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Stop Rape and Assault: And That's An Order!

Below the Belt: A Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

April 6, 2009

Take Action!

Ending sexual violence against women in the military must start now! Act now to support the Military Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response Act to address this national epidemic and stop the violence against military women and military families.

Here are the words I want to hear from our new commander in chief: "Our servicewomen deserve dignity and respect, and that's an order!"

With plans to launch more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, it is urgent that the new administration address head-on the shocking treatment of the women who make up a critical portion of our military troops. For years, the very fact that there are women in the military seems to have been forgotten or treated as an afterthought -- whether it's about veterans' benefits, recognition for their service, medical care, combat service or troop deployment.

But sometimes our servicewomen haven't just been forgotten, they've been silenced -- especially when they've been sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers.

The only way to describe it is as an outrage. In fact, I'm post-outraged. How can anyone fail to be sputtering mad that thousands and thousands of our women in uniform, who are putting their lives on the line, have been and continue to be victims of intentional criminal assault -- aren't these crimes just as terrible as the accidental "friendly fire" incidents that are reported in the media? Where is the military leadership in all of this? Where is the press?

"Where is the outrage when a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire?" asks Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif). Harman was responding to a 2008 Veterans Administration study finding that one in seven female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical care from the VA (Office of Veterans Affairs) had suffered sexual trauma.

As if these numbers weren't shocking enough, a recent Department of Defense (DoD) report on sexual assault in the military documented over 2,900 reported cases in 2008 alone -- an increase of eight percent over 2007 reports. For troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, reported cases increased 26 percent over the previous year. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the minuscule number of documented assaults referred for trials and courts martial.

And this is just for reported cases. By the Pentagon's own admission, an estimated 80 percent of rapes are never reported. Gee, I wonder why? Could it be because, when victims do come forward, it's like going in front of an emotional firing squad? Under the military "justice" system, a woman can be forced to tell her story 20 or 30 times, and many drop out under the emotional strain.

First, these women must wonder: If I stick it out to the end, will anything be done to help me? Will I be forced to return to that unit? [Answer: Yes, probably.] Will I face retaliation, not just from my fellow soldiers but from my commanders? And last but not least, after I come forward and put myself in jeopardy, will my assailant be punished? Or will he be protected by the military, in a way that I was not protected?

Sadly, not only will these servicewomen get no support, they will often jeopardize their own careers -- and sometimes their personal safety -- for the sake of standing up against criminal behavior.

When a woman in the military reports a rape or sexual crime, she is often asked why she would want to destroy the military career of her rapist -- excuse me, fellow soldier -- by holding him accountable for his crime.

Talk about misplaced sympathies! Too often, military men side with the rapist, leaving the victim without support and without recourse. As one rape survivor noted in an interview with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News, "I think the worst letdown is people who didn't believe in me to help [me] get through this and keep me in the army. I really wanted to be a good soldier."

Helen Benedict, a panelist on the 2008 NOW Conference workshop entitled "Danger Under Fire: Sexual Assault in the Military," has documented sexual assault in the military. In a 2007 Salon article, Benedict tells the story of Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, who was coerced into sex by a commanding officer -- which is legally defined as rape by the military. Army Spc. Swift reported the incident, but after months of harassment by her fellow officers and the threat of forcing her to serve with her assailant again, Swift went AWOL (absent without leave). She was court-martialed, stripped of her rank and sent to jail. Her assailant and the harassers received a slap on the wrist in the form of reprimanding letters.

Military leaders say they are working on the problem but it's not moving fast enough for the women facing these assaults every day.

So we've asked Congress to hold their feet to the fire. Under such pressure, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) was established in 2005. SAPRO is tasked with being a single point of accountability for DoD sexual assault policy, addressing prevention, support structures and military accountability. But even this move wasn't enough to get the military's attention.

In July 2008, a House subcommittee subpoenaed SAPRO director Dr. Kaye Whitley to testify about sexual assault in the military -- and Whitley was ordered by her DoD superiors not to comply with the subpoena. Whitley later testified that September after congressional outcry. Clearly SAPRO isn't passing muster, so it's back to the drawing board.

The good news is that Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has reintroduced the Military Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response Act (H.R.840), which would enhance programs of prevention and deterrence, improve victims' services and strengthen provisions for prosecution of assailants. It establishes a Victims' Advocate Office within the DoD which will be responsible for assessing the sexual assault services currently provided. It calls for the employment of a sexual assault nurse examiner, psychiatrist, and clinical team at each DoD treatment facility. And for our returning soldiers, it ensures that Veterans Affairs primary care providers receive training in the screening and referral of veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma. Creating a real treatment and support structure are critical, because too often, victims are directed toward treatment options that in reality do not exist for them.

Crucially, the bill would also prohibit anyone from interfering with the reporting and investigation of sexual assault claims and would protect survivors from retaliation. The bill also directs a military commanding officer who receives a qualifying complaint alleging such violence to investigate and report it, so that perhaps one day women will be confident that their claims will be taken seriously and acted upon. The Military Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response Act is a good start at addressing these concerns and getting victims the help they so desperately need. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) may introduce the counterpart Senate bill.

"The Pentagon's alarming statistics prove that sexual assault in the military not only persists, but has gotten worse," notes Rep. Slaughter. "Enough is enough. How many more of our brave women and men in uniform must experience sexual assault before we truly address this issue?"

Congressional action is just the beginning, though. Not only do we need the right support structures in place and real consequences for the abusers -- we need a change in culture. So shouldn't we be fostering a military culture that rejects sexual assault before someone becomes a victim? Sexual assault needs to be viewed as the heinous crime it is and not dismissed as just "boys being boys."

This change in culture needs to come from the top. It should come from Commander in Chief Barack Obama, who needs to insist on real accountability to end sexual violence and rape in the military. President Obama must gather his generals and admirals and commanders and work out a way to end this treachery in our ranks. Let him say, "Our servicewomen deserve better. And that's an order!"

Further reading:

Katie Couric's CBS Evening News Report

Ms. Magazine's "The Scandal of Military Rape"

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