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Sex Crimes Continue to Plague the US Military

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

A culture of fear, intimidation and entitlement allows sexual predators at all levels and branches of the armed services free access to military women (and men), who often have little recourse.

Do sexual predators have free reign in the US Armed Forces? For decades both men and women in our military have been sexually assaulted. Those crimes were usually concealed and have essentially gone unpunished, in large part, because of a long-standing cover up that includes the military police, the military justice system and the leadership in our armed forces. In an interview with Natalie Morales of NBC News on September 27, 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted the military had a habit of “sweeping these issues under the rug.”

Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair, with two combat tours in Iraq, was and on his second in Afghanistan when he was sent home in May 2012 to face charges of forcible sodomy, multiple counts of adultery and wrongful sexual conduct, according to ABC News. He is scheduled January 22 to be arraigned in military court on those and other charges: engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a major, attempting to engage in an inappropriate relationship with a first lieutenant and having sexual intercourse with a captain, then threatening her if she told anyone. Sinclair was the deputy commander of logistics and support for the 82nd Airborne while in Afghanistan.

Stars and Stripes reported that Rodney H. Lipscomb, Brigade Combat Major of the 173rd Airborne unit in Heidelberg, Germany, was charged with six counts of sexual assault, sodomy, cruelty and maltreatment. In yet another instance, Lt. Col. James H. Wilkerson, former 31st Fighter Wing inspector general and F-16 pilot, was sentenced to a year in jail and dismissed from the Air Force after being convicted of aggravated sexual assault on November 2 at Aviano Air Base in Italy. According to Stars and Stripes:

Prosecutors had urged the jury to imprison the 44-year-old fighter pilot for at least five years, as well as dismiss him from the Air Force. He’d shown striking hubris and recklessness by assaulting the woman with his wife and 9-year-old son sleeping under the same roof, said prosecutor Capt. Ben Beliles.

Sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas apparently have been going on since 2009, but the first woman to come forward and report them was in 2011. Staff Sgt. Luis Walker of the 326th Training Squadron was charged with 28 criminal counts, including rape, aggravated sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault involving ten women. In July of 2012, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on convictions of rape and sexual assault. According to UPI, 35 other trainers have been removed in the past year.

Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc is facing 53 years in prison on charges of misconduct with three trainees. Prosecutors have lodged eight charges and 12 specifications of misconduct against LeBlanc, including sexually assaulting an airman two nights after she graduated from basic training by luring her and another woman to a dimly lit supply room. LeBlanc also is charged with obstructing an investigation by asking a woman to lie to Air Force law enforcement officers and to delete text messages and photos from her cell phone; trying to have an improper relationship with a technical training student; and wrongly contacting a third woman who also was in technical training.

Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward led an investigation at Lackland that included 215 in-depth interviews and a survey of 18,000 personnel from which a 180 page report was created. Woodward provided 46 recommendations. Some of the findings stated that trainers had little or no supervisory experience and relied more on a culture of fear than one of respect. The report also noted there was little or no oversight, that punishment for wrongdoing was uneven, giving the impression inappropriate behavior would be tolerated and there was fear of reporting sexual misconduct.

CNN reported last January that three cadets were charged in three unrelated cases over a period of 15 months at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. That announcement followed the Defense Department report, which showed the number of sexual assaults at the military academies rose by nearly 60 percent during the 2010-2011 academic year. A total of 65 sexual assault reports were made involving cadets and midshipmen, compared to 41 during the previous academic year. The CNN article went on to say the DOD report included site visits to all three military academies and that “most of the academy programs satisfied, and in some cases exceeded, the requirements of existing policies.” To have a 60-percent increase in sexual assaults during one year with those policies in place, means there is something more fundamentally wrong. Policies only work if they are accepted and enforced by the leadership.

“Sexual assaults reported by students at the three US military academies jumped 23 percent in 2012…. Eighty cases of sexual assault were reported by cadets and midshipmen during the 2011-2012 academic year, compared to 65 the previous year, the Pentagon said in its annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the academies. The victims were primarily women, although four were men.”

In 2003, there were three female soldiers who died in their cots of dehydration because they would not drink liquids at night for fear of being raped by their fellow soldiers on the way to the latrines, and their screams for help would not be heard because of the sounds of the generators. Col. Janis Karpinski was in the room when the deputy commander told the doctor not to say anything about the report of deaths because it might bring attention to the problem. More likely, if known, it would bring attention to our military’s failure to deal with the problem. Panetta, in his NBC interview, admitted the military has not dealt effectively with the problem.

The issue of sexual assault in the military has gotten worse in the last decade and is now at an appalling 19,000 per year. Tailhook was the first disgrace and occurred in 1991, when Navy pilots raped female naval officers at their convention. At Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, Army instructors were raping trainees. The Air Force Academy scandal hit the news in 2003; their leadership was indicted for “looking the other way” as assaults on female cadets escalated.

Now, for the first time after decades of inaction, we are seeing some genuinely proactive steps being taken to solve the problem. After seeing the documentary film, Invisible War, Panetta has been speaking out against ignoring this issue. Film critic Peter Rainer said, “The fact that this subject has taken so long to achieve full-scale exposure is itself symptomatic of the problem.”

Some of what Panetta said in his September 27 interview with NBC’s Natalie Morales seemed heartfelt and bears repeating. “I have men and women in the military who put their lives on the line in order to protect this country. Surely we owe it to them to be able to protect them when they made the decision to protect this country…. We owe them the respect; we owe them the honor of being able to protect them.” He also said, “It is an outrage that we are not prosecuting. These are tough cases to prosecute … but the fact is we can do this…. We need to improve investigations…. Sending that signal that you can’t get away with it is as important as a leader hitting somebody over the head to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”

When Morales asked him about the rampant victim blame in the military he said, “Basically you say to the leaders, officers, NCOs and platoon leaders: ‘If you don’t deal with this then we’re going to deal with you.’ There has to be a price to be paid for ignoring this problem…. It is everyone’s responsibility.” He admitted, “We haven’t dealt with it effectively. There are victims that unfortunately have not only been abused, but whose careers and lives have been impacted because of that failure. I think we owe those whose lives have been impacted an apology and to ensure this does not happen again…. I want them to know that as difficult as their experience has been that we are going to learn from that … and we are going to do everything we can to remember what happened to them in making sure others are protected.”

Panetta is to be applauded for his commitment to confront this problem and for his leadership on the issue. Unfortunately he ducked the issue of sexual predators. When the Bush Administration ordered the invasion of Iraq, the military lowered the standards for entry and opened the gates to sexual predators. It is time now to close those gates and reinstate appropriate criteria for entering military service. The military is a target-rich environment for sexual predators.

Many of the women interviewed for Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military, said the male attitudes they experienced were harsh, arrogant, dismissive, demeaning, disrespectful and demoralizing. Many of the men who assaulted women saw them as government property to do with as they pleased. That attitude of entitlement was, unfortunately, very widespread from the lowest to the highest ranks and in all branches of military service. Does Secretary Panetta really understand that this culture exists and permeates the US military? His new initiatives – to transfer women who are assaulted, create a special victim’s unit, move the handling of sexual assault cases up to higher ranking officers and do better training on the issue – are not enough to deal with the culture of abuse that has been entrenched for decades.

A Senate Armed Services panel concluded that since 1993, the highest levels of Air Force leadership knew about the culture of abuse toward women cadets and stood by and let it happen. In the case of the Army, a ten-month review and report in 1997 affirmed that, “Sexual harassment exists throughout the Army crossing gender, rank, and racial lines…. Victims are re-victimized by the system.”

That army report stated that commanders were perceived as having little interest in enforcing the rules or policy regarding sexual harassment/assault and there was a breakdown in trust between soldiers, both men and women. Forty percent of the women and 37 percent of the men polled in the investigation concurred that Army leadership was more interested in their own careers than the well-being of the soldiers. That 1997 report by the Secretary of the Army said that active leadership was required to create an environment of dignity and respect and passive leadership condoned the opposite. Even though that was 15 years ago – that passive leadership is still allowing a culture of abuse to persist.

With all due respect to Panetta, our military is far too self-protective and we cannot allow them to investigate themselves. It is time for full-unbiased investigations into their culture of abuse. Congress is the oversight body for our military and they must take their rightful place and insist on thorough, unbiased investigations into all the military services to examine how leaders are trained, including what is communicated nonverbally and with laughter. We need a comprehensive evaluation at every level to determine how reports of abuse toward women are handled, how protective orders are managed and how the system applies accountability and justice, if at all. Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military outlines important changes that could be made to improve how these cases are handled. The Invisible War showed that women who reported sexual assault were the ones punished, while the rapists/predators were protected and promoted.

It is time to fully investigate and identify the abuse culture, clean house and begin anew with appropriate policies and actions that restore honor, integrity and accountability to our military and respect, recognition and justice to women serving. With Panetta leading the Defense Department, will he be accountable and ensure that any new policies or procedures are actually followed, modeled by leaders and enforced with integrity? Will his replacement do the same?

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