According to the U.S. military, there are 19,000 rapes and sexual assaults each year in the armed forces—most of them unreported—with hardly any cases ending in convictions or even in prosecution. According to the Department of Defense’s own data, 85 percent of victims do not report the crime, mostly out of fear that no one will believe them, or that they’ll suffer retaliation (as many victims say they endure after they report assaults.) As Protect Our Defenders, a human-rights organization dedicated to survivors of military sexual assault, has stated, most cases aren’t prosecuted because of fear of retaliation, and only 2,500 victims reported attacks in 2011. (The numbers for last year will be out at the end of this month.)
Now, U.S. legislators are renewing the push to change those dismal statistics. On Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), Rep. Walter Jones (R-North Caroliana), and Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) held a press conference to reintroduce bipartisan legislation—backed by 83 co-sponsors—for the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP), which would create an independent office for reporting, investigating, and adjudicating military-sexual-assault cases outside of the normal chain of command. Their goal is to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) by involving civilian oversight.
The timing comes on the heels of the ongoing scandals at Lackland Air Force Base and Aviano Air Base in Italy. At Aviano, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sexual-assault conviction of fellow fighter pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who had been sentenced to a year in prison and dismissed from the armed forces by a jury of senior officers. Franklin, acting within his authority, overruled the jury verdict and freed Wilkerson, reinstating him back into the Air Force. Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said, “The military process is essentially equivalent to allowing a mayor, governor, or the president to decide whether or not to charge and prosecute the accused, carefully select a jury, then lessen a sentence or override the outcome if the result is not what they desire.”
The DOD is taking military sexual trauma (MST) seriously, and progress has been made. Earlier this month on April 5, it was announced that victims of sexual assault who have sought counseling will no longer have to report that fact when undergoing a background check for access to classified information. “We want to encourage individuals to get the help that they may need,” announced Charles Sowell, the assistant director for special security at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a briefing. “What we understood through communications with DOD and several congressional members was that victims of sexual assault, some number of them, were not seeking mental-health counseling because they were concerned they might [lose] their security clearances.”
Jennifer Norris, a rape survivor during her time in the Air Force, was ecstatic to hear about the change. When it was time to renew her security clearance, she had to answer “yes” on question 21, about whether she’d received counseling for her sexual trauma. That response ultimately ended her military career. During a recent phone conversation, she explained what had happened: “At first I got a phone call from investigators that they needed me to sign a release so they could have access to my records at the VA, where I was receiving counseling. My initial reaction was to say ‘yes’ because I didn’t have anything to hide. Over the next few days I started feeling very uneasy about people reading those records. Rape is a very personal thing, and I didn’t want those conversations available to people I didn’t know.” Norris continued, “I found out that I could rescind my decision and once I did that, I lost my clearance for not complying.”
Rear Admiral Dixon Smith, commander of the Navy’s southwest region, who is in charge of 10 Navy installations in a six-state area, is very concerned about sexual assaults in his ranks. In a meeting he arranged to pull together a group of San Diego leaders, Admiral Smith expressed the need to raise civilian awareness, hoping to learn from large civilian organizations and businesses that face similar challenges in creating workplaces intolerant of sexual harassment. Listening to him talk and engaging in conversation with him, I felt his passion and deep concern for what he calls, “one of the most significant near-term challenges to our sailors’ ability to be ready … sexual assault, a crime that happens to about two sailors every day.” He went on to say, “Sexual assault creates an unsafe workplace and degrades the readiness of our ships and squadrons.”
The Navy is putting an emphasis on how to deter and prevent MST, and have also put in place new requirements for reporting and adjudicating sexual-assault cases, including review and assessment by the first flag officer in the victim’s chain of command. Their assessments find that most sexual assaults involve junior sailors; that alcohol is often a contributor; and that assaults occur frequently in Navy settings such as barracks, on board ships, or at command-related events. In a new pilot program, they are placing “resident advisors” in barracks—not unlike college dormitories—and increasing the frequency of senior-leader visits to junior sailor housing and gathering places.
Although it is too early to tell, it is unclear whether the recent progressive changes will make an impact. The question that remains unanswered is whether or not MST cases and violent crimes need to be taken out of the chain of command and require some outside civilian involvement. Perhaps we need to look at some of our allies, including England and Canada, both of which have instituted fundamental reforms to provide an independent legal system for their servicemembers. Regardless of the outcome, emphasis on prevention and education needs to continually be a primary focus.