One in three women in the United States Armed Forces has been the victim of sexual assault at the hands of another service member. That doesn’t even include the rates of sexual assault on servicemen.
Only 14 percent of those sexual assaults will ever be reported. Only 3 percent of the assaults reported go to a court-martial, the military equivalent of a trial. Only 27 percent of those court-martials result in conviction for rape or serious sexual assault.
Fortunately, under the leadership of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and outraged members of Congress, policies are being implemented to address this unconscionable problem.
April has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in addition to the awareness campaign and mandatory sexual harassment and assault trainings in the military, concrete steps have been taken to provide victims with more resources.
The recently passed 2013 National Defense Authorization Act included the Shaheen Amendment, finally allowing military insurance to cover the cost of abortions in the case of rape, rather than forcing servicewomen to cover the cost out of pocket. That is a good step forward. Even federal inmates have had insurance coverage for abortion in the case of rape, coverage servicewomen have not had since the early 1980s.
No longer can the military offer “moral waivers” to hire people with felony records of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, as was allowed when the military faced low recruitment numbers. Neither Honor, Courage nor Commitment — the principles of the Navy and Marine Corps — should ever be waived.
Each branch of the military has established or is establishing a Special Victims Unit composed of specially trained personnel to deal specifically with cases related to sexual assault. This will help give sexual assault the special attention it deserves from military justice channels.
And just a few days ago, Hagel announced a major shift in military policy. Hagel stripped the ability of commanding officers to overturn court-martial convictions, and they must now direct sexual assault reports to the closest colonel or captain in their command (an 0–6 level officer). This issue exploded into the spotlight in the case of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a man convicted of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in the brig and discharged from the Air Force. But Lt. General Craig Franklin, the commanding officer, decided to reverse the jury’s decision, releasing and reinstating Wilkerson. Such a process makes a mockery of justice, and thanks to Hagel it will no longer be allowed.
But it is shameful that it took a documentary — “The Invisible War” — and a storm of media attention to bring about these changes. And it is shameful that these changes are all relatively new — the issue of sexual assault in the military certainly is not.
And there are still steps that need to be taken moving forward.
First, while commanding officers can no longer overturn convictions, they can still unilaterally lessen sentences. Commanding officers should have no ability to modify a court-martial sentence — that’s the point of an appeals process.
Second, the process of reporting, investigating and ordering courts-martial all still takes place within the chain of command. While usually a good system, keeping the process within the same chain of command creates a massive power-dynamic issue. What if the commanding officer is friendly with the accused rapist? What if the investigator wants to help out his buddy by ignoring some evidence? Investigations should be conducted, and courts-martial should be convened, outside of the chain of command.
Third, Congress should pass the Ruth Moore Act. This bill would change the requirements for a veteran applying for disability benefits. Currently, the application requires proof that a disabling event (a stressor) happened while the member was serving.
But because sexual assault is so underreported and stigmatized, there is often no original report of the attack, meaning that under the current system there is no proof of a stressor. The Ruth Moore Act would modify the requirements to allow legally binding sworn statements to serve as proof. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is the leading cause of PTSD among servicewomen, yet the Department of Veterans Affairs rejected two-thirds of MST claims between 2008–’10.
Both the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments need to make these changes now — not after another documentary, not after another media frenzy and not after another rape. Panetta and Hagel have made real progress and must ensure it continues. When men and women take an oath to defend the Constitution “against all enemies foreign and domestic,” they shouldn’t have to worry about defending themselves from sexual assault.
Sam Cohen is a sophomore in Calhoun College and a midshipman in Yale NROTC. This column expresses his personal views only, and not the views of Yale NROTC, the Department of Defense or any other entity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .