From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Notes From The Boonies

By Paul Wisovaty

For the last fifteen years, I have spoken to history classes at Tuscola High School (Illinois) about the Vietnam War. As I have not exactly offered the students the traditional American Legion point of view upon the subject, I am a bit surprised that I continue to be invited back. Maybe it's because I've always had a good relationship with the high school principals. I retired recently after thirty years as the county's chief probation officer, and every time one of their malcontent students picked up a teacher and tossed her ten feet into a brick wall, they appreciated my assistance in getting the kid locked up. You use whatever leverage you got.

I am certainly not as knowledgable upon the subject as Barry Romo, and I lack Joe Miller's two or three PhD's. Additional problems have been that I am not the most eloquent speaker on the planet, and — worst of all — I infrequently finish a sentence with the unspoken thought, "I can't believe I just said that." But the situation has improved over the years. After 75-100 presentations, it has inevitably gotten to the point where there is almost no question that a student can ask that I haven't heard a few dozen times before. In that sense, my answers are almost predetermined. I just have to wrinkle my brow every now and then, give the student a very serious look, and say, "Wow, that's a good question! I don't think anyone has ever asked me that before." As the Bard observed, "all the world's a stage."

Of course, every now and then I get a question that I haven't heard. That happened this past fall, and I either handled it really well or really poorly. The disinterested reader may judge.

A young lady asked, ever so politely, "I'm graduating this year, and my dad really wants me to join the service. Don't you think that's a great idea?" I kind of lost it. I said something to the effect that "If you were my daughter and you wanted to join the service, I would do everything in my power to talk you out of it. That could wind up being the worst decision you ever made in your life." She clearly didn't expect that answer, and my guess is that her dad wouldn't have stood up and applauded it either.

It's time to inject the obvious: I'm preaching to the choir here. I doubt that many readers are likely to respond with, "That's not fair! The Pentagon does everything it can to protect its young women in the service from sexual abuse!" Certainly, but there is a problem with preaching to the choir: you've heard it all before. Before you turn to the next page for that solid reason, please let me add a few thoughts.

This March, quoting from the Associated Press, "the US Senate agreed to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders." Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand's bill "would have given the decision to take serious crimes to courts martial to seasoned military lawyers instead of the chain of command."

According to a related AP Story, "Female United States Senators have questioned whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice." First of all, what is a "minor sexual offense?" With regard to Senator Gillibrand's reference to a "slap on the ass," I would note that, at least according to the Illinois Criminal Code, that slap is a felony if committed in a public place, which presumably includes things like federal military installations. But let's look at the mostly male leadership's understanding or lack thereof of such differences, which are quite obviously real. I don't care how unenlightened a commanding officer may be, my guess is that he is able to differentiate between that slap and, let's say, enforced fellatio (with all due respect to General Jeffrey Sinclair, who may well be on the other end of such an arrangement in the event that he reads this column in a federal prison). As I tried to explain to the class, that's not what I see as the problem. I see the problem as part and parcel of the military hierarchy, and to a large extent the problem is not even a gender-based one.

How I proceeded to answer the young lady—after I'd calmed down a little—was like this. Let's say you're a Private First Class, and you are sexually assaulted by the First Sergeant, and you go to your CO, probably a captain, to report the act. The CO (sorry, ladies, but consistent with my argument the CO could even be a she) then asks himself, "OK, who is more important to me, my First Shirt or my PFC?" I am not suggesting that every company commander in the United States military is going to do that. What I am suggesting is that, to one extent or another, a lot of them have. It is a mindset built into the system.

What else jumps out at us about this unfolding story? Again according to the AP, "The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012," which computes to 71 victims a day or one every twenty minutes. I'm somewhat surprised — actually amazed — at the Pentagon's candor here, and I applaud them for it. That said, try the next quote on for size.

"A raft of changes in military law is creating a culture where victims trust that their allegations will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished." That comes from Air Force Colonel Alan Metzler, Deputy Director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. My guess is that reporters didn't exact that comforting assessment out of the colonel as he was stumbling out of of the officer's club. It obviously represents the official position of the United States Department of Defense upon the subject. I'm confident that those 26,000 victims from 2012, to say nothing of those from 2014, are much relieved at learning of it.

I'm writing this in March, so that by the time you read it some things may have changed. For her part, Senator Gillibrand remains optimistic. She is expected to pursue the issue in the Senate this spring, when the Armed Services Committee begins work on a sweeping defense policy bill for fiscal year 2015. She noted that "many people (in the Senate) said to me, 'Kirsten, I'm going to watch this, and if it doesn't get better in the next six months, I'm with you this time.'" Who knows? But look at it this way: when I was in the Army in the 1960's, you could not have told me that openly gay men and women would ever be allowed in the military. And you know what? That 20-year-old kid would've been just fine with their exclusion. Nations, like individuals, sometimes need to wake up.

Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.

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