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“When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you…”  These words were spoken by President Obama at his State of the Union Address on Jan. 24, but he did not make a distinction between men and women in the military.  Is it because he feels women are not regarded soldiers in every respect?

This month, at the direction of Congress, the Pentagon gave military women access to jobs closer to the front lines—as tank mechanics, radio operators and other support billets—but they remain banned from key infantry, armor and special operations units. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised this move as an opportunity for qualified military women.

This announcement was met with praise from some and vexation from others.  Elaine Donnelly for the Center for Military Readiness said, “In this environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.  Lives should not be put at needless risk just to satisfy ‘diversity metrics’ for the career ambitions of a few.”  But, contrary to Donnelly’s statement, women have been serving in at-risk positions for some time, and the actions of the Pentagon only served to recognize and credit these women for their performance and service.

Placing women soldiers in harm’s way may be an issue that has less to do with our sworn enemies and more to do with our military leaders. Just last month, Panetta held a press conference on military sexual assaults and reported that an estimated 19,000 military women were assaulted the previous year by their male counterparts.  He went on to say, “One sexual assault is one too many.”  Eight years earlier his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld said, “Sexual assault will not be tolerated,” but his words did nothing to change military culture. Sexual assault of women soldiers is nearly twice that of sexual assault in civilian life, and it continues unabated.

Since 9/11, there have been over 1000 female casualties in the US military, including 144 killed, and women now comprise 15 percent of active-duty personnel.  However, their casualties began long before they reached the frontline. Their frontline duty began the minute they took their oath promising to defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic; but who’s defending their right to serve without fear of rape by their fellow soldiers?

Army Specialist Chantelle Henneberry, 172 Stryker Brigade said, “Everybody’s supposed to have a battle buddy in the army, and females are supposed to have one to go to the latrines with, or to the showers—that’s so you don’t get raped by one of the men on your own side.  But because I was the only female there, I didn’t have a battle buddy.  My battle buddy was my gun and my knife.”

When Henneberry reported a sexual assault by her sergeant she was told, “The one common factor in all these problems is you.  Don’t see this as punishment, but we’re going to have you transferred.”  Shortly after, the perpetrator was promoted.

According to Col. Janis Karpinski, one of the most egregious examples of military sexual terrorism occurred in 2006 when several women soldiers at Camp Victory in Iraq died from dehydration and heat related illness because they stopped drinking water at 3 or 4 p.m. to avoid having to use the remote, unlit latrines after dark and risk being raped by fellow soldiers. Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, a senior US military commander in Iraq, directed the reporting surgeon to omit the soldier’s gender from his report and not list the cause of death as dehydration, knowing full well what had occurred.

Unfortunately, this has dishonored the women and men of our armed forces and is an affront to American values, which is why it cannot be tolerated.  And while this dark side of military reality unfolds, Fox News and MSNBC are fixated on a man’s opinion, inviting nearly twice as many men than women to comment on women’s contraceptives.  Should they not be discussing the safety of our military women in a patriarchal driven environment?  Besides, when did men become experts on female contraceptives?  Maybe we should simply invent the man-pill, so we can focus on matters of substance.