In these hyperpartisan times, with red and blue at odds over health care, taxes, regulations, the environment, marriage – and just about everything else – some U.S. senators are crossing party lines to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.
Last year’s documentary “The Invisible War” offers a candid look at how devastating those crimes are, and why some rape survivors have lost all confidence in the military’s responses. We hear from women who were raped after being plied with hidden drugs or alcohol, had guns held to their heads or were threatened with death if they told. Some of the assaults left physical injuries years later. One woman had multiple injuries including a dislocated jaw, but her medical claim was denied after a year and a half of foot-dragging by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Defense Department estimates there were 26,000 unwanted military sexual contacts or assaults in the past fiscal year. That’s more than one in five women, and 1 percent of men.
Women raped in the military have a higher rate of post-traumatic stress than men who served in combat, according to the film.
An estimated 80 percent of the 70 sexual assaults believed to take place every day in the military go unreported. Advocates attribute that to higher-ups’ failure to follow up on charges.
“There is no accountability because the trust that any justice is possible has been irreparably broken under the current system, where commanders hold all the cards as to whether a case will move forward or not,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said at a rally.
The New York Democrat and her supporters argue that commanders too often invest more effort in protecting their offending troops than seeking justice for their victims. So her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would take decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases away from military commanders and give them to military prosecutors instead.
Servicewomen who reported rapes speak on film of being ignored by commanders, accused of lying, warned they could lose their rank, or scolded for somehow bringing it on themselves. Evidence was mysteriously lost, and cases then got closed for lack of evidence. Victims were even charged with adultery, though they weren’t married, while their married rapists escaped charges. Female commanders said they weren’t assigned the cases because they were presumed to be sympathetic to the women.
The Gillibrand proposal has forged unusual alliances. Missouri’s Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill opposes it, while conservative Republican Ted Cruz of Texas and libertarian Rand Paul of Kentucky support it. South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham has threatened to filibuster it.
Not surprisingly, the military establishment is lobbying against it. “If you want a commander to ignore something, tell him he has no authority or responsibility,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Ayres, the deputy judge advocate general at the U.S. Army, at a recent conference of Asian-American lawyers in Kansas City. But Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono argued commanders have conflicts of interest. In 33 percent of military sexual-assault cases, according to “The Invisible War,” the person the victim needed to report to was a friend of the rapist. In one-quarter of the cases, it was the rapist himself.
The Defense Department claims the system is working because reported sexual assaults jumped 46 percent last year. Or maybe rapes are increasing. Data shows 15 percent of incoming recruits have either committed or tried to commit rape before entering the service – double the civilian average.
A class-action lawsuit filed by survivors was dismissed in 2011, with the court ruling that rape is an occupational hazard of military service.
As the veil of secrecy is lifted on the military’s failure to support victims and punish offenders, fixes will clearly need to be imposed from the outside. It’s up to our elected representatives to make clear that writing off violent, devastating crimes as an inevitable fallout of women’s service violates civil rights presumptions, is un-American and deeply offensive. And that rapists can never again look to their higher-ups for cover.
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