Last year, there were approximately 26,000 sexual assaults within the U.S. military; that’s over 70 every day. No one know how many for sure because only 3,374 were reported. And these are all assault of on Armed Forces members by others in the Armed Forces. Yet out of all those reported, there were 238 convictions. And some of those were overturned by a high-ranking officer because that’s the way the military works. [chart]
Although the number was higher last year that the 19,000 the year before, the women in the military know that this is an ongoing problem and participated in The Invisible War, a documentary that tells the stories of women who became rape victims after they signed up for the military. Other sexual assault survivors have also begun to speak up about their horrific experiences.
During the past few months, a sense of rage about military rapes has grown, a festering boil that erupted when the above numbers were released in the annual Department of Defense report to Congress.
Why so few assaults reported, some people ask. Imagine that you are assaulted on the job and may lose your position—certainly any hope of promotion—if you report the person. The assaulted person has to report the crime to the commanding officer about a person or persons who may also work for the same boss while continuing to live near the attacker without protection. That same commanding officer will be penalized by a number of reports and convictions; it’s to that officer’s benefit to not pursue complaints.
The commanding officer also has the power to overturn convictions without any explanation. That’s what happened to Kim Hanks after she accused Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of assaulting her in March 2012. A jury of five male military officers found Wilkerson guilty of aggravated sexual assault last November, but Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin removed the conviction. To make things harder for Hanks, Wilkerson was reassigned to the Tucson Air Force base in the city where many of Hanks’ family live. The Air Force had also told Hanks that they would involve her in Wilkerson’s reassignment. They didn’t.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) echoed many the anger of many people about this situation when she said:
“The military needs to understand that this could be a tipping point. I question whether, after this incident, there’s any chance a woman assaulted in that unit would ever say a word. There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here. And what this decision did–all it did was underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that if you are sexually assaulted in the military–good luck.”
If victims of sexual assault report the crime, military codes can punish them for adultery if they are married. Persons reporting an assault might face court martial. Or they may be charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer”; they may lose rank; and they may be accused of having “set up the men.” One of the women in The Invisible War said a woman who reported the third rape in a week in one unit was asked, “You girls think this is a game; are you all in cahoots?”
The question is not why so few assaults were reported but why so many people, mostly women, are brave enough to report the crime despite the personal consequences. Sixty-two percent of military women report social, professional, or administrative retaliation after they are brave enough to report a sexual assault.
All these issues make the military a place where serial rapists can flourish. Studies show that most rapists are serial predators. For example, civilians convicted of rape are on the average responsible for seven to 11 sexual assaults.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have taken the position that sexual assault is a crime that will not be tolerated in the military. The official White House statement wrote:
“Overall, the White House has made the health of the force a top priority, and will be working with the Department of Defense on results and accountability on efforts to eliminate sexual assault in the military.”
Fortunately, Congress has decided to take action about this decades-old debacle. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), working with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), plans legislation to remove commanding officers from making decisions about taking serious assault cases to trial, despite the opposition of Hagel, and turning that job over to experienced trial prosecutors. The bill also proposes amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice “so that the convening authority may not (a) set aside a guilty finding or (b) change a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense,” according to a Gillibrand aide.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) have introduced a bill to strengthen assault-prevention efforts, create Special Victims’ Counsels to help survivors navigate the legal process, and automatically trigger referral of sexual-assault cases to the court-martial level or “next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest in the immediate chain of command.” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) plans to introduce a companion bill in the House.
Also in the House, Mike Turner (R-OH) and Niki Tsongas (D-MA) have introduced “the Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environments Act of 2013 (BE SAFE) Act.” The act “requires that a person found guilty of an offense of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.” It also reforms the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove the possibility of lessening sentences or setting aside convictions of those convicted of serious sex crimes.
Even before these actions, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) reintroduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act) that would stop officers from overturning sexual assault convictions. The STOP Act, with 83 co-sponsors, would remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command and put it under the jurisdiction of an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office comprised of civilian and military personnel.
If Hagel wants to keep control with his commanding officers, he had better do something about their disgusting attitude toward women and sexual assaults. At a Senate hearing this week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh blamed an increase in sexual assault in the military on the “hookup” culture prevalent among young people. Welsh said 20 percent of female recruits report being assaulted before they joined the military. “They come in from a society where this occurs,” he said. Thus he blames the victim and sees very little problem with sexual assault—more like a bad date.
The tipping point in reforming the military’s culture of rape, however, may come from the officer in charge of the service’s Sexual Prevention and Response program. After Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski “allegedly” grabbed and groped a woman last weekend, he was charged with sexual battery. Unfortunately for Krusinski, she fought back, and the mug shot of his scratched and bloodied face has gone viral across the Internet.
Seven women senators, five of them lawyers, now sit on the Armed Services Committee. At this time, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is blocking President Obama’s nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms for vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command because she intervened on behalf of a fellow pilot and Air Force captain who had been convicted by a military jury of aggravated sexual assault. Against the advice of legal counsel, she overturned the jury verdict.
Before Welsh’s “hook up” statement and Krusinski’s arrest for sexual battery, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said that he thought the Pentagon doesn’t suffer from “a serious problem” of military commander’s overturning sexual assault convictions and wanted to postpone any proposed changes to military law.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno testified before the Senate that a commander’s role to enforce military law “is simply essential.” The question is whether military leaders find it essential for them to determine law without any jury.