Female veterans quietly struggle with sexual harassment, suicide
Pfc. Nichole Bowen-Crawford said she was walking to lunch on her Army base near Nasiriyah, Iraq, in 2003 when she received her daily proposition from a passing fellow soldier.
“Hey, Bowen,” the officer tossed out, “let’s go f— in the bunker.”
Bowen-Crawford told VOA that while this was the most shocking example of the day-to-day regimen of verbal sexual harassment she experienced while in the Army between 2001-2004, it was not her worst experience — she had been assaulted by a higher-ranking sergeant earlier that year.
When she reported the incident to a male supervisor, she was advised to stay quiet for the sake of her career.
Bowen-Crawford’s experience is not universal, but far from rare.
A work environment tolerant of sexual assault and harassment is believed to be one of the causes of high suicide rates among female veterans, which soared more than 45 percent between 2001 and 2015, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).
The rate among female veterans is lower than that of male veterans, but not compared to their civilian counterparts. Female veterans are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as civilian women.
“Certainly a mental health diagnosis like PTSD is a risk factor for suicide,” said Megan McCarthy, VA deputy director of suicide prevention. “Certainly, there’s some evidence that experiencing MST (Military Sexual Trauma) is associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, so those that have experienced MST are more likely to think about suicide and possibly more likely to attempt suicide.”
McCarthy told VOA that the relationship between suicide and trauma is complex. The VA’s own research has shown that veterans who experience MST tend to be at higher risk for suicide. A 2016 VA survey of 60,000 veterans found that more than 41 percent of female veterans had experienced sexual harassment.
Many believe that the military’s flawed reporting mechanisms have aggravated the epidemic.