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Surviving the Hell of War, and Then Some
Posted on Jan 23, 2012
By John Lasker
The DOD’s numbers also reveal that the military is soft when prosecuting what is now being called military sexual trauma, or MST. In 2007, only 600 out of 2,212 sexual assault cases reported and investigated to some degree resulted in suspects facing any sort of accountability. And out of the 600 cases, only 181 were recommended for court-martial, the equivalent of a criminal trial. This means that in those sexual assaults reported and investigated to some degree, only 8 percent of suspects faced potential prosecution.
The problem of MST apparently is not abating; the DOD’s “Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies” for 2010-11, published in late December, stated that reports were up 41 percent from the previous academic year.
The military in 2005 formed the first lead office to deal strictly with sexual assault, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO. It soon established a 24-hour global hotline, trained hundreds of sexual assault response coordinators, referred to as SARCs, and produced an elaborate media campaign to raise awareness.
Last Wednesday, Leon Panetta held a press conference at the Pentagon to announce a series of initiatives to curb sexual attacks in the military. The defense secretary called the assaults “an affront to the basic American values we defend and ... a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families.”
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The most contentious issue surrounding MST is “re-victimization,” say female soldiers, who claim that commanding officers have a history of intimidating rape victims into silence.
SAPRO confronted re-victimization by establishing restricted and unrestricted reporting in 2005. Restricted reporting allows a victim to bypass the chain of command and report the assault to the SAPRO hotline or a chaplain. Once a restricted report is made, health counseling is initiated but an investigation of the incident is not triggered.
SAPRO believes restricted reporting has resulted in about 4,000 military members coming forward. But the Seattle-based advocacy group VETWOW, Veteran Women Organizing Women, points to the glaring drawback in the system: No investigation is initiated in response to such a report and the alleged perpetrator walks free and probably remains in the victim’s unit.
“Restricted reporting? It’s a joke,” says VETWOW Director Susan Avila-Smith.
Avila-Smith was an Army linguist who left the military after commanding officers refused to punish her husband, also a member of the Army, after he jumped on her stomach when she was pregnant. She says MST is equivalent to incest in some ways and is another reason the DOD needs to crack down.
“The military is your family. When you go into battle we’re like brothers and sisters. We would die for each other. But these same people will come into your room and rape you, and grope you, and think nothing of it. It’s like incest; it’s as if your brother sexually assaulted you. Then they act like it never happened. They flat out deny it and if the female were to pursue [charges], the military family says you should keep quiet, you shouldn’t pursue this, it was probably your fault anyway.”
Over the past year, several lawsuits were written in an effort to reform how sexual crimes are handled in the military. Yale Law School says it plans to file a suit alleging the military is surreptitiously promoting misogyny, while activist lawyer Susan Burke filed Cioca v. Rumsfeld, which charged the former secretary of defense with failing to take action against MST. That suit was dismissed by a federal judge in December.
Several members of Congress have heard the pleas of female soldiers. The most vocal of these officials is Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has given 14 House floor speeches on the issue and vowed to give more. She introduced a bill that would take away the chain of command’s responsibility to investigate and prosecute sexual crimes and instead place it within a civilian-run office independent of the military. That office would be called the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office.
Within 2012’s $660 billion defense spending bill, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote provisions that included requiring the Pentagon to provide legal service to victims, something the military had never offered.
And when it released its annual report on sexual assaults in the academies, the Pentagon made a policy change regarding unrestricted reporting. Victims who file an unrestricted report now can ask for a transfer out of their unit to get away from an alleged attacker.
Greg Jacob, the policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), says that despite the shortcomings in restricted reporting—defects that Congress recognizes—there is value in having a system that allows victims to come forward anonymously and get care.
“A lot of these folks are so traumatized they just want to get the help they need,” said Jacob, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “In a perfect world we would change the culture of the military to be friendlier to survivors so they feel comfortable demanding prosecution. And you would have a judicial system that would actually prosecute these folks at the rate they should be prosecuted, and you would have a judicial system that would issue punishments that would fit the crime, instead of a court giving a person a $500 fine and [sending] them back to work.”
The fight against sexual abuse in the military surely will be waged for years. For now, Gena Smith also wages war with her own personal problems. “Sometimes, I can’t believe my life,” she wrote on her blog. “Seriously, I want to track down my dumb-ass guardian angel and strangle that fucker.”
Until she finds her guardian angel, Smith must wrestle with earthly matters such as post-traumatic stress disorder and the fallout of military attitudes that victimize women soldiers. The abuses she has described have no place in the American military of the 21st century. No woman should have to accept being degraded as part of military service, and those who put their lives on the line should not have to worry about being sexually violated by their own comrades in arms after the gunfire stops.
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