As the Secret Service sex scandal continues to unfold, and implicates active duty military personnel, what comes as a surprise to me is not the details of the sex or the drunkenness, but that the American public would expect anything different from our men in uniform!
Having been in the Army for five years, and having spent more than four of them overseas, I can personally attest to how widespread the practice of soliciting prostitution was and certainly still is for U.S. Servicemembers. The fact that it seems many citizens seem not aware of this defies common sense to me.
My first night outside of the U.S. was spent in Okinawa, Japan. It will forever be marked by the memory of my unit taking me to the "Banana Show" to "break me in." The Banana Show was an elderly Japanese woman who would strip naked and insert objects into her vagina. She inserted stacks of coins and gave "exact change," she masturbated using the body of a large serpent, but the highlight of her act was considered her ability to project peeled bananas from between her legs.
I was 19 when I was singled out as the new guy, still practically a virgin, and used for "target practice" for the amusement of my active duty peers. I still have an impression of this moment; of the wild cheering and the insults which were shouted from the mouths of the mostly American military audience. "Shoot it in his mouth, you fucking whore! Smear it on his fucking chin!"
The Banana Show is considered somewhat of an institution to the U.S. Military community on Okinawa. People have been writing about it, taking pictures, posting them online and sharing stories with their friends for years. However, few seem to register the magnitude of the issues apparent to its existence and its military-specific appeal.
This was only the beginning of my sexual humiliation in the hands of the U.S. Army. This memory, as shocking as it seems to me now, was buried for many years under even more disturbing experiences. During my time on active duty, I both witnessed and participated in all manner of sexual depravity that I've come to expect from uniformed men, especially outside of their home countries. Prostitution was RAMPANT on and around nearly every U.S. military installation I have ever inhabited. Furthermore, it is known by more than just me that human trafficking thrives particularly around global U.S. bases.
Knowledge of this and of the effects it's had on me and continues to have on servicemembers and sex-workers all over the world led me to speak out in 2009. At the time, I was most known for having refused to deploy to Iraq as an Army sergeant in 2008, and had been fighting a year-long defense campaign which garnered a fair amount of publicity. At the time, veteran members of the peace movement were being instructed not to say anything which reflected bad on the military. Our fight was with the politicians, we were told, not with the service itself. For me, this led to a period of artificially-inspired patriotism and support for a military I didn't even support while I was actually on active duty! My determination to tell my story, though, and not simply repeat talking points I didn't believe anymore led me to make a number of "confessions" regarding my experiences with military prostitution culture while on active duty.
"Twice in Japan, I solicited prostitutes with fellow members of my unit," I wrote after a public testimony in St. Louis, MO. "These were acts not only meant to make us feel powerful as men and Americans, they were to bond us together as a unit that works together, plays together, eats together and even 'fucks' together."
I continued by revealing the details of a particularly painful memory from a deployment to the Philippines, in which I was unwittingly purchased by a prostitute and later made to have sex with her, despite neither of us having really been equal or willing partners. Of the experience, I concluded that, "I sold out on my manhood that night... I felt as though I had raped her. I felt as though I had raped myself."
At the time, my piece created quite an uproar in the anti-war community which had not yet begun acknowledging the existence of these issues for our military. Unfortunately, what seemed to me as beyond apparent at the time, that the military is an environment of systematic sexual victimization, was received by many as an assault on the 'good name' of our forces.
But public outcry was markedly split. Some attacked me and called me a rapist, as others called me naive. Half of those who were upset said it was because they thought I was lying, and that clearly I was a 'bad egg' because no one in the military is ever pressured to have sex by anyone else, especially superiors. The other half were those who agreed that acts such as I described were rampant and often command-directed, but didn't see a problem with 'our heroes blowing off a little steam.'
Both lines seem incredibly destructive to me, but seem to again be repeating themselves now in a broader context. In analyzing the reaction to the Secret Service scandal, two lines are again emerging from the upset. One, the line clearly taken up by the military and the White House, is that the Columbia incident was the result of a few individuals who acted on their own and will be punished accordingly. The other line is that there should be little surprise that members of the armed forces solicit prostitution, and further that we ought to reserve judgment as these people 'put their lives on the line' for America every day. But few, it seems, are prepared to acknowledge just how widespread and systematic incidents like these truly are.
The military is rife with slogans that hint at the existence of this sexually-charged subculture. A popular phrase that perhaps every veteran has been exposed to goes, "what happens on deployment stays on deployment." Roughly translated: "While away from home, all rules of decency are suspended," or as one officer put it during the incident I described in the Philippines, "Get your fucking freak on, boy! You're never going to see her again!"
