Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Through eight nearly uninterrupted hours of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, nobody—not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing each branch of the military, nor the top judge advocates general for each service, nor any of the assembled senators on the Armed Services committee—contested that military sexual assault has reached crisis proportions.
The numbers lead to that indisputable conclusion: “unwanted sexual contact” cases have risen 35 percent in the last two years alone. Up to 45 percent of women in the military experience sexual assault or unwanted contact at some point, and the Department of Defense itself estimates that as many as 86 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported. And women in the military are nine times as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they’ve experienced sexual assault in the military, even when controlling for combat exposure.
The hearing was a historic, and often dramatic, attempt to face this crisis head on. But there was a central fissure in the meeting between the military commanders and most—but certainly not all—of the senators.
Namely, has the sexual assault crisis in the military destroyed the fundamental trust between enlisted members and their commanders, who are tasked with policing and largely with adjudicating the crimes? And thus, should sexual assault cases be taken out of the chain of command entirely?
As it stands now, if one experiences sexual assault in the military, the first (and only) step is to notify the commanding officer. That officer then has sole discretion on whether to take action, and whether that action is anything from a slap on the wrist for the offender to referral to a court martial.
But commanders are the wrong people to handle these claims, victims’ advocates contend, for reasons ranging from a lack of legal experience, potential unwillingness to declare there is a problem in their unit, a lax attitude towards sexual assault, to cases where the commanders themselves are the perpetrators.
This leads to a pervasive, and accurate, perception within he military that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, which not only discourages victims from coming forward—as the Pentagon’s own numbers demonstrate—but creates an atmosphere where predators feel free to act.
During her testimony, Nancy Parrish, president of the victims’ group Protect Our Defenders, read aloud what victimized soldiers have told her group:
One soldier explained: “I got raped.… When I [told] my squad leader I got shut down…. I waited, spoke with my platoon leaders…. I got told if I say another word…I would be charged with adultery.… I told my new squad leader.… In December 2012 they chaptered me on an adjustment disorder.… He is free…wears the Uniform, [it] represents a Protective Shield, if you’re a rapist with rank.”