By Robert L. Jamieson Jr., Seattle Post Intelligencer. June 16, 2006


Police knocked on the door after 10:30 Sunday night.

They were on the hunt.

They pushed inside the Eugene, Ore., home and spotted a young woman. “Are you Suzanne?” an officer said.

One of the cops asked to see the fleshy web of her left hand.

The person they wanted had a tattoo of a cross etched there.

The young woman responded by walking up to the officers with her hands positioned in custody mode — behind her back.

With that, Spc. Suzanne Swift, AWOL from the Army, was placed under arrest on a federal warrant. The 21-year-old is now confined to Fort Lewis near Tacoma. Military officials are investigating her case, weighing her punishment.

Swift did break the law for abandoning her sworn duty. But the reasons Swift gave for running away after she served in Iraq shouldn’t be brushed off.

It would be easy to make light of her claims that she was sexually harassed, or argue — as some cynics do — that she is looking for a quick excuse to avoid more combat.

Women who are victims of sexual harassment already have a tough time getting people to believe them.

Add the military factor, and it gets tougher.

Enlisted women are in a macho field where men vastly outnumber them. An atmosphere of collusion exists in military culture. Anyone who tattles on the group might be deemed disloyal and ostracized.

A 2005 special report by The Sacramento Bee shed light on the plight of military women. The report cited Defense Department figures showing that from August 2002 to October 2004, 118 cases of sexual assault on military personnel had been reported in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. During that same span, the non-profit Miles Foundation says it was contacted by 258 people who say they were victims of assault in the combat theater, The Bee said.

Also, the paper cited a Department of Veterans Affairs study that found nearly three out of four military women who said they had been assaulted did not tell their commanding officer.

The volume of women who have faced sexual harassment short of assault is believed to be vast — and poorly documented.

“We’ve opened a can of worms,” says Swift’s mother, Sara Rich. “Women in the military are suffering.”

Rich’s daughter was in Kuwait first, and later in Iraq, from about March 2004 to February 2005. Rich remembers her calling home in tears.

Swift was reluctant to push her claims of harassment. She was worried about retaliation. She also feared for her life.

Swift says sergeants would vie to make female privates their private. She says one sergeant kept propositioning her — and she kept saying no. He would then insult her in front of the platoon. When she tried to report him, a superior made her feel as if she were on her own.

A second sergeant, gruff and verbally rough, made her feel as if she had no choice but to have sex with him in Iraq. “He basically raped her for three months,” Swift’s attorney, Larry Hildes, says.

When Swift returned home, she had a different sergeant. One time she asked him where she should report. He allegedly replied, in front of others, “in my bed, naked.”

Swift’s mom has a phrase for what her daughter describes. “Command rape,” says Rich, a family therapist with a master’s degree in social work. “You are in a war situation and the person in charge of you — your commander — tells you that you must do what you are told, or else.”

One time when Swift tried to report a sergeant she was “treated like a pariah,” her family says.

When Swift learned she would be going back to Iraq earlier this year, she decided she couldn’t do it — not after what she’d been through. Swift has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fort Lewis officials wouldn’t elaborate on the allegations. “It’s going to take time to look into this,” Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek says.

While military officials are looking, they might want to examine in an honest way the treatment of women in the military.

What they’ll find may not be pretty, judging by the dozens of e-mails from women everywhere to the Swift family.

There is a silent sorority of troops and veterans who’ve walked in Swift’s combat boots.

Here’s just one e-mail, from a 28-year-old woman who served at Fort Lewis: “Due to the trauma I endured while ‘serving my country’ — mistreatment that culminated in a sexual assault — I received a medical discharge. … I was subjected to treatment much like that which Suzanne had endured. The harassment. The sexual pressure. … She’s not alone.”

For the military to publicly admit it has a problem would be a key step toward the kind of change corporate America has made in battling sexual harassment.

Women sign up knowing they might have to go to war. None expects the enemy she’ll end up fighting will be the guys on her own team.