After an Army drill sergeant was accused of raping or assaulting a dozen female soldiers while deployed in Afghanistan and in a bathroom at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, it seemed like the military justice system worked the way it was supposed to. The accused, Angel Sanchez, was tried at a court-martial. In September, he was convicted on multiple counts, sentenced to twenty years confinement and given a dishonorable discharge.
But testimony from two of Sanchez’s victims suggested that despite two decades of promises to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault, the military is still hostile to service members who report sex crimes. One private testified that a high-ranking officer told her company that no one would graduate “if any more sexual assault cases” were reported. Another victim said a Lieutenant Colonel told her and other trainees “not to make any more allegations.” As a result, she said, “I have issues of trusting those who are in charge of me.”
The question of whether the military is doing enough to stamp out not only sex crimes but also retaliation against those who report them was raised again Thursday by the release of a 136-page report by the Department of Defense. The Pentagon estimates that 19,000 service members were assaulted this year, down from 26,000 in 2012. Only one in four of those crimes were reported, though more victims came forward to report assaults than in previous years. About two-thirds said that after reporting crimes against them, they were retaliated against by their superiors or peers.
The military and some members of Congress say the numbers indicate progress. “Increased reporting signals not only growing trust of command and confidence in the response system, but serves as the gateway to provide more victims with support and to hold a greater number of offenders appropriately accountable,” the report reads. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said in a statement that “reporting of assaults being up and incidents of assault being down are exactly the combination we’re looking for.”
McCaskill championed a number of reforms that the Pentagon implemented over the last year, including removing commanders’ ability to overturn convictions, giving victims access to counselors to help them navigate the military justice system, and making it a crime to retaliate against victims. But she has also been one of the most vocal opponents of a proposal to give military prosecutors the authority to bring a case to trial. Under the current system, only commanding officers—who may have conflicts of interest or lack legal training—have what is called “convening authority,” or the power to decide whether charges warrant a trial.