The military’s ugly secret

June 12, 2013

From the Pentagon to Congress, official Washington is vowing action to curb rape in the military. But their record shows why we can't believe them, writes Rachel Cohen.

"IT IS a wound that doesn't ever heal. You can make it feel better, but it doesn't take much to rip the top off it, and there it is again."

That's how Lisa Wilken describes the damage inflicted from being raped by a fellow Air Force enlistee 20 years ago. Wilken reported being raped, but military investigators failed to collect evidence, instead focusing on questioning Wilken about her sexual history, forcing her to move out of her basic training dorm, ignoring threats made against her by peers, and ultimately dissuading her from going to trial because her rape wasn't "violent enough" to lead to jail time for the rapist.

As she explained to reporters for the Indianapolis Star, "The damage that has been done to me hasn't been by the act of the assault, it has been the treatment that I have received through the process. It basically re-victimizes you."

Recently, Wilken began organizing and speaking out because she's seen little change in the two decades since she was doubly victimized. Her story is one among a number of cases of sexual assault within the U.S. military to make headlines over the last month.

Generals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee
Generals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee

A Pentagon report released in May cited a stunning 26,000 incidents of sexual assault among service members in 2012 alone. Mainstream media outlets and politicians suddenly had a lot to say about the problem that Wilken says has "been the military's dirty little secret for way too long."

A string of horrifying stories have come to light. An Air Force recruiter in Texas has just been charged in military court for rape, forced sodomy and other crimes committed over the course of three years against 18 women seeking to enlist. A Marine Corps recruiter in Alaska was convicted last month by a military court of first-degree sexual assault, but was not sentenced to serve any prison time.

Perhaps the most ironic story involved Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, chief of sexual assault prevention and response services for the U.S. Air Force. Shortly after midnight on May 5, a reportedly drunk Krusinski was arrested after he attacked and groped a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.

KRUSINSKI'S ALLEGED act of sexual battery epitomizes the utter disregard with which military officials view sexual violence. Lack of consequences for military personnel accused of sexual assault may explain why the Pentagon report also found that while the total number of assaults rose 34 percent from 2011 to 2012, the number of reports only increased 6 percent--a mere 3,374 formal complaints.

In response to Krusinski's arrest and the Pentagon report, White House Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel drafted an eight-point plan to "tighten" restrictions and enforcement measures. President Obama touted the plan, telling reporters he hoped it would result in more than just rhetoric.

The House of Representatives entertained a day of testimony on the problem, and lawmakers followed up with a number of proposed bills. Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), introduced legislation to strengthen safeguards for those who report sexual assaults. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill proposed tougher penalties for military officers who fail to follow protocol in handling sexual assault reports.

Just this month, Major Gen. Michael Harrison, the commanding general of U.S. Army Japan, became one of the highest-ranking military officials ever to be relieved from duty for failing to act on a report of sexual misconduct.

But when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York proposed legislation to direct reports of sexual assault to military prosecutors, rather than up the chain of command, fellow lawmakers and the White House objected so vehemently that the proposal itself quickly replaced the epidemic of military sexual assaults as the focal point of legislative and media attention.

Gillibrand describes the problem of rape inside the military as a detriment to "combat readiness." But the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff rebuffed her proposed solution in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, arguing against any control being redirected from the hands of military commanders.

Currently, officers, who have no legal training nor substantial oversight, have demonstrated little interest in prosecuting service members accused of sexual assault. Instead, some officers fear such prosecutions in their ranks will taint their own records. Commanders, therefore, may be more likely to blame or hush victims than pursue legal punishment for attackers.

Gillibrand points out that even as the rates of sexual assaults reported to military authorities dropped between 2011 and 2012 from 13 to 10 percent, 62 percent of those who reported incidents say they faced some form of retaliation.

For his part, Fox News host and former congressman Allen West joined right-wing radio personality Michael Savage in decrying Gillibrand's bill as an "assault" on the military itself. The two cast doubt on whether the incidents compiled in the Pentagon's survey constitute sexual assault at all. West went on to blame repeal of the anti-gay "don't ask, don't tell" policy and lifting restrictions on women's roles in combat for the recent spike in rapes, attempted rapes and other acts of unwanted sexual contact.

Meanwhile, the Obama White House joined the chorus opposing the involvement of military prosecutors in determining when and how to take sexual assault claims to trial. President Obama repeated Chuck Hagel's opposition verbatim, telling reporters assembled at the Pentagon, "The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure. Taking the ultimate responsibility away from the military would weaken the system."

And on both sides of the congressional aisle, Democratic and Republican legislators seem to agree that treating sexual assault as a crime with serious legal consequences "weakens" the military's integrity. Democrat Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also opposes Gillibrand's bill.

IN ALL, legislators have proposed seven new measures to address sexual assault. But Lisa Wilken remains worried that little will change. As she told the Indianapolis Star, "I would like to see our legislators actually do something for a change, rather than getting up and blowing a bunch of smoke, and then putting down on their resume that they tried to do this."

She has good reason to be skeptical. Wilken's own assault in 1993 followed just two years after a scandal the resulted in the disciplining of 100 aviation officers charged with assaulting at least 83 women and 7 men at a convention in Las Vegas. But the uproar over the 1991 "Tailhook scandal" didn't compel military officials to take her assault seriously.

The last month's worth of media and political focus on sexual violence in the armed forces has revolved around shock and surprise over how incidents could have reached such a high level in the last year. Yet the political backlash surrounding a single proposed bill, perceived as a challenge to military authority, has already eclipsed interest in examining the causes or damages inflicted by the military's sexual violence crisis.

Army Gen. Ray Odierno assured Congress last week that the military would drive right into solving the problem. Claiming commanders had managed to racially integrate the armed forces and eventually lift its ban on openly gay and lesbian service members, he said, "Sexual assault and sexual harassment are no different. We can and will do better."

But it was campaigns of public protest, not the good will of the generals, that compelled the military to desegregate and to end formal policies of repression against LGBT soldiers.

Before the White House or military brass declare "Mission Accomplished," they should investigate why it is that personnel within the world's largest, most heavily armed military force so often commit acts of sexual violence.

Perhaps the epidemic reflects the priorities of the U.S. government as a whole. After all, Congress spends billions annually on military forces to inflict carnage across the globe, but constantly curtails women's rights to control our own bodies, and struggles to pass basic measures like the Violence Against Women Act to fund services for sexual and domestic violence survivors.

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