Author Archives: iconicyouth

Out of the Shadows: Addressing Sexual Violence in the U.S. Military

“To say I survived is not so final as to say, for example, I feel alive. Sometimes we wake up to find that the war survived with us.”

The preceding are compelling words from a military servicewoman who survived not only the frontlines of the Iraqi war but also the violence and distress of sexual abuse at the hands of her commander during her deployment there.

Guest course lecturer Ursula Kelly recently gave a compelling lecture that discussed the myriad ways in which trauma pervades the lives of individuals who have been sexually abused while in the military. A recent report published by the U.S.’s Department of Defense (DoD) underscored the sheer magnitude of military sexual assaults. Since the close of World War II, the DoD has estimated that more than 500,000 active military personnel have been raped or sexually assaulted; many of these individuals continue to suffer from extreme mental health issues resulting from rape or from physical health conditions resulting from their violent experiences. In 2011 alone, the number of reports of sexual assault or harassment surpassed more than 3,000, and the report suggests that it is likely that up to 80% of all victims do not report sexual crimes committed against them, as the conviction rate of perpetrators remains less than 8%.

Prosecution rates of military sexual violence perpetrators remain abhorrently low due to a number of factors. Victim fear of reprisal violence or military discharge, “lost” rape kits, and downright refusal of commanders to forward a sexual-based crime on to their superiors are only a few of the issues that stand between a victim and the justice that he or she seeks. In fact, the majority of all sexual assault cases have died in the office of the victim’s commander, who until recently had all jurisdiction whether or not to push a case forward or to close the investigation completely.

With the making of 2012’s Oscar nominated documentary The Invisible War, military sexual violence has brought out of the shadows and into the public dialogue. The film’s jarring and gut-wrenching depiction of rampant sexual violence in the military blows the whistle on policies related to sexual assault reporting in the U.S. armed forces. The film also uses interviews from a number of survivors of military sexual assault that serve as voices for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have been silently suffering from such awful breaches of justice and security since the 1960s. The survivors in the film (both male and female) relate the horror inflicted upon them, not only by their perpetrators, but also by a military justice system that fails them. Many of the victims state that the pain they went through with the assault was nothing compared to the challenges that they went through in their attempts to seek justice, proper medical and psychological care for their trauma, and to return to some sort of normalcy in their lives.

The Invisible War

It is infuriating to see that young women and men have voluntarily joined the military only to be further conscripted to a violence that persists at a much more personal, haunting level. Often without anyone to confide in, the victim lives in a state of dual fear—fear of the enemy as well as a fear of the familiar. Sexual violence experienced in the military also leads to an increased risk of numerous social and mental health outcomes, including post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, unemployment, and substance abuse and drug addiction.

The government’s continued failure to admit to playing a part in the violation of so many servicemen and servicewomen by instead placing those seeking physical or mental health services on long waiting lists—or simply denying their claims forthright—is an extreme denial of medical justice for survivors while also being a systematic denial of human rights. Additionally, learning about the sheer magnitude of sexual assault perpetrated within the U.S. military service brings extra ire to those that continue to denounce the U.S. government’s decision to allow women on the front lines of military conflict. By arguing that men will throw their own safety to the wayside in an attempt to protect women first at all cost to themselves and their mission, the mere notion becomes a slap in the face where intramiltary sexual violence remains endemic.

After viewing The Invisible War in April of last year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered that the Pentagon ensure that the prosecution of these crimes be bumped up to the handling level of colonel and Navy captain—pulling this authority from frontline commanders who often seek to downplay such incidents and protect the perpetrators, either as a way to protect their friends or their own ranks. It is also now mandated that individuals who allege abuse by a fellow recruit or superior be granted immediate transfer to another company during the investigation and beyond, and Panetta has called for the establishment of special victims units within each branch of the military to document and investigate all sexual assault crimes. Additionally, the “moral waiver” (by which a number of convicted rapists were allowed to enter the military) has recently been overturned by an amendment introduced by California Senator Barbara Boxer that prevents individuals with a sex crime on their record from joining the military.

Panetta’s recent rulings may have targeted some key battles, but with thousands of instances of military sexual violence reported each year and the incidence of sexual violence in the military more than two times higher than that of the civilian population, the war rages on.

For individuals seeking to speak to someone about an instance of military sexual abuse, resources have been made available at or 877-995-5247. The Invisible War will also make its television debut on PBS affiliates nationwide starting May 13 at 10 PM.


