Suzanne Swift went AWOL

The Women's War: Behind the Story

 

By Sara Corbett

The New York Times

 

(This an excerpt from The New York Times Magazine published Sunday March 18, 2007)

 

On the morning of Monday, January 9, 2006, a 21-year-old Army specialist named Suzanne Swift went AWOL. Her unit, the 54th Military Police Company, out of Fort Lewis, Washington., was two days away from leaving for Iraq. Swift and her platoon had been home less than a year, having completed one 12-month tour of duty in February 2005, and now the rumor was that they were headed to Baghdad to run a detention center.

 

The footlockers were packed. The company's 130 soldiers had been granted a weekend leave in order to go where they needed to go, to say whatever goodbyes needed saying. When they reassembled at 7 a.m. that Monday, uniformed and standing in immaculate rows, Specialist Swift, who during the first deployment drove a Humvee on combat patrols near Karbala, was not among them.

 

Swift would later say that she had every intention of going back to Iraq. But in the weeks leading up to the departure date, she started to feel increasingly anxious. She was irritable, had trouble sleeping at night, picked fights with friends, drank heavily. ''I was having a lot of little freakouts,'' she told me when I went to visit her in Washington State last summer. ''But I was also ready to go. I was like, 'O.K., I can do this.'''

 

The weekend before the deployment was to start, however, Swift drove south to her hometown, Eugene, Ore., to visit with her mother and three younger siblings. The decision to flee, she says, happened in a split second on Sunday night. ''All my stuff was in the car,'' she recalls. ''My keys were in my hand, and then I looked at my mom and said: 'I can't do this. I can't go back there.' It wasn't some rational decision. It was a huge, crazy, heart-pounding thing.''

 

For two days after she failed to report, Swift watched her cellphone light up with calls from her commanders. They left concerned messages and a few angry ones too. She listened to the messages but did not return the calls. Then rather abruptly, the phone stopped ringing. The 54th MP Company had left for Iraq. Swift says she understood then the enormity of what she'd just done.

 

For the remainder of that winter, Swift hid out in the Oregon seaside town of Brookings, staying in a friend's home, uncertain whether the Army was looking for her. ''I got all my money out of the bank,'' she told me. ''I never used my credit card, in case they were trying to trace me. It was always hanging over my head.'' At her mother's urging, she drove back to Eugene every week to see a therapist. In April of last year, she finally moved back into her family's home. Then, on the night of June 11, a pair of local police officers knocked on the door and found Swift inside, painting her toenails with her 19-year-old sister. She was handcuffed, driven away and held in the county jail for two nights before being taken back to Fort Lewis, where military officials threatened to charge her with being absent without leave. As Army officials pondered her fate, Swift was assigned a room in the barracks and an undemanding desk job at Fort Lewis.

 

Despite the fact that military procedure for dealing with AWOL soldiers is well established - most are promptly court-martialed and, if convicted, reduced in rank and jailed in a military prison - Suzanne Swift's situation raised a seemingly unusual set of issues. She told Army investigators that the reason she did not report for deployment was that she had been sexually harassed repeatedly by three of her supervisors throughout her military service: beginning in Kuwait; through much of her time in Iraq; and following her return to Fort Lewis. She claimed too to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a highly debilitating condition brought on by an abnormal amount of stress. According to the most recent edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by mental-health professionals to establish diagnostic criteria, PTSD symptoms can include, among other things, depression, insomnia or ''feeling constantly threatened.'' It is common for those afflicted to ''re-experience'' traumatic moments through intrusive, graphic memories and nightmares.

 

Swift's stress came not just from the war and not just from the supposed harassment, she told the investigators, but from some combination of the two. In a written statement to investigators, Swift asserted that her station, Camp Lima, outside Karbala, was hit by mortar attacks almost nightly for the first two months of her deployment. She reported working 16-hour shifts, experiencing the death of a fellow company member in an incident of friendly fire and having a close friend injured in a car bombing. What Swift said distressed her most, however, was a situation that involved her squad leader, the sergeant to whom she directly reported in Iraq. She claimed that he propositioned her for sex the first day the two of them arrived in Iraq and that she felt coerced into having a sexual relationship with him that lasted four months - the relationship consisting, she said, of his knocking on her door late at night and demanding intercourse. When she finally ended this arrangement, Swift told me, the sergeant retaliated by ordering her to do solitary forced marches from one side of the camp to another at night in full battle gear and by humiliating her in front of her fellow soldiers. (The sergeant could not be reached, but according to an internal Army report, he denied any sexual contact with Swift.)

 

As it often is with matters involving sex and power, the lines are a little blurry. Swift does not say she was raped, exactly, but rather manipulated into having sex - repeatedly - with a man who was above her in rank and therefore responsible for her health and safety. (Some victims' advocates use the term ''command rape'' to describe such situations.) Swift says that the other two sergeants - one in Kuwait and one back home in Fort Lewis, both a couple of ranks above her - made comments like ''You want to [expletive] me, don't you?'' or when Swift asked where she was to report for duty, responded, ''On my bed, naked.''

 

In the wake of several sex scandals in the 1990s, the U.S. military has tried to become more sensitive to the presence of women, especially now that they fill 15 percent of the ranks worldwide. There are regular mandated workshops on preventing sexual harassment and assault. Each battalion has a designated Equal Opportunity representative trained to field and respond to complaints. Swift said she initially reported what she characterized as an unwanted relationship with her squad leader in Iraq to her Equal Opportunity representative there, who listened - she claims - but did nothing about it. (According to the internal report, the E.O. representative told investigators that he asked Swift if she had a complaint to make but that she declined at the time.)

