After months of secrecy and media diversion, now we know that former prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch was brutally raped by Iraqi thugs, shortly after she survived the horrific ambush of her 507th Maintenance Unit in Iraq. We need brave women in the military, but no one’s daughter should have to suffer an ordeal comparable to that experienced by the 19 year-old Lynch—Not in the name of women’s careers, men’s resentment, military necessity, or anything else.
Private Lynch reportedly feels used by the Department of Defense, which filmed her rescue and released a morale-boosting video that raised the eyebrows of critics overseas. Lynch has a point, 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 Private Lynch—as striking as a book cover or 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 more than a whiff of 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 team, 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 months of Pentagon-imposed silence—until the victim publishes a book—is not an acceptable policy for the Department of Defense. Military situations are different from the civilian world. There is no need, for example, to know personal details about the 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 Pfc. Lynch and all of the soldiers who survived or died in the ambush, including the men whose bodies were displayed on Al Jazeera TV. The Pentagon has yet to explain exactly what happened to Pfc. Lori Piestewa. An eyewitness reported seeing her still alive after the Humvee she was driving crashed into a truck that had jackknifed directly in front of her. (Military privacy laws do not apply to the deceased.)
The three hours following the ambush are still shrouded in mystery, but according to contemporaneous reports from MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders, prisoners from the 507th Maintenance Unit were initially taken not to the Saddam Hussein Hospital, but to a building near Nasiriyah that was being used as Fedayeen headquarters.
Just prior to Lynch’s rescue, American forces found in this building the bloody uniform of a female soldier near a metal bed, electrodes, and a car battery used for purposes of torture. Medical records later revealed that Jessica had been raped without mercy. One can only imagine what both women and the men suffered at the hands of rape-room irregulars known for savaging women and children just for fun.
Lynch was then taken to the Hussein hospital where she was rescued. Outside that facility rescuers found shallow graves containing the bodies of American soldiers, including that of Pfc. Piestewa, the single mother of two young children.
This is not the first time that the truth about a captured female soldier was withheld from the American people. During the first Persian Gulf War, then-Maj. 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 about that experience for more than a year. During that time Congress was debating and repealing 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.” Thanks to their self-interested demands a decade ago, Pentagon rule changes ultimately led to the capture and abuse of three unsuspecting enlisted women in the earliest days of the War in Iraq.
In 1994, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced new personnel assignment regulations that were billed as expanded “career opportunities” for women. Female enlistees, including Lynch and former prisoner of war 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 George W. Bush should direct Pentagon officials to find a way for female soldiers to serve their country without deliberate exposure to greater, unequal risk.
A nationwide Americans for the Military petition, endorsed by 16 major organizations and posted at www.americansforthemilitary.com, respectfully asks President Bush to do just that. The Americans for the Military petition also asks President Bush 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 administratively implemented 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 women fighting our wars, perhaps they should not be sending female soldiers to close combat zones in the first place.