While I was on active duty, everybody in the barracks knew that sex was always as near as the back gate of our base or a train ride to the "'Massagie' Parlors" in Japan, or the "Poof Houses" in Germany. And the drinking and the partying never stopped, save Monday through Friday during regular business hours, or other duty shifts...maybe. That's not to say we didn't go to work, because we certainly did, but sobriety could be described as a rare and undesirable state of mind. Gratuitous sex and drinking was a way of life every bit as valued as the maintenance of combat readiness, if not often times equated with it.
The issues generated in the overseas communities we occupied extended well beyond the excess demand generated for the local sex trades. Incidents of rape, especially in Japan, were so commonplace that the public affairs office in which I worked rarely even responded directly to them. The Marines especially in Okinawa had a habit of raping and murdering local girls. For years, this fact has been one of the greatest driving forces behind the Okinawan and broader Japanese anti-U.S. base movement. In Germany, it was not uncommon for a soldier to confess to having never been anywhere off base, save the "1900 Club," a seedy U.S. Military hangout in the old city of Heidelberg, or the "Pink House" or "Poof House" just outside the main gate of the Post Exchange Complex.
Both in Germany and Japan, cheap sex and drink was a way of life for so many. Some confessed to feeling like 'kids in a candy store,' while others simply desired to alleviate the loneliness that came along for them with being so far from home. Some just wanted the experience, just so they could say they'd seen and done it all. Others thought of it as their right, given that technically 'we're defending their assess, too, you know!?"
For me, I was simply too naive to believe what I was doing was anything actually wrong. While I knew I felt ashamed of myself, and always attributed my lack of enthusiasm in these situations to that shame, I didn't see anything wrong with what we were doing in general. But I had been systematically dehumanized at that point in order to feel so. It wasn't for years until after I left the Army that I could acknowledge the wrong of my actions, and it wasn't really until that point that I again became capable of having an honest, long-term relationship. I'm still re-learning just how sacred my body is, because I defiled it in the military, not in some spiritual or mystical sense, but in a real and tangible way; a way that has left me struggling with issues related to what's defined as Military Sexual Trauma.
Specialists within the Veterans Administration I've spoken to have referred to these situations as a 'framework for forced sex' and have confirmed for me just how widespread they've found these experiences to be with the veterans they treat. While my particular self-disgust and sense of personal responsibility concerning my actions is uncommon, I've heard, what is clear is that many veterans do struggle with their consciences regarding questionable sexual acts they committed while in the service.
Furthermore, there is some history to the archetype of the lonely American G.I. seeking comfort from local women. In Germany and Japan, there were entire generations of children born after WWII who never knew their fathers because they were Americans and went home after the war. One vivid and related memory I have is from an assignment that had me following a group of WWII veterans on a tour around southeast Germany of the concentration camps they had liberated at the end of the war.
While the week-long tour largely went as planned, with the veterans describing their experiences in local high schools along with actual camp survivors, the final night of their stay in Passau, the tour organizer, a notorious German writer named Anna Rosmus, dropped an unexpected, and even unwelcome, surprise on the veterans and their families.
During a banquet in honor of the veterans, Ms. Rosmus introduced around 15 German citizens of American lineage, or "war children," whose fathers had served in the region with the unit, and had returned home after the war, in effect abandoning their offspring. Some were looking for their fathers, and some were looking for their grandfathers. All of them were looking for answers that few if any of the veterans were prepared to give.
I remember thinking Ms. Rosmus was a visionary and an iconoclast for both having organized the tour and for having placed this dark responsibility on 'her' vets at the end of what seemed like a 'dog-and-pony show.' The veterans and their wives, however, were largely shocked and outraged.
"I know that the men had to do terrible things in the war," I recall one spouse saying to me on the side. "But that was more than sixty years ago. I'm proud of my husband, and I don't care what he had to do to survive and come home alive. As far as I'm concerned, that woman is a bitch and she has no right stirring up trouble for our husbands, especially after what they did for freedom."
While I can understand where that spouse was coming from, it is sad for me to think that Americans would be willing to ignore the needs of their own children to pretend that their bodies or the bodies of their loved ones could never be responsible for creating such realities. It is because of these dismissive tendencies that now we are shocked that the military family, including the secret service, is exposed for what it really is: a Gomorrah of drunkenness and sexual deviance, on a global scale, that for too long has concealed itself from the light of public scrutiny.
While the conduct of our servicemembers in Colombia should appall us, let us not for a second believe that this is an isolated incident. Alcoholic and sexual excess has always been a part of the U.S. military experience. That we can find it now to be a problem gives me hope for a broader shift in American conscious. It also makes my job as a counter-military recruiter astronomically easier. If we are seriously going to tell the military no more sex with prostitutes, and no more alcohol binging for that matter, half the force may desert overnight, and no one would show up for basic training.