Sexual Assault in the Military Is Still Going Unchecked. Will Congress Finally Act?

Sexual Assault in the Military Is Still Going Unchecked. Will Congress Finally Act?

Sexual Assault in the Military Is Still Going Unchecked. Will Congress Finally Act?

Over the past decade, the incident of sexual assault in the military has risen. Congress may finally have seen enough to mandate reforms.


Paula Coughlin was a 30-year-old helicopter pilot and navy lieutenant when Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, called her into his office at the Pentagon. It was June 1992. Days earlier, Coughlin had gone on national television to tell of being assaulted by a gauntlet of drunk service members in a hotel hallway during the Tailhook Convention, a gathering of naval aviators that took place in Las Vegas the previous September. Coughlin reported the incident to her supervisor, who failed to do anything. Then she took her complaint to Navy officials at the Pentagon. Months later, frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, Coughlin decided to go to the media, blowing the scandal wide open.

Cheney was standing behind his desk when Coughlin entered. He wasn’t pleased. “You know, I had to fire the secretary of the Navy today because of you,” she recalled him saying. To Coughlin, this was not much of a remedy: What she wanted was to see her attackers brought to justice. Then Cheney told her that the president wanted to meet her. A car whisked Coughlin to the White House, where she had tea with President Bush and his wife, Barbara. Bush cried, Coughlin remembers, and told her that he felt bad for her father, who had also served as a Navy aviator.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck? I’m consoling the president?’” Coughlin recalled in a recent interview. Later that night, her sister picked her up at the Pentagon and they sat in the near-empty parking lot, drinking beers and talking it over. “I was shaking my head, like: ‘This is just not the way it’s supposed to go.’”

Tailhook was the first major scandal to draw public attention to sexual violence in the military. Ultimately an investigation concluded that more than 80 women and seven men had been assaulted or harassed at the convention; 14 admirals and nearly 300 naval aviators were dismissed or disciplined. “The larger issue is a culture problem, which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women to exist,” then–Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe said at the time. “Senior leadership” was “totally committed to confronting this problem,” he promised. But no one was criminally prosecuted, and Coughlin left the Navy soon after.

The three decades since Tailhook have been marked by repeated scandals across every branch of the military and similar promises of change from leadership, all of which have failed to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence within the ranks. Among the most notorious incidents have been the rapes and assaults at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1996; the Air Force Academy scandal in 2003, when dozens of female cadets reported that they were retaliated against for reporting assaults and harassment; the dozens of trainees at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas who were raped, assaulted, and harassed by more than 30 instructors between 2009 and 2012. The Department of Defense estimates that 20,500 service members are sexually assaulted by military personnel each year, but only 6,290 cases were reported in 2020, and fewer than 1 percent of reported cases for which information is publicly available resulted in a conviction. Despite rising assault reports, since 2015 the conviction rate has fallen by 80 percent.

Many survivors blame the low rates of reporting and conviction on the way the military justice system handles assault and harassment. Decisions about whether to prosecute allegations of major crimes are made by commanding officers, who don’t have legal training and may be friendly with the accused—all of which, victims have said, leaves them vulnerable to retaliation and conflicts of interest within the system. For the past decade, victim advocates have been pushing to take prosecution decisions out of the chain of command and make them the responsibility of military prosecutors. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored legislation to do this in 2013, sparking a contentious debate. Gillibrand has reintroduced her bill several times since, but it’s never had enough support to pass a full floor vote in the Senate.

But that has changed now. As of June, Gillibrand’s bill—the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act—has more than 70 supporters, including Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran and assault survivor. After a long string of broken promises and incremental reforms, survivors who have spent years telling lawmakers and the public about their trauma say the significance of the legislation is too immense to quantify. “This would mean everything to me,” said Harmony Allen, who was raped by an Air Force instructor at a base in Texas in 2000, when she was 19, and has been deeply involved in advocacy despite suffering lasting brain damage from the attack. “It’s not just about my rapist,” she continued. “It’s about changing [the system] for every rape victim.”

And yet the fate of reform remains uncertain. Still opposed by many military leaders, Gillibrand’s bill is being held up by Democratic leadership on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and supporters fear it could be weakened during the legislative process. “I think all of us are afraid to really be hopeful,” said Coughlin, referring to the group of survivors who have been engaged in the legislative debate and stay in touch through texts and social media. For three decades, Coughlin has been “beaten with the courage stick,” as she put it: praised for sharing her story by people who decline to use their power to change anything. “I have done so much face time with military leadership, with congressional leadership, even jumping in elevators and talking to senators where they look me right in the eye and say, ‘We are going to do something’… and they don’t,” Coughlin said. “I’m really trying not to think about it right now. We’ll just see.”

