By Janet Bagnall
This month, more than four years after she became the first Canadian servicewoman to die in combat, Captain Nichola Goddard is back in the news.
Goddard, who was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006, was killed in a battle with the Taliban on May 17, 2006, two weeks after her 26th birthday. Before she died, she wrote to her husband about a culture of oppressive sexual harassment and assault at her camp in Afghanistan, saying, "There were six rapes in the camp last week, so we have to work out an escort at night."
This information is contained in a new book, Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard, by Calgary Herald columnist Valerie Fortney. When Fortney tried to learn more about sexual assault or harassment on Canadian Forces bases, she hit a brick wall. "It's a big no-go zone," she told Postmedia News. A "no-go zone" if anything underplays the Canadian military's reluctance to discuss, never mind confront, the possibility of sexual assault and harassment of female soldiers.
In the years since 2004, the Canadian military admits to having investigated only five reports of sexual assault in Afghanistan. Just one investigation led to a guilty verdict, according to a spokesperson for the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal and the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service. An Afghan man was arrested after an investigation by the Afghan National Police and tried and found guilty by the Afghan justice system.
The Canadian military's figures seem implausible: Goddard told her husband there were six rapes in a single week, yet all the Canadian military will admit to is a single conviction for assault in the space of six years.
The Canadian numbers seem even less believable stacked against U.S. statistics. According to figures published last year by a lobby group, the Service Women's Action Network, 3,230 sexual assaults were reported against U.S. soldiers, an increase of 11 per cent over 2008. The group also pointed out that the U.S. Department of Defence itself estimates that 80 per cent of sexual assaults in the military are not reported. Prosecution rates for sexual assailants are low: In civilian life, 40 per cent of alleged sexual attackers are prosecuted, whereas only eight per cent of alleged attackers are ever prosecuted in the military.
Out in the field, U.S. servicewomen reported 163 sexual assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. In Canada, a report by the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal stated there were 170 sexual assaults in the military in 2008, a drop from the 176 reported in 2007 and 201 in 2006.
But if the information out of Canada's military deployments and on its bases is not as accurate as it should be, service people are paying a high price. Again, turning to the Americans, research shows that sexual violence is the primary causal factor for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among female soldiers. For their male counterparts, the strongest PTSD predictor is combat experience.
Americans are awash in information compared with Canadian military people. The last thorough airing in Canada of sexual assault in a military context was more than a decade ago. In 1998, the Canadian military compiled a report on activities of military police in 1997, reported by Maclean's magazine. The report showed that military police investigated 145 sexual assaults and related incidents. Just over half the alleged assailants were servicemen in the regular forces. More than one in four victims were teenage cadets, with regular National Defence Department employees (including female soldiers) making up another quarter of victims. At the time, in 1998, the military insisted that their rate of sexual assault was substantially lower than among civilian populations, 64 sexual assaults per 100,000 population compared with 89, a claim that should be retested.
If the Canadian government is sending young women into combat without investigating in a coherent, systematic way whether sexual harassment or assault is putting additional, possibly intolerable, stress on them, that is unconscionable.
Nichola Goddard, whom this country professes to honour, has already been snubbed once, when the coffin holding her remains was deliberately hidden from a saddened public on its arrival from Afghanistan. Her words, written in frustration and fear four years ago, should be the start of a new openness about sexual violence in the armed forces. Taking what she said seriously would be the right way to honour a fallen soldier.