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The Scandal of Military Rape

Army Private LaVena Johnson, just 19 years old, was found dead on her military base in Balad, Iraq, in July 2005.


At first the Army initiated a homicide investigation, then suddenly, without explanation, closed it and ruled her death a suicide by an M-16 rifle. Yet her parents said she had been calling home every day, always sounding happy and healthy.


When her father, John Johnson, a veteran of the Army himself, viewed his daughter’s body at the funeral home, he noticed several suspicious factors. Her face was bruised, the gunshot wound did not match the description in the autopsy and white uniform gloves had been glued onto her hands. He later gained access to photographs that showed abrasions to her face, a broken nose, burns on her hands, signs of sexual abuse and more burns to her back and genital area. He also learned that she had been re-clothed after her death, dragged across the ground and set on fire inside a tent. Johnson and his wife believe that their daughter was raped, murdered and burned to cover the evidence.


The Johnsons have been pressing the Army to reopen the investigation ever since, but so far have been stonewalled at every turn.

Of the sexual assaults reported and recorded by the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2007, half were met with no official action, a third were dismissed as unworthy of investigation and only 8 percent of those investigated were referred to Court Martial. Of those few military men found guilty of rape or sexual assault, the majority received punishments so mild they amounted to slaps on the wrist, conveying the message that men can do what they want to women in the military with little consequence.

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This essay appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Ms. magazine.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.