ACLU. (2013). Blog of Rights: Military Sexual Violence. Web. Retrieved 19 April 2013 from

Scout, B. (2013). Military Sexual Assault Hearings Begin. AAUW. March 20, 2013. Web. Retrieved 19 April 2013 from

Steinhauer, J. (2013). Veterans Testify on Rapes and Scant Hope of Justice. The New York Times. March 14, 2013. Web. Retrieved 19 April 2013 from

U.S. Department of Defense. (2012). Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response (SAPRO). Web. Retrieved 19 April 2013 from

Zornkick, G. (2013). New Study Demands Zero-Tolerance for Military Sexual Assault. The Nation. March 26, 2013. Web. Retrieved 19 April 2013 from


Social Costs of Violence: Fear and Mistrust

The economic costs of violence are endless: direct and indirect medical expenses, lost productivity, public response services (including police, security personnel, and ambulatory services), investment in legislature, criminal justice costs (including courts, corrections, and reduced value of real estate in crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the far-reaching and hard-to-define repercussions on emotional status and mental health. What happens when we look at costs of violence that are not financial, that are not productivity-related, that are not emotional?

In Western society—and particularly in capitalistic nations where policy is highly driven by monetary gain (or in the case of violence, by preventing monetary cost)–there is a push to monetize every experience, every loss. However, how does one quantify the unavoidable costs of fear, misunderstanding, or prejudice that come with equating violence to specific times, places, or races?

A recent quote by the founder of New York City’s the Doe Fund—a very well-respected nonprofit organization in NYC that provides paid transitional work, housing, educational opportunities, counseling, and career training to people with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse–and hopeful Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald underscores some of the latent fear and assumption-making that has led to systematic discrimination of Black males in the minds of society and in criminal detention rates:

“The mass incarceration of African American men may have made us safer, but it leaves us with generation after generation of broken families that are uneducated that have multiple barriers to employment.”

While the main point of Mr. McDonald’s statement clearly intended to hinge on the fact that the disproportionate incarceration of Black males leads to cycles of broken homes, reduced economic viability, and propagates lower rates of education in Black communities than in White communities, his statement underscores an uncomfortable but commonly-held notion that demographics attribute to an increased risk of committing crimes or enacting violence.

His statement, while probably a result of poor word choice, makes the assumption that African American men are inherently a threat and that there is, in some way, a benefit to disproportionately incarcerating Black men–with that benefit being an increased sense of safety to the rest of society. In this same framework of thinking, New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk law was first enacted in 1991 and allowed New York Police Department officials to stop and search anyone who was deemed a threat through visual examination, which led to a 9:1 ratio of Blacks and Hispanics being stopped and frisked as compared to Whites. These laws drew intense ire and controversy for encouraging legal discrimination and prejudicial actions by NYPD before it was finally ruled unconstitutional in January of this year.

From this, we must ask ourselves how such fear, such mistrust, and such misguided response to the media’s representation of who is a threat and who is at risk affects our perceptions and our actions in daily lives and, at a macrosocial level, our criminal justice’s response to the management of crime and threats of crime. Given the knowledge that most reported crimes are crimes that occur within race or ethnic divides and not between races/ethnicities, the “safety” of which Mr. McDonald speaks of is often merely an illusion guided by outside media fear-mongering.

In response to Mr. McDonald’s recent quote, Glenn Martin, a fellow NYC non-profit CEO of the Fortune Society, responded with the following take on the situation:

In fact, the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color has been destructive and counterproductive, with little connection to crime rates. The major cause of prison growth in New York State is our failed war on drugs, and it has disproportionately impacted young men of color, although drug use and drug selling rates are similar across racial lines.  In addition, recent research supports the fact that when you over incarcerate from specific communities, the law of diminishing returns applies and you ultimately experience little to no increase in public safety.”

His comment suggests that our attempts to remedy crime by systematically creating other, less preventable injustices does little to reduce crime and, in fact, may lead to increased crime by necessity. He also challenges the notion of safety and perceptions of how safety can be ensured—or alternatively—not ensured. By incarcerating young males with the potential to be highly valuable members of society, the corrections system implicitly is a cause for social degradation. Lost youth and innocence, the short and long-term costs of broken homes, and increasingly fractured and disvalued communities are true risks to long-term security and safety in America, despite the media’s attempt to glamorize violence while concurrently denouncing the perpetrators as vile and incorrigible.

