The military's sexual assault epidemic
The Pentagon is struggling to quell an epidemic of sexual abuse in the armed services' hierarchical culture
How rife is sexual crime in the services? It has become a grave concern, particularly as uniformed women take on more roles. Military sexual trauma, which encompasses everything from sexual harassment to rape, is now the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among women in the U.S. military. Female soldiers today are 180 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed by an enemy. Sufferers often spiral downward into alcohol and substance abuse, depression, and homelessness. "It just pulls the skin off you," said one former Army Reserve officer, who retreated to a mobile home deep in the woods after she was assaulted. But sexual abuse often goes unreported. In 2011, there were around 3,000 official cases of military sexual assault, but a report commissioned by then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put the actual annual number at 19,000 or more. An anonymous survey of more than 1,100 women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, conducted last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs, found that almost half said they had been sexually harassed, and nearly one quarter said they'd been sexually assaulted.
Why is abuse so rarely reported? Victims tend to be young, of low rank, and too intimidated to speak out. Often, the superior a soldier reports to is a friend of the perpetrator, or even the perpetrator himself. "How am I supposed to go about reporting something when the person I'm supposed to report to is the person who raped me?" said Virginia Messick, one of 62 trainees assaulted by instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio between 2009 and 2012. Victims often figure that any investigation is likely to turn into a he-said-she-said battle that the senior soldier is bound to win. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who was arraigned by a military court earlier this year on charges of forcible sodomy and sexual misconduct, was initially unconcerned when subordinates questioned his conduct. "I'm a general," he reportedly said. "I'll do whatever the f--- I want."
What happens when an incident is reported?Too often, nothing at all. A shocking 92 percent of reported assaults never come before a military court. First responders frequently fail to collect forensic evidence of an assault within the 72-hour deadline stipulated by current guidelines, and more often than not, the victim's superior decides against proceeding to court-martial anyway. Last year, two thirds of all reported cases were either summarily dismissed as unfounded, or resolved by the perpetrators simply being given extra duties or having their pay docked. Of the few defendants referred to court-martial, a tenth opt to resign instead: By admitting their guilt and accepting the perceived punishment of leaving the military, they can avoid prosecution — civilian or military — altogether. And before any case goes to trial, a military judge can issue a summary verdict of "consensual sex" that ends the proceedings. That's what happened to Army Reserve Pfc. Sascha Garner, who waited three hours in a courthouse in Bagram, Afghanistan, before she was informed of the decision. "I just started bawling my eyes out," said Garner. "How can they rule it consensual without even hearing my side of the story?"
What's being done to change things? Last year, days after watching The Invisible War — an Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military — Defense Secretary Panetta announced the creation of a Special Victims Unit in each branch of the military. He implemented new procedures that allow soldiers who report an assault to be transferred out of their units, so they're not subject to pressure or further harassment. Panetta also announced that higher-ranking colonels, rather than unit commanders, would decide whether to prosecute cases of sexual assault.
Why not handle that outside the command structure?Some have suggested that the U.S. follow the practice of other countries, such as the U.K., by forming an independent military judiciary to rule on sexual assault cases. Such an administrative structure would prevent troubling cases like that of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an Air Force pilot who was convicted last year of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in military prison. In February, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin summarily dismissed Wilkerson's conviction as "without merit" and reinstated him to the Air Force — as he is allowed to do "for any reason or no reason" under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month that the case raises "a significant question" about whether commanders should have that power and ordered a review.
Would women be at greater risk in combat? Some conservatives contend that they would, but the Pentagon says having females on the front line would more likely reduce the military's sexual assault rates. Currently, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "you have one part of the population that's designated as warriors, and another part designated as something else." Giving the sexes equal roles would dispel that disparity and the dangerous "psychology" it fosters, Dempsey suggested, prompting a real change in military culture. For Jenny McClendon, a Navy officer raped by her superior, that can't come soon enough. "I don't want another generation to feel like they're alone," she said. "Those serving today, I don't want them betrayed."
A double betrayal of trustPetty Officer Rebecca Blumer awoke on Feb. 13, 2010, to find her body bruised and swollen, her insides sore, and a burning pain in her buttocks. She was certain she'd been "roofied" and raped, but she soon found the Navy's response almost as distressing as the attack itself: The basic assumption was that it had somehow been her fault. After three days of medical leave, Blumer was transferred from intelligence analysis to janitorial duties. "I was a problem, and they wanted to be rid of the problem," said Blumer. She was shunned and disparaged, and military officials eventually ruled there was no rape. "Maybe it was just heavy petting, or you imagined it?" they suggested. Discharged from the Navy, Blumer spiraled into depression and homelessness. She still has regular nightmares. "I loved everything about the Navy," she said. "Now I hate it."