Military Culture Has A Terrible Habit Of Blaming The Victim

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A soldier puts his hand over his face as a chaplain says a prayer while standing in formation during a deployment ceremony at the Tennessee National Guard Headquarters Wednesday, April 25, 2012 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Doug Strickland

One night, I was walking home from a sports bar, and two dudes attacked me. My jaw was broken in two places and my wallet was taken.


I lived in a quiet little Navy town in the state of Washington where no one thought this kind of stuff happened. It was the night after my last deployment. I had had a few drinks, but literally a few, over several hours while I watched baseball highlights and ate chicken wings. I left after a couple cups of water without even a buzz. I don't know who the people were or where they came from. I don’t remember seeing them inside. They were light-skinned, probably white.

When I returned to work awhile later, I read an e-mail that my commanding officer had sent the day after my attack. It said, with slight paraphrasing, “We've known this kind of stuff was going on in this neighborhood for some time now. It is never a good idea to go out alone at night.”

The e-mail made me sick. Neither I nor my friends knew anything about people being attacked in our neighborhood. How many victims had there been, and how many were there going to be in the future, before we were going to be made aware? I felt betrayed by the tone and the after-the-fact information, and it was also clear to me that someone thought I was, at least in some way, responsible for being violently attacked.

Many American civilians are shocked when they learn how the military treats victims of assault, specifically sexual assault. A particularly heinous and underreported national crime is somehow made worse in the U.S. armed forces, where victims are systematically doubted, shunned, and if that doesn't do the job, cast out from their military family. All because the thought of a few rapists in our midst is scarier and less plausible than a bunch of crazy people crying "rape."

Twenty-six thousand active-duty service members reported some form of sexual assault in an anonymous 2012 survey by the Department of Defense. That same year, the DoD put the number of reported sexual assaults at 3,374.

If they choose to report it, many of the victims (male or female) are given false medical diagnoses as a pretense for removing them from the military, often times with other-than-honorable discharges that strip them of their benefits. Once removed, they face a blind, uphill battle to find employment and receive adequate mental and medical care. Because they were raped.

There is a powerful current of victim blaming that runs through the ranks of our military. It is a part of who we are, introduced to us by an American culture that makes us question the weak while preaching personal responsibility. It is reinforced by our training. Then, in a pinch, it's used to keep people from upsetting the applecart with the truth.

I've always felt some small sense of shame and culpability for what happened to me. In my mind, I know I didn't do anything wrong, and I definitely didn't do anything to deserve being beaten so violently for the $20 in my wallet. Yet, the questions and suspicions of a few people make me feel guilty, like I need to explain the circumstances in detail to prove that I wasn’t at fault.

My attackers took something from me that night. Despite surgery and having my jaw wired shut for several weeks, it never healed correctly, and I was left with a crooked jaw that has resulted in years of headaches, muscle tension, and circulatory problems, among other issues. I'm in pain every day and my life has never been the same. While I can't say my mugging compares to being a victim of rape, I feel I've developed some understanding of what they go through. It's made me think twice about the way I question people, the way I think about victims and accused aggressors, and what my role is in perpetuating this destructive culture of victim blaming.

I’ve realized that, without much consideration, it seemed common sense to me that women aren't supposed to be out too late, be out alone, or be out in shady places. And I never before realized what a terrible, authoritarian thought process that was until I was told I had to live it.

That I shouldn’t go out late at night to grab dinner enforced the idea that I should let someone else’s possible actions police my decisions. And it was the thought that I should live like a woman. I was thinking, “I’ll do what I want, I’m an adult,” but the thought might as well as been, “I’m a man.”

Not that being a man would make me less likely to be raped in the military. The majority of sexual assault victims in the military are actually men. And, according to a 2013 New York Times report, these assaults often go unreported for fear of being punished, ignored, ridiculed, or even discharged for sexual contact with another man (prior to 2011).

For years, the military has accepted this terrible behavior as the status quo. We’ve accepted it. Through our words, our deeds, or our lack of action, we’ve let people commit these awful crimes while the guilt and punishment has fallen on the wrong people. It’s time that we stop turning a blind eye to assault and start promoting not only a culture of prevention, but also a culture of awareness.

Jason Mack is a comedian and Naval Aircrew veteran currently trying really hard in Northern California. You can disapprove of him on Twitter by following @thejasonmack.

 

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of war movies, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good drama.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

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