When shows like Gangland only propagate fears that anyone, anywhere can be a victim of violence at anytime, the challenge is to ask ourselves how much of this threat of violence exists only in our thoughts and minds, in our perceptions and our fears? Through these avenues we continue to perpetrate violence against ourselves and against our fellow man, always mentally stopping-and-frisking those around us that we deem a threat. In these ways, the costs of violence become all too real. What are the costs of violence when every young Black male is assumed to be violent or a hardened criminal? If we had to quantify, how much does each tear in the fabric of society cost us?

Resilience and Resolve: Community-Led Efforts to Target Youth Violence

Resilience (\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\): an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Our class discussion this week poked around at definitions of and impact of resilience on victims of crime—particularly for those in the youngest stages of their lives. Having grown up in a single mother household in a relatively non-affluent suburb of Indiana, I have often felt that my upbringing brought with it a sense of self-reliance, hardiness, and street-sense that I feel many others in my demographic often lack or underestimate. While I would have likely considered myself “resilient”, growing up in an environment relatively free from violence ensured that I had very little understanding of what true strength or experience could ever truly entail.

After my graduation from college and during my work with disadvantaged youth as a youth advocate for a major educational non-profit in Harlem, New York, resilience became a word that I became intimately familiar with. In fact, “resilience” became the central coordinating theme of a creative writing course offered through our non-profit’s after school program, in which students participated in weekly writing sessions focused on their experiences, challenges, and overcoming adversity. Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the historical crime rate of Central Harlem, many of the students’ writings focused on personal experiences dealing with violence, both within the community and at home.

In often heartbreaking fashion, each of my students could recount times in which they had been bullied, beaten, or otherwise victimized by members of their families or by neighbors in their communities. While the patterns of violence and perpetrators were unique to each student, all were able to recount stories of how instances of violence presented them with trials and tribulations for which they had to endure and overcome. However, all students—without exception—shared a common thread of strength and resilience that prevented their entry into an all too real world of crime that lurked—quite literally—on every street corner.

Resilience, however, does not appear to result merely from exposure to adversity or violence, indicating that other mechanisms must be in play for misfortune to lead to an increase in resilience and self-efficiency. During my other work with paroled adolescent and teenaged gang members living in Brooklyn, the attribute of resilience was all too rare. As individuals who had fallen into hands of the juvenile detention program early in their lives, education levels remained low and interrupted and economic resources were scarce and not easily and often not legally accessible given a dearth of education, hard skills, and social capital invested in those who have been previously convicted of crimes. Without the availability of these social supports and personal encouragement, resilience and opportunity were staunched and a life resigned to depending on crime for survival seemed almost inescapable.

However, a series of efforts have been undertaken in order to improve youth resilience in the highest risk communities through education, mentorship, and through the building of social capital and community support. Over the past two decades, a series of grassroots community-led outreach initiatives have been developed in order to encourage resilience in youth as well as to quell the rising tide of youth violence in many American communities. A particularly successful Southside Chicago initiative was showcased in PBS’s raw and emotive 2012 documentary “The Interrupters”.  In order to reduce the number and intensity of crimes in their community as well as to build resilience in young adults at risk of participating in violence, a group of tireless and dedicated peace advocates have taken to the streets in order to reach out and encourage local youth to make smarter, safer decisions about their actions and reactions to everyday threats of physical violence.

The Interrupters

Such efforts to build resilience among those affected by tragedy and violence have the potential to have lasting positive affects throughout the life course of the individual and encourage often cyclical patterns of violence to be broken. However, we must ask ourselves about the nature of resilience. Can one be taught resilience or is it an innate quality? Does one choose a path toward resilience or is one guided to it by the pressures of circumstance and the support of others in one community?

If resilience can built, what are our best mechanisms for doing so? Are educational efforts the key to supporting our youth and preventing their participation in crime and delinquency? Is ensuring that strong, relatable leaders are available in communities in order to provide mentorship our best bet for reducing crime and improving social resilience? Or are investments in social and economic capital that target those most at risk of violence perpetration and victimization the most fundamental way to improve the livelihoods of at-risk youth, thus reducing the pressure to commit crimes and improve self-efficacy? Thoughts? Opinions?