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The Military's Rape and Sexual Assault Epidemic

Sunday, 03 April 2011 07:21 By Antoinette Bonsignore, RH Reality Check | News Analysis
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On February 15, 2011, fifteen female and two male military veterans filed a class action lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  A second round of plaintiffs will likely be announced in early April.  These veterans have charged the defendants with the wholesale and systematic failure to protect servicemembers from being oftentimes repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted while serving in the military; and with a failure to investigate and subsequently prosecute and punish perpetrators. 

The complaint reads like a horror story.  One gruesome account after another detailing brutal assaults; sometimes repeated and sometimes committed by multiple perpetrators.  Rapes and sexual assaults that are ignored and if not ignored so callously prosecuted within the Military Code of Justice as to suggest that rape is nothing more than a minor infraction deserving of little punishment, if any.  A system set up to hide evidence, encourage victims to recant, and when the victim tries to receive some semblance of justice they are generally rewarded with demotions, harassment, and shockingly further rapes and sexual assaults as punishment. Victims are warned to stay quiet or face dire consequences.  The brave victims are blamed – the women in particular were just asking for it. 

One victim in the lawsuit recounted being gang raped; the perpetrators videotaped the rape and then circulated it among other soldiers.  When the victim reported the rape to her superior officer, who then viewed the video recording, he told her bluntly that he did not believe she was raped because she “did not act like a rape victim” and “did not struggle enough” in the video.  This same victim was seriously injured and covered in severe bruises after the assault --- particularly from her shoulders to her elbows from being held down during the repeated rapes. 

Another victim was threatened with a court martial if she continued to “lie” about being raped by her superior officer.  Because she deigned to report the rape, as well as the months of sexual harassment and physical abuse she had endured prior to the actual rape, her identity was revealed to others on the military base by her commanding officers.  She was subjected to harassment from other soldiers who spit on her, called her names, and one commanding officer said “let her burn” because “she ruins careers.” 

Yet another victim that reported her rape to the military chaplain was told that “it must have been God’s will for her to be raped” and he then suggested that she needed to go to church more.  Still another victim who was raped in 2007 was later murdered and then buried in a shallow fire pit six months after reporting the rape. 

The ramshackle investigatory apparatus and reporting system in place is staffed with military personnel who are often completely unqualified to investigate these crimes.  The Department of Defense’s (DOD) token attempt to address the epidemic by creating the very limited and still underfunded “…Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which distributes posters, collects data, but has no enforcement or investigative authority…” has been a constant reminder of how the military thumbs its nose at any attempts to implement genuine reform.  In fact, the director of SAPRO, Dr. Kaye Whitley, has absolutely no experience or training dealing with sexual violence.  Greg Jacob, the Policy Director for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), said that Whitley, a social worker, has no real access to policy makers.  She has no enforcement, or investigatory authority, and no actual authority to really do anything at all.  ThePentagon even went so far as to ignore a subpoena and prevent Dr. Whitley from testifying before the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs in July 2008. 

Specifically, Secretary Gates is accused of ignoring specific Congressional mandates and deadlines designed to implement a sexual assault and harassment prevention system.  Instead, plaintiffs allege that Gates hired an inexperienced contractor to implement that prevention system – and that the contractor that was selected had only three employees and their prior contracts were solely for janitorial work.  The Washington Post reported on this specific contractor story debacle on November 26, 2010.  The inexcusable lack of seriousness with which this epidemic has been treated by the Pentagon truly shocks the conscience.  

SWAN Policy Director and former Marine Greg Jacob recently detailed the crux of the investigatory deficiencies within the military for these types of crimes.  He stated “[t]here’s no investigatory training.  They don’t tell you to look for evidence…Instead, they hand over a manual for courts martial, which explains, among other things, that the investigating officer should consider, first and foremost, ‘the character and military service of the accused’.”  Jacob described the assessment of each reported crime as “…an HR approach to criminal conduct…Military justice imbued me with the ability to be judge and jury.  Honestly, I had no idea what to do.”

It almost sounds impossible to believe – how the DOD has ignored this growing epidemic for years and still no one has been held accountable.  Where is the outrage – and where are the resignations?  Donald Rumsfeld has not been held to answer for his knowing refusal to implement reform measures mandated by Congress.  And on Rumsfeld’s recent book tour, not once during his numerous interviews did any journalist ask a single question about this issue.  Meanwhile, Secretary Gates has responded with vague acknowledgments of a clear problem but with no specific response regarding his own failures to address the problem of what can only be characterized as complicity in perpetuating the problem. 

An August 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailing the results of a 2006 survey of 3,750 servicemembers stationed in the U.S. and overseas concluded that:

…occurrences of sexual assault may be exceeding the rates being reported, suggesting that DOD and the Coast Guard have only limited visibility over the incidence of these occurrences.  At the 14 installations where GAO administered its survey, 103 servicemembers indicated that they had been sexually assaulted within the preceding 12 months.  Of these, 52 servicemembers indicated that they did not report the sexual assault.  GAO also found that factors that discourage servicemembers from reporting a sexual assault include the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip. 

Despite the inescapable evidence that this problem is getting worse with each passing year the DOD still maintains that it has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault in the ranks. 

So now these seventeen brave veterans have gone public – with news conferences and repeated interviews – detailing the horrific assaults they have endured and the aftermath of deigning to report these crimes. 

The problems for these victims do not get any better when they return home.  Shamed, traumatized, and psychologically scarred – suffering from a form of post traumatic stress disorder known as military sexual trauma (MST) – these victims are so disabled that they cannot function let alone find employment.  To add further insult to this disgraceful treatment of the women and men victimized by the DOD’s recalcitrance, these victims have found it next to impossible to receive disability compensation from the Veterans Administration (VA) for their resulting MST.  The main reasons being a lack of evidence, evidence being destroyed, and a patently unfair evidentiary burden that victims finds nearly impossible to satisfy.  Representative Chellie Pingree (D - ME) recently introduced legislation to redress this specific compensation issue.  H.R. 930 will “…mandate that survivors of military sexual violence get the same service-connected disability compensation for their mental health conditions and physical injuries that combat veterans are currently awarded for wounds of war.” 

A previous lawsuit filed last December has also charged the DOD with a failure to comply with numerous and ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documentation regarding the military’s records detailing the reports, investigations, and subsequent dispositions of these crimes. 

And the statistics are indeed staggering.  In December 2010, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual harassment and violence – and thenumber of reports increased 64 percent from the previous year

Last December, Al Jazeera reported the following shocking statistics:

Every year, rape increases at an alarming rate within American military institutions – and even males are victims of the cycle.  In fact, due to raw demographics, one can roughly surmise that most victims of sexual abuse in the military are male.  Regardless of gender, reports of victims of military sexual assault have been increasing.  In 2007, there were 2,200 reports of rape in the military, whilst in 2009 saw an increase up to 3,230 reports of sexual assault.  Many of the victims suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are shamed into silence, with numerous cases not even reported.  A disturbing trend, however, is how military officials seem to be sweeping this damaging issue under the rug and deflecting blame.

Even more disturbing is the fact that “[a]ccording to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of sexual assault on women in the military is twice that in the civilian population.”  Furthermore, “[c]ompared with a 40 per cent arrest rate for sex crimes among civilians, only eight per cent of investigated cases in the military lead to prosecution.”

In 2006 Congress required the Pentagon to begin tracking these reported crimes and their subsequent disposition.  Al Jazeera reported that in 2006:

…there were 2,974 reported cases of rape and sexual assault in the military.  Of these, only 292 cases resulted in trials, and those netted only 181 prosecutions of perpetrators.  Nearly half the cases are dismissed for lack of adequate proof or due to the death of the victim.  Less than 11 per cent of the cases result in a court martial.  Often, those prosecuted merely suffer a reduction in rank or pay, and 80 per cent receive an honourable discharge nonetheless.  The victim, on the other hand, risks ending his or her career when they file charges.

Last week the Air Force released a study finding that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been sexually assaulted while serving in the Air Force. 

Speaking with SWAN’s Policy Director Greg Jacob, he discussed the current status of the litigation and how SWAN has been working to garner increased bipartisan support for legislative and regulatory reform within the military and the VA.  He believes Congress has the political will to act and that the issue is being taken seriously now that the class action lawsuit has been filed.  He told me that even though the victims desperately need to be compensated for their disabilities, what these women and men are really seeking is real reform and justice for their suffering and help for those women and men dealing with the threats of sexual violence each and every day while still trying to serve the nation with honor. 

But real change can only be achieved when the military begins to consider the seriousness of the crimes and the impact on the victims as paramount to any potential impact on the careers of the accused servicemembers; right now the concern within the military is focused solely on protecting the accused and not the victims.  The military has become an entrenched system that all too easily blames victims – and retaliates against those victims with systematic harassment and intimidation.  Victims are subjected to ridicule and they all too often become convinced that the shame will be too much to bear.  

Real change will take time – but before that change can even begin the military and Secretary Gates must take responsibility for refusing to confront the problem and acknowledge the military’s complicity in obstructing justice for so many years and creating what Greg Jacob called a “climate of impunity.” 

You can visit SWAN’s page to take action and let Congress know that the Armed Forces must be held accountable for perpetuating this rape and sexual assault epidemic. 

Antoinette Bonsignore

Antoinette Bonsignore J.D. is a Seattle-based workers' rights advocate most recently focused on worker compensation issues. She is a volunteer for Legal Voice, an organization that works to advance women's rights in the Northwest. Ms. Bonsignore serves on Legal Voice's Violence Against Women workgroup. She has blogged for NARAL Pro-Choice WA, RH Reality Check,, the Service Women's Action Network and the National Women's Political Caucus of Washington. She lives in Bellevue, Washington.

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