Opinion | Sexual assault in the military: Reforming the military justice system long overdue
Published: Friday, November 22, 2013
Updated: Friday, November 22, 2013 02:11
Reports of sexual assault within the United States military are on the rise and the Senate is scheduled for a debate on potential solutions.
Between October and June 2012, there were 3,553 sexual assault complaints reported to the Defense Department. According to Pentagon figures, this is a 50 percent increase over the same period the year prior.
While those in the military have argued an increase in reports is a good indicator of service members’ willingness to come forward, the numbers ought to give us pause.
The Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office records claims and the number of sexual assaults. When looking at those latter numbers, 26,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in the military in 2011, according to the New York Times.
In a defense bill to be debated this week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have offered up solutions to this vexing problem.
Gillibrand’s proposal is the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), which would move sexual assault cases out of the chain of command where they currently reside to impartial military prosecutors. To Gillibrand, her proposal means accountability, which she sees as absent now.
“The trust that any justice will be served has been irreparably broken under the current system, where commanders hold all the cards over whether a case moves forward for prosecution,” she said.
On the other hand, McCaskill’s proposal is more modest, as it allows for cases to remain within the military chain of command, but an outside civilian panel would possess the power to review those cases commanders did not prosecute. Moreover, her proposal would mandate dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of a sexual assault and it would criminalize retaliation against a victim, according to Mother Jones.
McCaskill’s goal is to make the military the most victim-friendly organization in the world, but the issue of how to prosecute sexual assault cases divides the two female Democratic Senators.
“I think we’re all trying to help victims. There’s just a strong fundamental disagreement about which way does a better job of that,” she said.
Currently, according to USA Today, a high-ranking officer who is the defendant’s superior decides whether to bring charges, who sits on the jury and whether a conviction or punishment can stand.
However, according to CNN, only 8 percent of sexual assailants are referred to military court, compared to 40 percent of similar offenders prosecuted in the civilian court system.
One painful example of the military’s failings in handling sexual assault prosecution is that of Army Spc. Andrea Neutzling of Ohio. In 2002, while serving in South Korea, she was assaulted by a fellow soldier. She then reported the assault to her commanding officer and the perpetrator received five days of base restriction.
Three years later, she was sexually assaulted again, but this time she did not report the incident. A month after that, she was raped by two soldiers in Iraq; they had reportedly showed a video of the rape to others. Her chaplain said she “didn’t look like a rape victim” and threatened to charge her with adultery since she was married at the time of the incident, according to CNN.
Moreover, as should be obvious to anyone, men are sexually assaulted, too. In fact, in the military, 56 percent of sexual assaults involve male victims.
Since women make up just 15 percent of active-duty forces, it could be easy to frame the issue as a smaller problem, but First Lt. Adam Cohen gets it just right.
“No one wants to admit this problem affects everyone. Both genders, of all ranks. It’s a cultural problem," he said.
I fully support MJIA and moving sexual assault cases beyond the purview of the chain of command.
Most assuredly, sexual assault is a problem of society as a whole. For instance, a new study from the National Research Council found that 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, but yet, the problem of unreported sexual assaults is made much worse with the way cases are currently handled by the military. As the New York Times notes, there is a built-in conflict of interest.