The Military Can't Handle the Truth

Flickr/West Point Public Affairs

The real scandal this week around military sexual violence isn’t the release of the latest in a string of Department of Defense (DOD) reports showing stunning levels of sexual assault—hell, even the DOD estimates 26,000 actual incidents compared with the 3,374 reported incidents. It’s not the fact that this year marks the third in a row to show an increase in sexual violence (under law, DOD has published them yearly since 2004), or that the latest report “found that among the one-third of women who reported sexual-assault allegations to a military authority, 62 percent suffered retaliation for speaking up.” It’s not even the arrest, two days before the report came out, of the officer in charge of sexual-assault prevention programs for the Air Force on sexual battery charges. 

The real scandal is the degree to which the military has been allowed to continue punting on addressing sexual violence, despite knowing about the widespread sexual abuse of service members, most but certainly not all of them women, for over two decades now, as documented by a staggering number of reports, lawsuits (five since 2011 alone by a single attorney), and scandals. 

As early as 1988, researcher Melanie Martindale from the Defense Manpower Data Center in Arlington, Virginia found that 5 percent of female respondents “described attempted or completed sexual assault during military service over an 18-month period,” 15 percent reported “pressure for sexual favors,” and another 38 percent describing “unwanted touching.” As early as 2007, even the Pentagon’s own statistics showed that women, at one in three, were at twice the risk for sexual assault in the military as they were in the civilian population.

The military’s flagrant negligence has been abetted by a series of leaders, congresses, and administrations that have allowed the military to continue doing almost nothing to protect its service members from sexual assault. That is, unless you count the brass’s obsession, until the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with protecting all of those poor straight guys in the shower from the gaze of suspected perverts in the ranks by discharging gay translators of Arabic in droves.

This culture of allowing the military to “police their own” despite plentiful evidence that this makes about as much sense as allowing the financial industry to regulate itself appointing Colonel Sanders head of poultry safety is in evidence as early as 1991. That’s when the Tailhook scandal broke, bringing the issue of large-scale military sexual violence to public attention. More than 100 Navy and Marine Corps officers at a convention sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men. In response, the Navy led an investigation so weak that that even the Pentagon condemned it. But in the final analysis, acting Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe, despite having accepted the resignation of two admirals cited in the report for failing to interview senior officials who clearly had witnessed the assaults, and having reassigned a third, said he continued to have “complete confidence” in Navy Undersecretary J. Daniel Howard. In fact, O’Keefe decided to keep Howard on as the Navy's second in command “despite the inspector general's finding that Howard failed to force the two organizations investigating the scandal to coordinate their work.”

Unsurprisingly, there’s no record of the military making any real effort to reduce sexual violence in the years following Tailhook. A Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) report on Military Sexual Trauma originally due in March 2001 was released in 2005. A year later, the Defense Department's sexual-assault report showed a 73 percent increase from 2004—when 1,700 incidents were filed—to 2006, when 2,947 incidents were reported. Clearly, word was out. The military’s interpretation in these situations is always that reporting is up because it’s done such a good job of encouraging service members to come forward. It’s more likely that numbers were up because any fool could see, from the military’s non-response to earlier reports and scandals, that it didn’t give a damn on either the individual or institutional level. Although the VA had been authorized since the early '90s to create sexual-trauma counseling centers, the DOD only began calling for proposals around 2007. That same year the VA finally opened its first facility to provide counseling exclusively to female veterans who have been the victims of sexual abuse or assault. 

Yet even in treatment settings, the military fails to protect service members from sexual assault. A June 2011 General Accounting Office report nails the VA for failing to take proper precautions to prevent sexual assaults even against women housed in mental-health programs at VA medical facilities. Of the nearly 300 sexual assaults reported to the VA police, most weren’t passed up the chain of command to VA leadership officials or the VA Office of the Inspector General, including two-thirds of the rape allegations. Close-circuit cameras intended to actively monitor areas were inadequately monitored, alarm systems malfunctioned, and VA police were understaffed. The just-released annual survey on sexual harassment and violence at military service academies reports that in the 12 months prior to the survey, 12.4 percent of women and 2 percent of men had experienced unwanted sexual contact, while 51 percent of women and 10 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment. 

The same military bureaucracy that fails to protect service members even in military academies, let alone in the theater of war, on bases, or in its own treatment facilities may be shafting them later when, as veterans, they file disability compensation claims related to military sexual trauma (MST). How those claims have been assessed and compensated (or denied) has been a mystery until now. The VA is under no obligation to explain its reasoning to veterans, and it only agreed to release previously withheld records of those claims a few weeks ago in response to several years worth of vigorous litigation by the ACLU on behalf of the Service Women’s Action Network. The Department of Defense is still stalling on a similar Freedom of Information Act request.

Will the military’s culture of virtually unchallenged sexual violence change now, in the wake of this scandal-ridden week, followed by a virtual army of DOD spokeswomen, plus Valerie Jarrett, the Obama administration's public-engagement spokesperson, being waved around like white flags to prove that Something Is Being Done? That doesn’t seem likely given the so-called “high-level meeting” Jarrett led earlier this week: It may have included nine women senators but neither Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel nor a single senior member of the DOD or VA felt compelled to attend. (White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was more on target than he may have intended when he said the meeting "reflects the level of concern that you heard from the president.”)

Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California who, like Senator Kristin Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, has introduced legislation that would move prosecutions out of the hands of the military and end the power of senior commanders to overturn a verdict, doesn’t sound hopeful. “I want to believe this is a tipping point,” she said, “but I guess I’ve been around politics too long.”

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