direct Pentagon officials to find a way for female soldiers to serve their country without deliberate exposure to greater, unequal risk, to the greatest degree possible.
A nationwide Americans for the Military petition, endorsed by 16 major organizations and posted at www.americansforthemilitary.com, respectfully asks Bush to do just that. The petition also requests action to end admittedly inefficient Army co-ed basic training, gender-based recruiting quotas, and overly generous pregnancy policies that subsidize and increase single parenthood in the military. All of these problematic policies were enacted during the Clinton years. They can be revised in the same way–long before the next deployment begins.
There are restrictions on the discussion of war crimes such as rape, but with so many women being exposed to unprecedented risks of capture and abuse, perhaps those rules are in need of revision as well. If Defense Department officials cannot bring themselves to tell Americans the truth about what happens to women in war, perhaps they should not be sending female soldiers so close combat zones in the first place.
–Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness.