The culture of abuse toward women in our military has been going on unchecked for decades. In 2012, there was a 35 percent increase, and between January and September 2013, there was a 50 percent increase in reported abuse. The 26,000 reports of sexual assault in 2012 are only 20 percent of actual assaults because 62 percent of women who do report experience severe retaliation, which can be worse than the actual assault, often ends their careers and deters reporting.
The Associated Press obtained 1,000 records of military sexual assault cases in Japan, between 2005 and 2013, showing “hundreds of cases . . . and painting a disturbing picture of how senior American officers prosecute and punish troops accused of sex crimes.” There were” seemingly strong cases often reduced to lesser charges. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead.” While military leaders say things are getting better, and there are more cases now going to court-martial, the Japan documents did not support those assertions. Of the 473 cases of sexual assault allegations, only 116, or 24 percent, went to court-martial.
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Kirsten Gillibrand in the US Senate and Jackie Speier in the House have both authored legislation that can potentially spell the end of this horrific abuse culture our military has been fostering, at least since the Tailhook incident in 1991. Many of the sexual assaults to our servicewomen are committed by the very senior officers and commanders these women must report to. A Doonesbury cartoon aptly depicts the risk to servicewomen.
Senator Gillibrand plans to bring her Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) back to the floor of the Senate this month. She currently has 53 cosponsors and is looking for seven more. With the confirmation of Senator Max Baucus of Montana as our new Ambassador to China, we may see Lt. Governor of Montana John Walsh appointed to the vacant Baucus seat. John Walsh is an Iraq veteran with 33 years experience in the Montana National Guard and is running for that seat, since Baucus announced his retirement from the Senate. In an Op-Ed published by The Hill, Lt. Governor Walsh spoke out in support of Gillibrand’s MJIA and said, “For generations, too many military leaders have believed that removing these responsibilities from commanders would somehow undermine their authority on other matters. I’m confident that is not the case.”
Our military and members of the Senate have been fighting against the very thing that can end this culture of abuse – taking control of these cases out of the chain of command. Sexual assault cases are complicated, messy and pose a serious conflict of interest for commanders. That conflict is alluded to in the Trudeau cartoon and evident in the military’s own surveys, which state that commanders are more interested in their own careers than the best interests of their soldiers. It is clear, from what I learned and wrote in my book, Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military, that commanders’ career self-interest and the protection and promotion of perpetrators are far more important to them than justice for women in the military.
Commanders have a big job to do in the military, and dealing with sexual assault cases is not only unnecessary, but also undesirable. Let them do the job they do best – command their troops unhindered by conflict of interest. Why are they holding onto authority in sexual assault cases? I vehemently urge them to stop clinging to this level of control, let it go and instead be a positive model for courage, honor and accountability. Have the courage to stand up for justice rather than fight to maintain an ugly culture that serves no one. Restore honor to a military that has been plagued with sexual assault scandals, irreparably tarnishing its image. And most important of all – be accountable for what you have created and fostered – demonstrate that as an institution, you can be as accountable as the soldiers you command and expect accountability from.