About half of women sent to Iraq or Afghanistan report being sexually harassed, and nearly one in four say they were sexually assaulted, according to new research by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The study — based on anonymous surveys of female servicemembers who deployed to war — suggest a far higher prevalence of sexual misconduct against women in war zones than is reflected by complaints gathered by the various service branches.
In February, more than 20,000 women were serving in Afghanistan. In the preceding year, only 115 reports were filed alleging sexual assault, according to the Pentagon.
The findings show that there are traumatic strains beyond combat when troops go to war, said Amy Street, a lead researcher, clinical psychologist and a deputy director at one of VA's National Centers for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorders) in Boston.
The "lion's share of the attention ... has focused on combat exposure," said Street, adding that her study shows how sexual harassment and sexual assault on U.S. troops and their emotional consequences also are a cost of war.
Nate Galbreath, a senior adviser for the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office, said reports of any abuse concern him.
He said he's withholding an assessment of Street's findings until he better understands how the research was conducted.
Culture hasn't changed
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has pushed for better ways to investigate these cases, said women are left with no "safe haven" in war zones.
"It comes down to the culture," Speier says. "(It) hasn't changed, no matter what the generals or the secretaries of Defense say about zero tolerance. They have not scrubbed the sexism ... out of the military."
The results emerge as the Pentagon wrestles with problems of sexual abuse within its ranks and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's orders for steps to guard against it.
Earlier this year, dozens of female recruits at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas reported being sexually assaulted by male instructors.
An Army brigadier general is on trial for alleged sexual misconduct with lower-ranking women while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And the Associated Press reported last week that sexual assaults at military academies increased from 65 in 2011 to 80 in 2012.
In the VA study, researchers mailed survey questions to more than 1,100 women who served in or near Iraq or Afghanistan. Some 48.6% said they had been sexually harassed during their time in a war zone. Sexual assaults during deployment, up to and including rape, were reported by 22.8% of women.
In a workplace survey of women across the military by the Pentagon, 4.4% said they were victims of "unwanted sexual contact."
Colleagues main offenders
Almost all of the women in the VA study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans said the offenders were other servicemembers, in many cases from within their own unit, and 47% said that person held a higher rank, according to the findings.
A second research presentation at the Los Angeles conference by the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego cited data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a project that follows the health of thousands of troops over years.
Scientists found that military women who had served between 2001 and 2004, and who had been in direct combat, were 2 1/2 times more likely to say they had been sexually assaulted during those years than female servicemembers who had never been to war.