Women in the US military are fed up with the empty words of military commanders saying they have “zero tolerance” for military sexual assault. We want action and accountability, not lip service.
For decades, military commanders have given a pass to sexual predators in their ranks. Many scandals made news: The Tailhook scandal of 1991, in which US Navy men were raping both military and civilian women with impunity; the 1997 Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal in which US Army drill instructors were raping their students and getting away with it; the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal, in which male cadets raped female cadets while the Academy leadership ignored it; the 2011 Lackland Air Force Base scandal, in which drill instructors raped women recruits while silencing their voices.
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With each scandal there was outrage, and while military commanders said they would put a stop to it, when the scandals quieted down, it was back to business as usual. It is a pattern similar to that of many domestic violence perpetrators: apologize, promise not do it again, but after the heat dies down, repeat the violence toward the partner.
In 2013, all branches of the military sent their commanders sporting their military ribbons across the entire front row, to face the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The commanders looked and sounded like they would insure that women serving in our military would be safe, but it was only a façade. Sexual predators in the military commit 95 percent of the rapes, but they look and sound like “ideal soldiers,” know what to say and how to say it to be believed. When will the media, public and the US military wake up to the culture of abuse toward women prevalent in the military and end it?
When the very officers and commanders to whom women must report sexual assault are either the perpetrators or covering up for the perpetrators, women will continue to be repeatedly harassed and assaulted by men in the military; men who believe they are entitled to take from women their dignity, self-respect and body integrity whenever they wish.
These very officers and commanders have their own self-interests to consider when it comes to reporting a sexual crime in their units. They will do whatever it takes to preserve their own careers by protecting perpetrators from being discovered. Protecting themselves outweighs their commitment to women soldiers and justice. Any report of sexual harassment or assault in any unit falls directly on the commander and jeopardizes their leadership ranking. A senior review panel report stated that: “some leaders’ concern for their own career progression takes priority over caring for their soldiers.” There is more incentive to make it go away than to deal with it.
The problem is not going away. A 2017 report shows more than 6,100 sexual assaults in 2016, as well as a subsequent retaliation rate between 58 and 60 percent of those who do report. The risk of retaliation drives the reporting rate, and is why the rate of reporting is usually estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent. If 100 percent of those assaulted reported it, the rate of assaults would be in excess of 18,000. Retaliation includes but is not limited to: being removed from an earned position, being forced to march all night with full pack around the compound, and being given the diagnosis of “personality disorder” without being examined, then discharged without benefits.
If mainstream media networks like NBC and FOX fire news figures who, from their position of authority, sexually harassed or assaulted women, why would our Congress cover for the leadership in our military who protect serial rapists in their ranks?
Women in the military who have experienced sexual harassment and assault for decades are also part of the #MeToo movement, but unlike celebrities, tend to be overlooked. #MeToo military women marched on January 20 this year, but were so few in numbers they were almost invisible. But they are not invisible. They are asking to be seen, heard and acknowledged.
The US military avoids executing reforms it does not like, and that is evident in these cases. Congress is not applying enough pressure on the military to insist they follow through and it is not high enough on the priority list to institute reform.
It is time to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) and take reporting and adjudicating these cases out of the chain of command. That is the action that will begin to protect the women instead of the perpetrators. MJIA identifies the inherent conflicts of interest evident in the military chain of command, removes the reporting of sexual crimes and decision-making power for adjudication from the chain of command to professional military prosecutors. The removal of reporting a sexual assault to the chain of command means that a woman will not have to report to those who assaulted her, or cover for the perpetrators, and will be less likely to face any form of retaliation.
A 1999 report from the National Academy of Public Administration recommended that an accusation of a sex crime deserves to be dealt with by trained investigators. It says further that higher-ranking officers in an implicated institution should not be allowed to run the investigation. In my research over six years, I learned first-hand from some of the 58 women veterans I interviewed that even at the level of military police, there is a prevailing subversive attitude to undermine investigations from the beginning, thereby ensuring they do not make it to trial.
Women in the US military, like civilian women, deserve to be treated with respect. Military women who are mistreated and are sexually harassed or assaulted deserve compassionate respectful treatment of their trauma. This includes privacy and a system that will take seriously its role to investigate the crime, treat all the evidence appropriately and seek the highest level of accountability.
There is definitely a culture problem in the military, still unacknowledged, and therefore maintained by the dominant patriarchy. There is also a leadership problem that is constantly being covered up. The US military should model being fully accountable with regard to sex crimes instead of holding onto authority and power inappropriately while sabotaging female safety and leadership.