Let’s talk about a subject that no one wants to talk about or even acknowledge, but would prefer that it be covered-up treated as non-existent. It is a subject that can’t help but taint our view of the military at a time when they are most deserving of our support. It is a subject that the Armed Forces cannot afford to allow to continue unabated. That subject is Sexual Assault and rape in our military. It is intolerable to believe that this is still going on in our services.
The most recent case to hit the media (most cases never make the news) involves one Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who has been accused of assaulting a junior officer, a Captain in the US Army by forcing her to engage in oral sex and threatening her family if she should tell anyone. That case is currently on trial. Already the original prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, has made efforts to have the more serious charges reduced, in favor of charging Sinclair with committing adultery, possession of pornography, and having improper relations with two other female officers. The prosecutor, having pretty much handed the defense its plea deal, has since been removed and replaced by Lt. Col. Robert Stelle who intends to prosecute Sinclair on all charges. It is precisely this type of behavior in the military court of justice that makes sexual assault difficult to prosecute and causes victims to think twice before bringing charges.
Now, women have been serving in the armed forces for many decades, first as nurses and secretaries, then as support personnel in the field and now as combat soldiers facing the same enemy as our young men. Our male soldiers have had more than enough time to accept the fact that female soldiers are here to stay. For the past thirty-four years, women have been students in all of our finest Military Academies and have worked hard to become fine officers. They have taken the name-calling, verbal assault, and the sexual abuse, and have proven themselves go be officers of equal mettle to their male counterparts, as well as fierce warriors in battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, they are carrying their weight and doing their jobs.
Nevertheless, the female soldier is always fighting a two-front war: That of the enemy in the field and of the men in her own unit. In spite of repeatedly proving themselves ready and able to handle the pressures of leadership and combat, they are nevertheless still finding that for some of their male counterparts, resentment and even hatred of women in the military still runs deep and has manifested itself in the most heinous of ways: sexual assault and rape.
Sexual assault is difficult for any woman, but is especially hard on a woman in the armed forces. Unlike in the real world, where one can bring suit against a person charged with rape and present a case based entirely on its merits before an unbiased judge and a jury, the nature of the military’s very strict chain of command and the issues of rank and military record, often leave women in the seemingly impossible position of having to confront a senior officer in a tribunal where that very rank and record gives the accused an automatic advantage. Consequently, a woman of lower rank than her harasser is put into a position where she must either succumb or risk her career and reputation by refusing the advances of someone with a higher rank.
To even attempt to prevent this type of harassment, the appeal process for women in the military almost always requires them to go over the heads of their immediate superiors to seek redress from someone higher in the chain of command. That in itself sets the complainant up to cries of foul by the soldiers in her unit and sets her up for even greater abuse. There is no outside path of appeal, no place where she can turn for help that is not part of the military. It is a, lose, lose proposition for a female soldier from the moment the advance is made.
Let me make one thing clear. The kind of verbal and physical sexual assault we are talking about is not the flirty-joking-by-the-water-cooler comments or the slap on the ass that men love to say is just ‘feminine oversensitivity.’ What we are talking about here is inappropriate touching and groping, lewd and lascivious comments, and ultimately, rape. We are talking about women who can fiercely fight the most dangerous enemy in the field only to find themselves virtually helpless to fight a commanding officer who wants her to ‘keep him company’ in the barracks. It is a shameful and rampant problem in our military. The old boy network of the military is rigid and strong and will not be broken easily. Women are fighting right alongside men; they are risking their lives in the same conflicts as their male counterparts, yet, because of the in-house resolution system, where the military takes ‘care’ of their own, women can find themselves completely defenseless as they watch their careers being ruined by the ‘he said, she said’ defense of the male military officer whose rank and tenure is often used as the primary part of his defense. In other words, the very rank that allows a senior officer to force a woman to do his will is also his best protection against being prosecuted.
For women overseas, fighting in the field, the danger is equally great and doesn’t necessarily have to be caused by a senior officer. Women live in fear of the very men they are expected to die beside in a combat situation. One step into a common room filled with their male buddies could easily end in rape under the slightest provocation. Men often complain of not feeling confident in a woman’s ability to ‘have their back’ in a combat situation, yet it is the female soldier who lives in fear of her fellow soldiers in the supposedly ‘safe’ environs of the barracks. We do not hear a lot about this in our media; it is often simply assumed that men and women are fighting side by side with the same camaraderie as any soldiers in the field. Again, that is because all sexual assault situations are either unreported or handled ‘in-house.’
How rampant is this sexual assault? According to the department of defense, in 2010, there were 19,000 incidents of sexual assault but fewer than 14% were reported. In November of 2013, the Pentagon released the following statistics: In one year from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013, there were an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault of which only 3,553 were actually reported. Those reported represented a 43% increase over the previous year. By contrast, during that same period, there were 219 casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. These numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that the Coast Guard is not part of the Department of Defense, but of Homeland Security, and prior to that came under the Department of Transportation, meaning that these numbers are likely higher. These are shameful statistics that have prompted Congress to try to do something about it. One proposed bill, prompted by Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) would remove military commanders from the process of conducting rape trials and replacing them instead with specialized, independent military prosecutors. That bill failed, but a sister bill, named the Victims Protection Act, put forth by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has passed the Senate and includes ending the statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault and rape, barring military commanders from overturning convictions for sexual assault and rape, making it a crime to retaliate against people who report such crimes, mandating dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of such crimes, and giving civilian defense officials more control over prosecutions. Unlike so many bills put through the house and senate in recent years, this bill actually enjoys bi-partisan support on an issue which most believe to be a serious problem that requires intervention.
While this bill will certainly make a good start on the problem of sexual abuse in the military, it will not solve all problems. Reportage will continue to be a potentially career-ending gamble. The pressure brought to bear on people making accusations against decorated officers or persons with stellar military records will still be present regardless of the bill. In combat situations, far from the states, women must still depend on the men in their units when out in the field. How likely is it that they will wish to report a sexual assault only to discover that their back-up in the war zone has just evaporated?
It is time for people to know what is going on in our military ‘boys’ club.’ It is time to demand more oversight and more accountability. It is ridiculous after all this time that men in the military still fail to recognize the significant contributions that women make both in combat and in support. Such a lack of tolerance is unseemly and grossly unpatriotic in a workplace dedicated to the defense of the very principles of equality that they try to deny. It is time to stop the resentment, stop the hatred, and end this shameful assault. They fight together, they die together. Isn’t that enough?