Celeste Headlee: Representative, I wanted to start the interview by playing a clip from your colleague, Representative Jane Harmon and she’s talking about a number of very striking cases of rape in the armed services,
“A female military recruit is pinned down at knife point and raped repeatedly in her barracks. During a routine gynecological examination a female solider is attacked and raped by her military physician. Yet another young soldier still adapting to life in a war zone is raped by her commanding officer. Afraid for her standing in her unit, she feels she has no where to turn.”
Representative Sanchez, are these typical stories that you’re hearing as you look into this issue?
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.): Well, those are not the typical stories, although we’ve heard plenty of doctors who hit on or sexually harass or in some cases, rape our military women. The more common issue is a lot of harassment and in particular deployments overseas, our military women being raped by our military men quite a bit, usually in the evening. We have a policy, and we have for several years now, that women must go in the buddy system to the restroom. Most women will not go to the restroom at night because that’s when most of the attacks are happening, for example in the combat arena.
Celeste Headlee: They’re being attacked by their fellow soldiers and sometimes even their officers of higher rank – and that’s sad comment on the state of our military when they have to go to the bathroom with a buddy because they can’t feel safe.
Rep. Sanchez: Not only do they have to go with a buddy but they’re commanded to. In other words, the commanders know, they know, that these women are being raped. And by the way, once you’re identified as someone to have been raped, word gets around and then you’re raped more often. So, you just have a really tough time coming back into the unit. Most times you’re discharged or if you decide to go through the persecution process its very difficult. We just had a hearing where there was alleged rape and then the next course was what’s the dispensation, what happened? And then it would say, the guy committed rape, and then the next thing was ok, what happened to this person? And it says, oh, this person was demoted or this person was sent to another unit. I mean, that’s ridiculous. We need to prosecute these people and put them behind bars.
Celeste Headlee: The BBC is actually working on a series that focuses on women in the military and they spoke to one woman who served in the Air Force in 2006 and she herself was assaulted. Here’s what she had to say,
“You’re supposed to carry your weapon at all times when you’re in a combat zone. And I put my weapon down and walked away to go smoke a cigarette and that’s when I was attacked. I felt like if I kept my weapon maybe I would have been able to do something, maybe I would have been able to prevent it. No punitive actions were taken against him. It would be my word against his.”
So, Representative Sanchez, when you speak with personnel about this issue and you hear stories like that – what do they say when they hear a soldier saying ‘I wish I had my weapon with me’?
Rep. Sanchez: It’s ridiculous. Most women out there understand that if they get raped there’s going to be almost a zero percent chance that this is going to be handled correctly. There are three pieces to this whole issue of rape. The first is the culture – this should be a zero tolerance. There should be no rape going on by our military men to our military women. The second thing, we need the laws that actually go after these guys and allow them to be prosecuted. About four or five years ago, I changed the laws to reflect the laws that we have for civilians in the United States. Why aren’t they using them and what do we need to fix to get this done? And the third thing is how a woman’s treated when she’s been raped. Is she going to be backed up in the system? Are people going to believe her? Is she going to be treated the way she should be instead of like this young lady said, ‘I put down my weapon to go smoke a cigarette. I got raped. I couldn’t go and tell people I got raped because then they were going to the give me demerits and they were going to get me out of the military because I wasn’t supposed to put down my weapon.’ Can you imagine that? You get raped and you can’t go and tell somebody about it because you’re afraid that person is going to tell you, oh I gotta get you out of the military because you were never supposed to put down your weapon.
Celeste Headlee: If you feel the rate of assault in the military reflects the rate that’s in larger society, the BBC spoke with Dr. Kay Whitley. She’s the director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault and prevention response office that was set up in 2005. This is what she had to say,
“Sexual assault is a national problem in the United States. It’s not just in the military, in fact, we’re told its one of our nations most underreported violent crimes. Since we recruit from the society we serve, we believe it’s also a problem in the military.”
What’s your response to that?
Rep. Sanchez: I don’t know if it’s more in the military or less in the military that the civilian forces. I do know that rape goes on throughout our nation. That its an incredibly ugly, psychological attack on a woman, so I wouldn’t tolerate it either the civilian or the military.
Celeste Headlee: My last question for you Representative Sanchez, you are the highest ranking female in the House Armed Services Committee, do you feel like there’s an understanding with your colleagues in Congress over the seriousness of this issue and the urgency for getting it fixed?
Rep. Sanchez: As you know, our Congress is 83% male. There are certainly plenty of men now who have a good understanding, seeing the granddaughters and daughters that they would not want this to happen to them. So, there’s more of an understanding going on. Of course the women have always understood this to a large extent. The problem exists when people say, “men will be men” and “women shouldn’t be in the military” and “what do you expect when we make a killer machine? They’ve got aggressions and they’ve gotta get those out.” I’ve actually heard these types of comments from some of my colleagues. That behavior and that thinking is unacceptable and that’s one of the things that we have to change in the Congress also.
Celeste Headlee: Ok, Representative Loretta Sanchez represents California’s 47th district. She is, as I said, the highest ranking female in the House Armed Services Committee. Thank you so much.