Last year, a shocked US congressional panel sat in silence as Beth Davis, a former cadet at the US air force academy, told them about her experience of being raped in her dorm, and the military's acceptance of such behaviour.
 
She said: "I was told by older cadets that we were likely to be raped, and if we were we shouldn't report it as doing so would end our careers."
 

Speaking exclusively to Al Jazeera, former Brigadier-general Janis Karpinski, one of the most senior women to have served in the US army, confirmed the high incidence of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military. 

 

'Fact of life'

 

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Karpinski said: "It's very unfortunate that women have to consider – to factor into their decision – the probability of being sexually harassed, assaulted or raped, because they choose to serve.

 

"I would say that sexual harassment is endemic in the military today. It's just an unfortunate fact of life for women who are serving in the armed forces now."

 

Jessica, whose last name is withheld, is an American who joined the military to follow in the footsteps of her father and brother and was sent to South Korea in April 2006.

 

After three weeks, Jessica was sexually attacked by an officer on base. An official inquiry confirmed that the incident took place, but the officer's sole punishment was demotion - he is still serving in the US military. 

 

Five weeks after this incident, Jessica was raped by a friend, the only military man she said she had trusted. The incident was reported, and it was believed that, following claims to the US congress, an investigation was underway.

 

Delayed investigation

 

However, Al Jazeera found that the military's investigation has still not commenced.

 

Jessica said: "It's a huge betrayal. So it feels like … betrayal is too weak a word … my army, that I was willing to die for, just let me down.

 

"It would have been better if I died in Iraq … at least I'd get a nice funeral."

 

Abbie, an enlisted soldier currently on medical leave whose last name is also withheld, joined the military at age 17, motivated by a desire to serve her country and pay her way through university, she said. 

 

Jessica says she was raped in April 2006 but
the
investigation has yet to begin [Al Jazeera]

Following basic training, Abbie was sent on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. She said two weeks after her arrival, she was sexually assaulted by two male officers on base.

 

She said: "The sexual assault meetings happen all the time but they are not taken seriously."

 

Like the majority of US military women who are believed to have experienced sexual assault, Abbie said she felt too powerless and disoriented to take action, and never reported the incident. 

 

Underreported

 

The US military claims that a woman's average risk of sexual assault and rape, based only on incidents reported through the official chain of command, is six per cent.

 

However, data taken from other government departments such as Veteran's Affairs present a different picture, suggesting massive underreporting of sexual abuse.

 

Independent studies suggest that this risk is as high as 33 per cent. 

 

Karpinski said: "My sense about women reporting infractions, sexual harassment, sexual assaults, rape ... my sense is that it's the tip of the iceberg actually getting through the system."

 

US military representatives claim that their annual training programme for soldiers and field commanders is enough to prevent cases of sexual assault and rape.

 

As women currently make up 15 per cent of the US military's workforce, and with more women serving in combat support roles in Iraq than in any other previous conflict, Abbie, Jessica, Beth and Janis beg to differ.
 
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