The debate about reforming the military justice system has never fallen neatly along party lines. When Gillibrand first proposed taking prosecution decisions out of the chain of command, two of her strongest opponents were Democrats: former senators Carl Levin of Michigan, then chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. McCaskill and other critics argued that stripping commanders of their authority over prosecutions was too drastic a change and could undermine their ability to enforce order and discipline within the ranks. Keep commanders invested in the process, they said, and give more incremental reforms time to work. (Lawmakers have approved a number of less controversial changes to the military justice system since 2013, including making retaliation against victims a crime and eliminating commanders’ ability to overturn jury verdicts.) “If five years from now we’re having fewer sexual assault convictions…I’ll be first in line” to support deeper changes, McCaskill told me in 2013.

Eight years later, the numbers have gone in the wrong direction. Assaults and reports went up, while prosecutions and convictions plummeted. “It’s very frustrating,” said Col. Don Christensen, who served as chief prosecutor in the Air Force from 2010 to 2014 and is now retired. Christensen worked on more than 300 sexual assault cases during his time in uniform and repeatedly saw commanders let personal relationships or self-interest take precedence over justice. Under current procedure, a small percentage of commanding officers are designated as “convening authorities,” meaning they determine whether to convene a court-martial in response to an allegation. (Fewer than 3 percent of commanding officers have this authority, a fact that undermines the argument that it is central to commanders’ ability to enforce order and discipline.) The convening authorities base their decisions in part on pretrial hearings intended to determine whether there is probable cause sufficient to proceed with prosecution, but they wield significant discretion over the final decisions. To Christensen it was obvious that legal experts, rather than commanders trained as pilots or artillery officers, should be making decisions about which accusations warranted prosecution, particularly since the convening authority is usually in the accused’s chain of command. Christensen let his feelings be known within the ranks during the initial debate about Gillibrand’s legislation. He left the service in 2014 when it became clear to him that he was “not welcome anymore.”

Now he feels that legislators wasted eight years waiting to see if the military could solve the problem on its own. “The reasons to change the process haven’t changed over those eight years. They were just as legitimate eight years ago as they are today. So we’ve had to have a lot of failures to get people over the hump,” Christensen said. “I blame the generals and admirals for obstruction. If they had set aside their egos for a while and looked at the justice system objectively and realized, ‘You know what? I’m an artillery officer—I’m really not qualified to be understanding whether there’s sufficient admissible evidence under the rules of evidence to prosecute this case’…. It’s just that their egos got in the way—and tradition.”

Among the high-profile failures that eroded resistance to reform in the House and Senate was Pfc. Vanessa Guillen’s murder in 2020. Before she was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by a fellow soldier and left in a shallow grave, Guillen had twice reported being harassed by a supervisor at the Fort Hood Army base. Her own supervisor and other officers failed to initiate an investigation. A subsequent review by an independent commission found a “permissive” climate toward sexual assault and harassment at Fort Hood, which left female soldiers in “survival mode, vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized.” The commission’s findings called into question the previous assurances from Army leaders about their commitment to rooting out abuse. Eight years earlier, during the Senate debate on Gillibrand’s legislation, then–Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno assured the Armed Services Committee that “combating sexual assault and sexual harassment within the ranks is our number one priority.”

The Fort Hood report was one of the factors that swayed Senator Ernst, who has said she was “very torn” on the issue previously. “When you have a command climate like that [at Fort Hood], you’ve already got soldiers that feel they can do bad and evil things and get away with it, and obviously in this situation, they were,” Ernst told The Wall Street Journal. “So what we need to do is remove the commander from the decision-making for these heinous crimes and focus on prevention efforts, foster a climate of dignity and respect.” Gillibrand told me that getting Ernst’s support was pivotal, since she is the lone Republican female combat veteran in the Senate and someone her Republican colleagues trust on the issue.

Getting President Biden’s support also helped build momentum for reform. (Biden said he supported the change when he was asked on the campaign trail in 2020 by Nancy Parrish, the founder of Protect Our Defenders, the nonprofit that has led the effort to transform the military justice system.) In April, an independent review commission established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a preliminary recommendation to take prosecutorial decisions regarding sexual assault and harassment charges out of the chain of command. The following month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, said he would no longer oppose the reform, though he stopped short of endorsing it. “We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle,” Milley told the Associated Press. In late June, Austin said he, too, supported taking sexual assault and related cases out of the chain of command. In July, when the commission released its final report recommending that reform and 27 others, Biden affirmed that his administration would work with Congress to implement them, calling for “concrete actions that fundamentally change the way we handle military sexual assault and that make it clear that these crimes will not be minimized or dismissed.”

