Thursday March 6, our U.S. Senate, in a 55- to 45-vote margin, struck down the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) that would have taken reporting of sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command.
[http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/03/06/procedural-vote-blocks-gillibrands-military-sexual-assault-bill/] Had that vote not been filibustered, women in the military would have seen passage of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's MJIA and, for the first time in decades, women in the military would have the opportunity for justice. Instead our Senate voted to support the military, maintaining their cover-up. In spite of the many women veteran victims of sexual assault who poured out their stories to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the power and control of our military prevailed over justice.
The culture of abuse toward women in the military has been going on for decades, undermining readiness and morale and destroying the health, lives and careers of valuable women soldiers. We know there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, and only 238 [ http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/military/report/2013/11/06/78909/twice-betrayed/ ] of those resulted in any accountability to the perpetrators or the officers who protected them. We know that perpetrators are protected, promoted and permitted to continue their heinous actions while victims are isolated from all support, ostracized, shamed, humiliated, and often denied the care and support they need. One female navy petty officer was even held prisoner and denied food on a navy medical ward after she reported a gang rape so damaging that the doctor who examined her broke down in tears. In 2013 there were 5400 cases of military sexual assault reported, a 60% increase. [ http://www.supertalk1570.com/common/more.php?m=58&ts=1394289180&article=50134630A6D911E3B51EFEFDADE6840A&mode=2 ] The problem is not going away and is getting worse. If not corrected it will destroy our military from the inside out.
This author spoke with 60 women veterans from WWII up to the current veterans of the 21st century, over the past seven years while writing the book Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military. They revealed how they were retaliated against severely when they reported their assaults and were often traumatized further by the military corps they vowed to serve. Our military leaders and military justice system protects rapists.
Given that 95% of sexual assaults in our military are from repeat offenders and serial rapists [http://feminist.org/news/newsbyte/uswirestory.asp?id=12859] and that commanders accept the word of these rapists when they claim the rape was "consensual sex," why does anyone in Congress want to side with rapists and officers that cover for them? Why is our military not rooting out these criminals, those that support them, and cleaning up their act? One of the women whose story is in my book told me: "The Army is the best place for a rapist," because there is an unspoken rule that rape is tolerated, in spite of the so-called zero-tolerance policy; and because it is a target-rich environment and predators know their commanders will cover for them. There has been failure of leadership throughout the military and it is clear our armed forces will not change on their own. To change the existing culture of abuse in our military requires all the leaders to not only teach 'how to,' but to model it. Reading news today shows many are modeling disrespect, disdain and disregard for our women in uniform. Not all men in our military behave in these horrific ways, yet it is so pervasive in the culture that it must be stopped and reversed.
In 1997 the Army conducted a senior review panel of what was happening in the Army during the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal. Their report stated that the Army has a problem with attitude and leadership; women are discriminated against and not treated with respect. Their military investigators, led by Major General Richard S. Siegfried, pointed out that the Army's written policy had failed in practice. That report affirmed, "Sexual harassment exists throughout the Army crossing gender, rank, and racial lines. Victims are re-victimized by the system." The report also exposed the fact that commanders are perceived as having little interest in enforcing the rules or policy regarding sexual harassment/assault and a breakdown in trust occurred between soldiers, both men and women. Forty percent of the women and thirty-seven percent of the men polled in the investigation concurred that Army leadership was more interested in their own careers than the well-being of their soldiers. [http://www.dtic.mil/dtfs/doc_research/p18_13.pdf]
It is the same today and worse. Commanders tend to cover-up crimes that would reflect on them as officers and on their corps. A Senate Armed Services Committee panel from 2003 concluded that since 1993, the highest levels of Air Force leadership have known of serious sexual-misconduct problems at the Air Force Academy, but failed to take effective action. Over the past 22 years there have been 18 different reports that point to the problem in all the military services--a culture of abuse that is fostered by the leadership. It is clear that our military will not change unless forced to do so by we the people. They never have.
Bob Herbert, writing in The New York Times March 2009, said, "The military is one of the most highly controlled environments imaginable. When there are rules that the Pentagon absolutely wants followed, they are rigidly enforced by the chain of command. Violations are not tolerated. The military could bring about a radical reduction in the number of rapes and other forms of sexual assault if it wanted to, and it could radically improve the overall treatment of women in the Armed Forces. There is no real desire in the military to modify this aspect of its culture. It is an ultra-macho environment in which the overwhelming tendency has been to see all women--civilian and military, young and old, American and foreign--solely as sexual objects. Real change will have to be imposed from outside the military. It will not come from within. Rape and other forms of sexual assault against women is the great shame of the U.S. Armed Forces, and there is no evidence that this ghastly problem, kept out of sight as much as possible, is diminishing." [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/21/opinion/21herbert.html?_r=0]
During 1997, at the time of the Aberdeen Proving Ground sexual-assault scandal, Major Elspeth Ritchie, Assistant Chief of Outpatient Psychiatry at Walter Reed Health Care System, testified against a drill sergeant and described a hierarchical structure so powerful that a victim reporting a rape would find her superiors closing ranks and protecting one another, instead of her. [http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/16/us/military-women-are-vulnerable-to-abuse-psychiatrist-says.html] That was 1997, and seventeen years later the situation is worse than ever. The Aberdeen Proving Ground Scandal was like the latest 2011, Lackland Air Force Base scandal, where trainers were raping their trainees-- who had to follow their orders. In this latest Air Force scandal there was no testimony taken from the victims of sexual assault. How can an investigation into sexual assault lead to positive change if those who were assaulted were never even interviewed? [http://www.protectourdefenders.com/protect-our-defenders-testifies-before-house-armed-services-committee/]
We are all in this together. If you care about your country and its military, if you have served or know someone who has or is serving, if you have a daughter who tells you she is joining the military, if you have a son in the military who is likely to be sucked into the culture of abuse toward women, if you are currently serving proudly and want to hold onto your pride in our military, please help. We need every voice! Our military-justice system is broken and change is imperative. We can no longer allow the military to investigate themselves. They are far too self-protective. It is time for independent unbiased investigations into these sexual assault crimes.
Please read Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military and watch the Invisible War Movie, grasp what this culture of abuse is, then call your congressional representatives and senators, plus members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee, and tell them to: investigate how our military handles reports of sexual assaults, how they train personnel to investigate, how investigations are done, how leaders are trained including the nonverbal communication, how the system applies accountability and justice, if at all. Tell them to examine the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in relation to these sexual assault cases and make necessary changes. We also need our media to keep focusing on this issue until it is resolved. Justice has lost for now, but the fight will continue until accountability and justice prevail for both men and women in our military.
This article appeared in the March 19, 2014, issue of Truthout.
Sarah L. Blum is a decorated nurse Vietnam Veteran, still serving as a nurse psychotherapist in Auburn, WA with 34 years' experience healing PTSD. She is the author of Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military. www.womenunderfire.net