Most Americans acknowledge the service of our troops on Memorial Day, whether we agree with our country's involvement in the war or not. But the U.S. Marine Corps is taking advantage of the moment in a new way.
Long a bastion of macho military mystique, they're now actively recruiting women. Ads are running in such magazines as Shape, Self, and Fitness, which mainly appeal to women readers. They show a woman marine striking a martial arts pose in front of a crowd of men, who are supposedly looking up to her as a leader. The tag line reads "There are no female marines. Only marines." In a shrinking economy, these ads may appeal to a lot of women who need jobs. But like most advertising, they don't tell the whole story.
Since 2002 women have served nearly 170,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rape and sexual assault against them by other soldiers as well as contractor personnel appears to be serious and growing. Air Force general William Begert , who investigated the problem in 2004, uncovered scores of rape accusations, a rising trend of reported abuses, and the most basic shortcomings in tracking the crime and attending to its victims. Yet no concrete plans to stem the tide of violence against military women have been implemented. According to The New York Times, confidential surveys have found that up to 30 percent of women veterans reported being victimized in sexual assaults while on active duty. Three out of four said they had not dared to report it because of concerns about privacy and career advancement.
Despite this alarming rate of sexual assault, which can of course result in pregnancy, our women soldiers cannot obtain abortions in U.S. military facilities at home or abroad -- even if they pay for the procedure with their own money. When deployed overseas, this could mean resorting to unsafe local facilities if they are available. And in many foreign countries, abortion is illegal, meaning non-military facilities are not an option, whether they're safe or not. Petitioning for leave to travel to a safe hospital or clinic in another country is a catch-22. It means going public, and the wait can be too long for such a petition to do any good.
There are a few other little details the ads don't mention. Although women have served in the U.S. military since 1901, they are the only American women whose professional advancement is artificially curtailed by government laws and policies. In the last decade, laws banning women from serving on military aircraft with combat missions and aboard combat ships were repealed, but women still cannot serve aboard submarines, in infantry, armor, and most artillery units, or in special forces units. Military leaders themselves say these bans are increasingly artificial and meaningless given today's combat realities. And lesbians cannot serve openly, going back to the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
In addition to the problems experienced by active servicewomen, the destruction of so many military families has been one of the most tragic--and untold--effects of the Iraq War. As more military women return from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are finding that veterans services aren't meeting their needs. An estimated 8,000 female veterans are homeless, and others suffer from mental illness. Women in every military branch are twice as likely to get divorced as men. Women's advocates point out that Congress has failed to appropriate adequate money for counseling and support services to help keep families together.
The Marine Corps is no doubt trying to attract women because it is stretched for recruits for George and Dick's war. All I can say to those women reading the new ads is: Buyer beware. On the same day recent stories about the new "woman friendly" pitch ran in newspapers, NBC Nightly News reported that the U.S. military is now so desperate it is accepting felons, some with convictions for sexual assault.
Martha Burk is author of Your Money and Your Life: The High Stakes for Women Voters in '08 and
Beyond, available at msmagazine.com