 

Swift made it clear that since enlisting in the Army when she was 19, she'd grown accustomed to hearing sexually loaded remarks from fellow enlisted soldiers. It happened ''all the time,'' she said. But coming from her superiors, especially far away from the support systems of home and against a backdrop of mortar attacks and the general uncertainties of war, the overtones felt more threatening. ''You can tell another E-4 to go to hell,'' she said, referring to the rank of specialist. ''But you can't say that to an E-5,'' she said, referring to a sergeant. ''If your sergeant tells you to walk over a minefield, you're supposed to do it.''

 

I went to see Swift last July as I was immersed in a series of interviews with women who'd gone to Iraq and come home with PTSD. I was trying to understand how being a woman fit into both the war and the psychological consequences of war. The story I heard over and over, the dominant narrative really, followed similar lines to Swift's: allegations of sexual trauma, often denied or dismissed by superiors; ensuing demotions or court-martials; and lingering questions about what actually occurred.

 

Swift and I - along with her mother, Sara Rich - met at a run-down sushi place in Tacoma, Wash., not far from Fort Lewis. Swift has blond hair, milky skin and clear green eyes, which lend her the vague aspect of a Victorian doll - albeit a very tough one. She curses freely, smokes Newports and, when she's not in uniform, favors low-cut shirts that show off an elaborate flower tattoo on her chest. ''Suzanne is not some passive little lily,'' explained her mother. ''She's a soldier.''

 

''I came close to leaving here the other day,'' she told me. ''But the girls just surrounded me. They were like, 'Don't leave.''' The women then went on to describe how they lived before treatment - one with security cameras and a security fence at her house, another locked away in her apartment, several having lost their marriages and distanced themselves from their kids. ''They said: 'You don't want this life. I would give anything to go back to when my trauma was new and to get help with it,''' Kathleen recalled. ''And I could see myself 20 years down the road; I would be them. And I don't want that,'' she said. ''I love these girls, but I don't want that.''

 

What the Future Holds

 

Six weeks later, I flew back to California to attend the Women's Trauma Recovery Program graduation. It was held on a Thursday morning in a wide recreation room on the building's ground floor. Someone had moved the Ping-Pong table to one side and dragged a number of chairs into neat rows. A modest buffet lunch was laid out along the room's back wall.

 

The residents took their seats at the front of the room, having clearly primped for the occasion. They then read poems, held hands, made grateful speeches to the staff and, at the end, played some pensive music on a boombox and bowed their heads, many of them weeping. It was, of course, impossible to know what was in store for any of them. Clearly, they had benefited from the cohesiveness of the group, having met others who were wrestling with the same demons.

 

There was one notable absence - Kathleen, who, it turned out, left treatment not long after I met her, presumably to return home to her family and military life in Oklahoma. Over the next few months I sent several letters to Kathleen, hoping to speak with her, but got no response. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, she called me, apologizing for her silence. She'd only just received a medical discharge from the Army and felt comfortable talking. She had mixed feelings about leaving the military, since she loved her work as an Army nurse, but felt that the PTSD symptoms kept interfering. She'd spent much of the fall giving vaccinations to soldiers, but after a soldier passed out one day, causing her to panic, she realized she was a long way from being able to handle an urgent medical crisis.

 

Kathleen also told me that she left Menlo Park last summer after one of her daughters was involved in a minor car accident. ''I left treatment because my children were more important than my needs,'' she said.

 

What struck me again and again, meeting and talking to female Iraq veterans grappling with PTSD, was their isolation. So many, like Kathleen, seemed uncertain of what to do next. It was as if their mistrust of the world had led them to mistrust themselves. Most were on antidepressants and were receiving some counseling through the V.A., but few had a sense that their symptoms were going away. In Colorado, Amorita Randall was working to regain custody of her daughter - a process that she found discouraging. ''Just because I'm disabled doesn't mean I can't care for my daughter,'' she told me. Recently, after months of waiting, Keli Frasier, the mother in Colorado who had been struggling with depression, finally managed to schedule an appointment with a V.A. psychiatrist to obtain new antidepressants. Across the state in Denver, Keri Christensen said she was still haunted by nightmares and unnerved by driving.

 

And finally, there was Suzanne Swift, who in early December was given a summary court-martial at Fort Lewis, a hearing normally used for minor offenses. As part of a plea bargain, she pled guilty to ''missing movement'' and being absent without leave. Her rank was reduced to private, and she spent the next 21 days, including Christmas, in a military prison in Washington State. The Army ruled that in order to receive an honorable discharge, Swift was dutybound to complete her five-year enlistment, which ends in early 2009. After finishing her stint in prison in January, Swift says she checked herself into the inpatient psych ward at Fort Lewis's hospital for a few days but ultimately was released back to duty. She told me she was trying generally to ignore the PTSD but had taken to drinking a lot in order to get by. ''I kind of liked the Army before all that stuff happened,'' she said in early February, on the phone from her barracks at Fort Lewis. ''I was good at my job. I did what I was supposed to do. And then in Iraq, I got disillusioned. All of a sudden this Army you care so much about is like, well, all you're good for is to have sex with and that's it.'' She added, ''I really, really, really, don't want to be here.''

 

The Army had issued an order for Swift to be transferred to a base in California later this spring. Swift was unhappy about the change, because it would take her farther from her family in Oregon, but she was also considering other plans. ''Did you know,'' she said, ''that there's some program near San Francisco that's just for women who have PTSD?'' She paused for a moment, surrounded by the silence in the barracks at Fort Lewis, then said, ''I'm thinking about trying to get in there.''

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