Suzanne Swift’s story begins in an all-too-familiar way. A dead-end job, a friendly military recruiter, a promise that signing-up as military police would mean no deployment to Iraq, a broken promise, and a trip to war. Then it takes a less commonly heard of turn, one involving a practice known as “command rape.” Suzanne is back in the U.S. and is refusing to return to Iraq. Until a couple of days ago she was confined by the military and threatened with prosecution. The three superiors whom she has accused of various forms of harassment or assault have not yet been charged. Suzanne’s mother, Sara Rich, spoke with me about her daughter’s ordeal and recorded this 20-minute conversation.
Transcribed by Sandy Smedley:
This is DAVID SWANSON, speaking with Sara Rich, the mother of Suzanne Swift:
DAVID: Ms. Rich, how old is your daughter?
SARA: Suzanne is almost 22.
DAVID: Almost 22; and what is her background in the military? How did she get into the service and how long ago was that?
SARA: Suzanne graduated from high school in 2002 and she got a job and started working, and it was kind of a dead-end job, something that didn,t have a lot of, you know, future, and she was home one day and Jerry, the Army recruiter, called the house because the recruiters, you know, have your home phone number, and they invited her out to lunch, and the courtship began from there. She started having lunch with them every week and telling her about the travel and the college benefits and the training she would receive from the Army.
DAVID: Did she receive those things?
SARA: Well, she sure traveled. She went right to Iraq right out of her training. It was within a month out of getting out of basic training that she went to Iraq, and the thing is that she was told that if she signed up to be a miliary police officer, she would not go to Iraq, but you could only sign up to be a miliary police officer if you signed up for 5 years instead of 4, so her line to me was, “Don’t worry mama, you know, I’m signing up to be an MP, and they don’t deploy MPs to Iraq.”
DAVID: But she chose not to because it would be an additional year?
SARA: Oh no, she chose to be a miliary police officer and do 5 years so she would not go to Iraq.
DAVID: And yet they sent her to Iraq anyway?
SARA: That’s exactly right. The first thing they said to her when she got off the bus at boot camp, was the sergeant yells, he said “You blankety-blank-blank all think that you’re not going to Iraq? Well, your recruiter lied. You’re all going to Iraq and you’re all going to die!” Scared the hell out of Suzanne.
DAVID: And she’s been to Iraq for one tour, right?
SARA: One tour, exactly.
DAVID: When did she go and when did she come back?
SARA: She went February of ’04 to February of ’05.
DAVID: And she is now refusing to return; why is that?
SARA: Well, there’s a lot of reasons why. When it came down to her redeployment, about 2 weeks before she was duewell first of all, she only got 11 months of stabilization time. You’re mandated to have 18 months of stabilization time between deployments in a combat zone, so she was only being given 11 months of stabilization time, and was forced to sign a waiver waiving her rights to that 18 months. This was really hard for her. Then about 2 weeks before they were to be redeployed, she was out on a training mission, and a male sergeant raped a male specialist out on a training expedition, a training that they were doing in Yakima, which kind of triggered all of the sexual abuse and assault and harassment that Suzanne experienced when she was in Iraq the first time.
DAVID: A sergeant raped a specialist?
SARA: Yeah, a male sergeant raped a male specialist on a training expedition a couple weeks before they were to be redeployed to Iraq.
DAVID: And were there repercussions and accountability for this?
SARA: Oh yeah, oh yeah, because the specialist said something and then so what they did immediately was they had everybody go and do sexual assault training classes, and Suzanne said she was sitting in these classes or these work groups where they were telling them what to do in case of sexual assault, and that other soldiers were crying, and she said she was so, it just really scared her, and it also triggered what she went through when she was in Iraq the first time. When it came down to it, three days before she was going to leave, she had her keys in her hand and she turned to me and she said “Mom, I can’t go back. I just can’t go back.”
DAVID: But what was done specifically to her that led her to refuse to go back?
SARA: Well, there were two sergeants that harassed her and one that sexually assaulted her in something called command rape while she was in Iraq; then a third harassed her when they returned from Iraq, so three sergeants that we are pressing criminal charges against.
DAVID: Can you define “command rape” for people who are not in the service or familiar with the term?
SARA: Sure, this is something I have learned, and the Army family therapistI’ve heard of a lot of stupid things. I have never heard of command rape. It’s when your superior has life-or-death decisions over you, so they can tell you to run across a minefield, and you have to comply. Basically they have all the life-or-death decisions over you. They coerce you or do something with you that’s sexual it’s called command rape.
DAVID: So, at this time, what is Suzanne’s status, legally and otherwise? Is she free to move about the country? What’s happening?
SARA: Well, up until a couple of days ago, she was confined to base, but they just gave her a pass to come home, which was really awesome, because this is kind of like a family reunion weekend for us. We do the Oregon Country Fair, and it’s like our family reunion, so she is able to come down for the Oregon Country Fair, but her status, she hasn’t been charged with anything as of yet. They haven’t charged her with AWOL or any of that, so that still is up in the air, and they have started a criminal investigation into the three sergeants.
DAVID: That’s encouraging, and I know you’ve set up a web site at suzanneswift.org. Have you been getting a lot of support from individuals and organizations? Who has been helpful, or have you not found as much support as you would like?
SARA: Well, I think that there’s always room for more support. We’re going up against the US military; I mean, it’s pretty intimidating. You know, I’m a member of Military Families Speak Out, and they have been wonderful; Vets for Peace have been wonderful; Courage to Resist have been amazing. We’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of people. When you get into the web site, you will see there’s a link to a petition and so far we have about 2000 names of people that are signing on to support Suzanne and get her an honorable discharge as fast as possible.
DAVID: I’ve looked at that petition, and it’s a little disturbing because people are leaving comments on the side, saying, “You know, I’ve been harassed and abused and assaulted in the Army myself.” I don,t know. I can’t authenticate any of those comments, but the number of them suggests something of a pattern. Are you following up on those in any way?
SARA: Well, I don,t know if there really is any way for us to follow up on them, but they are definitely mirroring what we are getting in our mailbox, you know, because we also have a Yahoo account for my daughter Suzanne at Yahoo.com, and it’s definitely telling the same story. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s almost re-traumatizing to read these and know that this has been happening for so long and that there are just a huge amount of women vets and men vets that have been hurt in the military, and nothing’s been done about it, but the term “swept under the carpet” is reoccurring in so many of these e-mails.
DAVID: And that e-mail address is Suzanne@yahoo.com?
DAVID: And what else can people do to help? Go and sign the petition? Is that the primary thing people should do who want to help?
SARA: There are quite a few different ways of helping. Also, we’re getting together a national day of support for Suzanne. Her 22nd birthday is July 15, and so Saturday, July 15, we are encouraging people to have a day of support for Suzanne, having rallies or vigils at places in your town where it can make some noise and make some difference, that people hear and bring some visibility to this case, because it really is leading the way for other people who have experienced this and forging a path so that none of our 18- and 19-year-olds who are privates, that are being deployed to combat zones, are going to experience this kind of treatment and harassment.
DAVID: Well, I will certainly do what I can to encourage that, and I hope others will as well, and I thank you for having the strength to speak out about this.
SARA: You know, definitely protecting my child is huge, monumental for me, thinking that all these other children and these other young people is one of the other driving forces behind this, and Suzanne feels the same way.
DAVID: Well, it needs to be done. I’m glad you’re doing it.
SARA: Thank you, David.
DAVID: Thank you.
DAVID SWANSON can be reached at: email@example.com