Women in Uniform

05.13.134:45 AM ET

Sexual Assaults Still Pervasive in Military Despite Official Outrage

Unreported sexual assaults soared in the ranks last year, even as the problem has reached the White House. Jesse Ellison reports.

Tonight marks the television premiere of The Invisible War, an Oscar-nominated documentary feature and last year’s winner of the prestigious audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Depending on your perspective, the timing is either a stroke of very good luck or an unfortunate embarrassment. The film, which will be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens, is a searing examination of military sexual assault, an issue so endemic within the armed forces that a female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. Its television premiere comes just as the problem has been receiving more attention from the media and politicians—all the way up to President Obama himself—than perhaps ever before.

It started last Sunday, with the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the head of the Air Force’s sexual-assault-prevention program, on charges of sexual battery after he allegedly groped a woman in a Washington, D.C., parking lot. Two days later the Department of Defense released its annual report on sexual assaults within the ranks, announcing that there were nearly 3,400 reported incidents of sexual assault in 2012 alone, up 6 percent from 2011. But the report also included the results of a survey—conducted every two years—that found that the actual number of assaults was far greater: an estimated 26,000, up from 19,000 in 2010. By Thursday, outrage over the skyrocketing figures had reached such a fever pitch that the White House convened a group of lawmakers to meet with senior-level staffers, including Valerie Jarrett and the first lady’s chief of staff, who reportedly asked for immediate executive-level changes that could be made to address the ongoing problem.

For lawmakers who have long been working to combat the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, the heightened attention has been a cause for hope—a sign that perhaps the tipping point has finally been reached. “It’s a great convergence,” said Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree by phone after the White House meeting. “The whole idea of that guy getting arrested in the parking lot? You couldn’t make that up. You couldn’t stage a publicity stunt that would attract more attention. People are just outraged.”

But for many, including Jackie Speier, a Democratic congresswoman from California who has given dozens of speeches on the House floor detailing the individual stories of survivors and appealing to her colleagues to enact forceful legislation, that hope is tempered by the knowledge that congressional outrage doesn’t necessarily result in real change—at least, it hasn’t in the past. “I don’t want to appear jaded,” she said Friday, “but going up against the military-industrial complex is not an easy task.” She cited a pattern that extends back decades, where high-profile scandals like those surrounding the Tailhook convention in 1991, Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, and, more recently, at Lackland Air Force Base, prompt alarm, followed by congressional hearings, and, inevitably, promises from the military’s top brass to enforce a “zero-tolerance policy.” Yet despite countless pledges to root out the problem once and for all, sexual assaults, according to the Pentagon’s own figures, only continue to escalate.

The Senate Armed Services Committee hears from top officials of the Air Force, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, right, and Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley, left, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Besides funding for next year's Pentagon budget, the Air Force is dealing with controversy over sexual assaults and how the military justice system handles it. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The Senate Armed Services Committee hears from top officials of the Air Force—Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (right) and Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley (left)—during a hearing on Capitol Hill last week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

That cycle began again early last week, where outrage was on full display Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing after Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh III seemed to dismiss the issue as merely the result of a “hookup” culture. Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, meanwhile, said that the uptick in incidents could reflect increased confidence in the system, rather than an increase in sexual assaults themselves.

“Denying the problem isn’t going to make it go away,” said Congressman Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio, in response to the testimony. “And the statistics clearly speak for themselves.”

Those statistics documented a modest increase in the number of reported sexual assaults, but an enormous jump in the number of unreported—or anonymous—ones. In other words, they show that the percentage of those who chose to report their assaults dropped by some 30 percent—hardly a sign of confidence in the existing system.

The explanation for that, according to many, is a simple one. The report—which this year clocks in at 1,494 pages—found that 62 percent of victims who did report their assaults faced retaliation as a result.

Stories of retaliation and revictimization are ones that director Kirby Dick and his producer Amy Ziering heard repeatedly as they were making The Invisible War. “Every single person that we spoke to, whether they reported it or not, they were all advised by their peers not to report,” Dick says. “Basically you’re risking your career to report.”

Last year, after former secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw their film, he began implementing a slew of changes to the way sexual assaults are handled in the military. And during current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearings, the former senator said he had seen the film as well and asserted his commitment to protecting survivors of sexual assault and eradicating the issue itself.

There was a hint of irony, then, in a story that appeared in the DoD-subsidized news organization, Stars and Stripes, last week, reporting that the American Forces Network, acting on a request from the Pentagon, had chosen not to air The Invisible War.

The Invisible War has served as an invaluable tool to raise awareness of the serious national problem of sexual assault,” Alan Metzler, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office’s deputy director, said in a statement. “When we hear the voices of the victims, we listen. They reinforce our commitment to the critical mission of eliminating sexual assault from the U.S. military.” Metzler did not elaborate on why the film wouldn’t be aired, but he did say that it would continue to be used as part of some training programs.

Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman for the DoD, called the film outdated, citing the efforts that Panetta, and now Hagel, have made to address the issue—including a directive to establish special victims units in each of the branches, and, most recently, the appointment of nine people to a new Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, which in July will begin an independent review of the system.

But skeptics fear that such measures will amount to little more than just another set of empty promises. And as for the notion that the film is no longer relevant, Dick’s response was unequivocal. “They’re right, it is outdated,” he said. “The number of sexual assaults has gone up 35 percent since I finished making the film. They’ve lost this invisible war very, very badly.”