A Letter to the Navy: Let’s Make a Deal

Dear U.S. Navy:

A long time ago, I dedicated my life to public service.  Having spent time in both the government and nonprofit sectors, the time will come soon for me to consider joining our armed forces.  It’s been in the back of my mind for a few years now.  I spent time on Capitol Hill working on military and defense issues, and soon I’ll complete a Masters program in Global Security Studies.

There are a lot of things that attract me to military life, and in particular to the Navy.  Have I mentioned I love boats and ships and anything on water?  I spent almost four years as a coxswain for several different crew teams, and I’m confident that those skills would serve me well as a Navy Officer.  Have I mentioned that I love leadership and discipline and teamwork?  All qualities that I want to use as a member of your service.  Have I told you how much I want to learn new skills, and be at the forefront of the cutting edge technology that services not just Americans, but people all over the world?  Did I tell you yet that I want to join the Navy? 

Here’s the thing, though.  I can’t do it.  I want to give you guys a fair chance.  I want to seriously look into all the amazing opportunities that would be afforded me as a Naval Officer, a member of our armed forces, serving my country.  But I can’t do it.  At least not yet.

You see, there are two things that are stopping me right now.  The first is your institutionalized discrimination against women.  As I wrote  a few weeks ago, the U.S. Coast Guard is currently the only branch of our military that doesn’t forbid women to seek and achieve any job opportunity that is available to men.  Now, I won’t always agree with every policy of every institution I’m ever a part of.  But this is a pretty big deal.  No matter how hard I work, no matter how much I accomplish, your “official” policy against allowing me into combat will prevent me from experiencing – and contributing to – key aspects of military service that will make me qualified for higher positions.

Well, actually, that’s not true.  The truth is that I could easily be in combat; my service as such just won’t be acknowledged by the institution because technically, it wasn’t supposed to have happened.  Thanks anyway, but being a woman, I promise you I’ve already experienced my fair share of doing work that is neither acknowledged nor compensated.  How can I willingly join an institution, make it the center of my life and of my existence, if you can’t even acknowledge that I have equal potential to a man?  The answer is, I can’t.

The other problem is your unacceptably high levels of sexual violence.  I know you’re trying, and that’s a start.  I’m glad you have a fairly new Sexual Assault and Prevention Response Office that is working to enforce a zero tolerance policy towards sexual assault.  I’m glad you’ve started to allow victims to report their assaults without being required to file a formal police report, so that they can get the help they need independent of deciding whether to take legal action.  I’m glad you’ve recently asked your members to participate in an online sexual assault survey about the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of the current prevention program.   And I appreciated that you’ve funded a full time position at NCIS (Navy Criminal Investigative Service) to handle data collection for sexual assault cases.

But a female soldier serving in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. One in five women serving in the Air Force say they’ve been sexually assaulted since joining the service.  The problem is all over the service, in all branches, and the Pentagon estimates that 80-90% of assaults aren’t reported at all.  Now I know all the arguments about how rape occurs in higher percentages in environments that emphasize traditionally masculine qualities such as aggression and violence, but I’m afraid that’s just not good enough.  Victims are still often denied insurance claims for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) related to sexual assault if they didn’t immediately report the crime.  Victims are often ostracized in their units for disrupting moral.  Victims aren’t encouraged to seek legal action because they know the numbers: only 8% of cases that are investigated result in prosecution.  Even more outrageously, 80% of those who are convicted of the crime are honorably discharged.

And so you have to do better.  About giving women equal opportunities and about protecting us from heinous crimes committed by fellow servicemembers.  After all, if I’m going to be protecting others, can’t you at least protect me?

I’ll make a deal with you.  Once you do those things, I will very seriously look into joining the Navy and serving my country in uniform.  Sound fair?


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  • Robyn Ryan

    I wish I hadn’t wasted my skills and knowledge on a military career. It seemed like an escape from sexism, but it was a horror show.