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Rep. Speier: Time for a Cold, Hard Look at the Military Justice System

Women play critical roles in war zones. Why hasn’t the Petagon acknowledged their role?

It’s time for the Department of Defense to acknowledge that women are playing critical roles in combat areas—and to finally confront and change an institutional culture in which rape and sexual assault is rampant.

That was the consensus among the panelists at “Women in Combat: Fighting on Two Fronts,” Friday afternoon at the Women in the World Summit. Moderator Martha Raddatz, a Senior Correspondent at ABC News, kicked off the conversation by recounting some of the tremendous examples of bravery among military women that she had come across while covering war. “And yet, up until last month, it was official Pentagon policy that women be excluded from ground combat,” she said. “So why is it that we have lost 144 women in these wars?”

Panelists Zoe Bedell and Claire Russo’s experiences serving in the armed forces helped answer that question. Bedell ran a Female Engagement Team, a program that sends female Marines to the frontlines in Afghanistan, one that has been called a “game changer.” Bedell said that her team’s work in Afghanistan fundamentally altered the way they were treated by their male fellow service members. “The first time we were in a firefight, when the male marines saw that the women didn’t freak out, [we] did everything like [we] were supposed to, that really sealed the bond,” she said. “After that, we were ‘our sisters, our girls.’”

Raddatz referenced an editorial in Friday’s New York Times about the problem of sexual assault within the military, and then played a clip from the forthcoming documentary and winner of this year’s audience award at the Sundance film festival, “The Invisible War.” Russo, who has advised General David Petraeus and is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was raped after a Marine Corps ball. She reported it to her command, but they refused to take action.

“The way in which I was assaulted was not actually a crime according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” she explained. “Being anally and orally assaulted—that’s not considered rape.”

Since the assault occurred off-base, she pursued the case with the San Diego District Attorney’s office. Her assailant had attacked another woman six months earlier, was undoubtedly a serial sexual offender, and pled guilty to the rape. He served 18 months in jail.

“Unfortunately, the story is not unique,” said panelist Susan Burke, a Washington D.C. attorney who has brought two lawsuits against the Department of Defense for its failure tofailing to address the issue, despite knowing that sexual assault is widespread within the military. “Looking at these young women warriors, we need them. It’s in all of our interests that this problem get fixed immediately.”

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who also sat on the panel, has introduced a radical piece of legislation, the STOP act. If passed, it would take investigation of these cases outside the chain of command—which many see as a critical first step toward resolution. “It’s important for us to take a cold, hard look at the military justice system,” Speier explained. “Is it really just?”