Sexual Assault in the Military: A DoD Cover-Up?
There was quite a struggle in Congress this week. The Department of Defense refused to allow the senior civilian in charge of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to testify in Thursday’s hearing on sexual assault in the military. Rep. John Tierney, chair of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, angrily dismissed Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michael Dominguez from the hearing when Dominguez said that he, the DoD chief of legislative affairs and the chief of public affairs, had ordered Dr. Kaye Whitley, chief of SAPRO, to refuse to honor the subpoena issued by the subcommittee for her appearance.
Full committee Chairman Henry Waxman called the DoD’s decision to prevent Whitley from testifying “ridiculous and indicating DoD is covering something up.” It could also place Whitley in contempt of Congress. Rep. Christopher Shays said the DoD’s decision was “foolish.”
One of the questions that would have been put to Whitley was why DoD had taken three years to name a 15-person civilian task force to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. The panel was finally named early in 2008 but has yet to meet. She would have also been queried on the SAPRO program’s failure to require key information from the military in order to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention and response programs.
I spoke with Dr. Whitley in April 2007 and had asked for an appointment to bring to her office four military women who had been sexually assaulted and wanted to tell her in what ways the DoD programs to prevent sexual assault were not working. Whitley declined, saying she worked at the policy level, and steered me to the chief of the Army sexual assault program. I called the Army program’s chief, who initially said she would talk to our group. However, when I mentioned that the mother of Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, who had been raped in Iraq, would be with us, she said she could not meet with anyone involved with an ongoing case. I replied that Swift’s case was closed as far as the Army was concerned. Her rapist had not been prosecuted, and Swift ended up with a court-martial and 30 days of jail time because she had gone AWOL for her own protection when the Army would not move her out of the unit to which both she and her rapist were still assigned. In view of the fact that the Army chief of prevention of sexual assault refused to meet with any of the four women who had suggestions on how to improve prevention and reporting of sexual assault and rape, I’m not surprised that the DoD snubbed Congress over the same issue.
Rep. Elijah Cummings joined Rep. Waxman in speaking of cover-ups. Cummings raised the cases of military women who had been sexually assaulted before dying in “non-combat incidents.” He spoke specifically about Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who was found beaten and dead of a gunshot wound at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in a burning tent owned by the contractor KBR. Her parents suspected that Johnson had been murdered and that the homicide was being covered up by the Army, which deemed the death a suicide. Cummings also spoke of Army Pfc. Tina Priest, who was raped at Taji, Iraq, and found dead 10 days later of a gunshot wound. After her family had measurements taken of her arms and of the angle of the bullet and found that she could not have pulled the trigger of her M-16 with her finger, the Army said she had pulled the trigger by using her toe. Cummings asked Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, chief of U.S. Army personnel, for assistance in getting all the documents the Army had on Johnson’s death. Additionally, four House members have asked for congressional hearings on the deaths of military personnel who have been classified as suicides, among them LaVena Johnson.
The fireworks with DoD followed the dramatic testimony of Mary Lauterbach, the mother of murdered pregnant Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who had been raped in May 2007 at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Accused in the case is Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. After the rape, several protective orders were issued to keep Laurean away from his victim. The burned body of Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave in the backyard of Laurean’s home in January 2008. Laurean fled to Mexico, where he was subsequently apprehended, and he now is awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial. Lauterbach’s mother explained in great detail the warning signs that Laurean was a danger to her daughter and claimed that all these signs were ignored by the Marine Corps.
Two other military women have been murdered near military bases in North Carolina in the past two months.
Red Cross employee Ingrid Torres told the subcommittee of being raped at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea by an Air Force flight doctor. She spoke of the difficulty she had obtaining medical and emotional treatment from the facility where the doctor still worked, and later from military facilities in other parts of the world where she was assigned.
Rep. Jane Harman cited Veterans Administration statistics that one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted. She said the prosecution rate of those accused of raping fellow military service members is abysmally low. Of the 2,212 reported rapes in the military in 2007, only 8 percent of the cases ended in court-martial of the perpetrator, while the rate of prosecution in civilian courts is 40 percent.
Lt. Gen. Rochelle, the Army chief of personnel, reported the little known statistic that 12 percent of reported rapes in the military are of male military personnel.
Rep. Shays said he had no confidence in DoD or the military services and their policies of prevention of sexual assault, and asked how recruiting will fare when young women learn that one in three women is sexually assaulted and when young men find out that one in 10 men is raped while in the military.
Brenda Farrell, director of the Government Accountability Office, said that getting data on rape from the military services is difficult because there are no common definitions of terms for the services to use in such cases.
Farrell said the GAO believes rates of sexual assault currently used by DoD are low because many military personnel do not want to report what happened and suffer the gossip, harassment and stigma prevalent in units when confidential reporting is compromised. In a survey of 3,757 persons on 14 military installations, 103 said they had been sexually assaulted in the past year and had reported it, while 52 others said they did not report the sexual assault.
Several Congress members spoke of lack of leadership and accountability in stopping sexual assault. The same day as the sexual assault hearing, the Navy relieved two senior officers of the USS George Washington because of the injury to 23 sailors and $70 million in damage to the ship caused by a smoking violation. Imagine if commanders in units where rape occurred were relieved of command for the harmful actions of their subordinates. That would send a signal of zero tolerance of sexual assault, whereas in the current climate victims are intimidated and alleged perpetrators are given administrative punishment instead of court-martial.
Sexual violence against both female and male military personnel must stop. Let Congress know of your concern about sexual assault in our military. Call or e-mail members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees and members of the Oversight and Government Reform committees.
Ann Wright is a retired Army Reserve colonel and a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the Department of State on March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq war. She is the co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience” (www.voicesofconscience.com).