MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Graduation is an end and a beginning

June is just around the corner; in a few weeks the members of McKinleyville High School’s Class of 2013 will shake the dust of MHS off their shoes and fan out across the world seeking their fortunes.

MYSIDEOFSTREETWe hope each and every one will fulfill their dreams and promise, but it’s far from a sure bet. Some have already secured a college spot and patched together a way to pay for it.

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed, leaving many students with heavy burdens of debt. One of the big inducements military recruiters hold out to prospects is the allegedly generous educational benefits. And for unsettled, unfocused youth, the armed forces have long been touted as a place to grow up and become a responsible member of the greater community.

Twelve years of war have darkened that picture. A lot of service members have died and many more have been badly injured. And instead of learning a useful trade, most recent veterans come out with infantry experience, for which there is little demand in the civilian sector.

But most disturbing, the US armed forces are being revealed as a deeply misogynistic environment, where women are disrespected and victimized in a systematic way. The Pentagon’s own confidential survey estimated that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year, about 90 percent of them female. Fewer than 4,000 of the assaults were reported.

It’s easy to understand why so few victims make a report; there is seldom a professional crime investigation. Instead, they are bullied, intimidated and refused the free exercise of what few rights they have. They are told by higher ranking service members that filing a report will end their career.

They are forced to remain under the direct control of their assailants and blamed for the assaults. Appealing often means begging a commanding officer who is a drinking buddy of the assailant – or even the assailant – for justice, which is all too rare. Only a handful of cases are actually prosecuted, and even when a service member is convicted, a commanding officer can erase the conviction and punishment with impunity.

The survey report ignited a firestorm of outrage in Washington D.C., especially among female lawmakers. More fuel hit the flames with a series of news stories about sexual assault prevention officers being charged with sexual assault, domestic violence and pimping of female recruits. What was a big dirty secret has become a big dirty stain on the armed forces.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hasn’t helped much. He claims to be sensitive to the emergency, but it doesn’t sound like it to me. He admitted in a press conference he’s getting a lot of unwelcome advice. According to an wire service story “He said some ask him, ‘Well, why don’t you just fire some people?’ He said his answer is, ‘Well, yeah, we could do that. And, you know, who are you going to fire?’”

I have some suggestions for him. He should start by ejecting every convicted service member with a dishonorable discharge stamped “SEX OFFENDER” in red across it. Then he should dishonorably discharge every commanding officer who has overturned a guilt verdict and let a sex offender walk away without punishment. After that he should replace every sexual assault prevention officer in every branch of the armed services with a female, with a couple of commandos assigned to protect her.

That’s what he’d do if he was serious, but he’s not. And until somebody gets serious, I’d advise any young woman who thinks she wants a military career to think very carefully before she signs a contract that gives hundreds of thousands of men she doesn’t know and can’t trust total authority over her and her body. It’s not a healthy environment for young men, either.

Not every male service member is a sex offender, but the rest aren’t doing much to prevent it, either. Clearly, if they value their careers, they have to go along to get along. Like the victims of sexual assault, they are vulnerable to being labeled – by an unqualified person – with a “pre-existing” psychiatric condition and medically discharged without educational or medical benefits.

Sometimes lower ranking sex offenders do get separated from the service, to avoid charges. One of those killed two police detectives in Santa Cruz recently, when they showed up to talk to him about unwanted advances to a coworker. Police had no information on his long military record of sexual misconduct until after the killings.

Civilian life is no bed of roses either, but female service members are twice as likely as civilian women to be raped and far less likely to receive medical care, emotional support or justice. If they somehow make it to a hospital for a forensic examination, the resulting evidence usually gets “lost.” Even with its accreditation in peril, College of the Redwoods looks pretty good compared to that.

(Elizabeth Alves knows a lot of military veterans are proud of their service, and she wishes those memories weren’t being marred by widespread wrongdoing by others. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to<a href=”mailto: mysidestreet@gmail.com“> mysidestreet@gmail.com</a>.)