But some of the top brass are still resisting reform, and expressed their reservations in memos submitted to Austin this spring. In the Senate, Armed Services Committee chair Jack Reed and ranking member James Inhofe, both Army veterans, have blocked the bill from receiving a full vote on the Senate floor, where it would almost certainly pass, insisting instead that it receive further debate in committee and be incorporated into the annual defense policy bill rather than pass as stand-alone legislation, a maneuver that Gillibrand fears could be used to weaken or kill the reform. (Gillibrand’s bill was added to the National Defense Authorization Act in late July, after the print version of this story went to press. Details could be changed later through a “manager’s amendment” on the Senate floor or during the conference committee process through which the legislation is reconciled with the House version. “Chairman Reed has passed out of committee the strongest reforms to the military justice system in US history and I am grateful for his work and leadership,” Gillibrand said in a statement.)

“The [Department of Defense] is still actively trying to prevent this provision from becoming law, and they are actively trying to water it down and narrow the focus,” Gillibrand said. A major sticking point is whether military prosecutors should take over charging decisions for all felony-level crimes, as Gillibrand and her cosponsors have proposed, or whether that reform should be limited to sex offenses, which is what administration officials, including Austin, and holdouts like Reed have argued for. (Reed’s office did not respond to an interview request.) Advocates for survivors strongly object to the idea of creating “pink courts,” or a siloed justice system for sexual assault and harassment cases. “We need a system that is unbiased and highly professional,” said Gillibrand. “Why would you limit that to just one class of plaintiffs or one class of defendants?”

To Gillibrand, Christensen, and other advocates for reform, resistance is grounded in something larger than a difference of opinion about the structure of the military justice system. “It’s about congressional oversight generally. They don’t like to change, they don’t like being told what to do, and they want to have it the way they want it, because the current system allows commanders to hold all the cards,” Gillibrand said. “If we don’t oversee the DOD, then nobody does.”

Reforming the military justice system is a reactive response to the problem of sexual violence: Prosecution comes after the crime has already occurred. Advocates for Gillibrand’s legislation—which includes some prevention measures promoted by Senator Ernst, including new training requirements—argue that improving systems of accountability will have a preventative effect, by countering the tradition of impunity that treated rape as an occupational hazard. “Young people…have higher expectations from their leadership. I can’t guarantee that those expectations are going to be met, but they can be codified,” said Coughlin. Describing sexual violence as a “cultural” problem has often been a way for military leaders to sidestep debate about concrete, systemic reforms, she added. Advocates have identified other processes that could be improved, such as offering survivors limited immunity from “collateral misconduct charges” that might discourage them from reporting assaults, such as charges for underage drinking. Still, the armed forces remain male-dominated institutions with rigid hierarchies in which superiors have an immense amount of power over subordinates, the kind of power imbalances that can incubate predation.

Paula Coughlin left the Navy in 1994, after being transferred and barred from flying. The Navy said it grounded her because the assaults had left her emotionally unstable, but Coughlin understood it as a form of retaliation. (Investigations have found a pattern of supervisors declaring service members who’ve reported assaults to be mentally unfit for duty.) “The physical attack on me by the naval aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention and the covert attacks on me that followed have stripped me of my ability to serve,” she wrote in her resignation letter. Then she tried to disappear. “I changed my name and hid and got married and had children and really pretended like I was living a full-bodied life as someone else,” she told me.

In 2012, Coughlin saw The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military, for which she’d been interviewed. The film troubled her deeply. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’ve been living in a bubble, and this has just continued to get worse,’” she said. “Even at the time of my assault I didn’t understand the scope of the problem, so to see it on the giant screen—I mean, it messed me up. I came home from the screening and probably was suicidal for a couple of months. And I had little kids. I had such an identity crisis: ‘Why did I look away?’” She continued, “I got to a part of my life where either it got worse or it got better, and to become empowered by it was a choice.”

Harmony Allen, who has worked with Coughlin and Protect Our Defenders to build support in the Senate for Gillibrand’s legislation, said that her assault still challenges her faith. “I’m a Christian, and I do try to say that there’s a reason for everything, but sometimes I’m like, ‘Seriously—why did I have to get raped?’” Allen comes from a family with a long history of military service: Her father served 22 years, and her sister has served 19. When her own teenage daughter asked her about joining the service, Allen hesitated. “I said, ‘All right, baby, if I’m being honest, I don’t want you to go in.’” She told her daughter that she’d support her whatever her decision, but Allen is deeply afraid for her safety. “What the military is doing is not working. It’s the same thing every year. We have to get this bill passed.” Legislation can’t undo the crime committed against her, but it would give her some peace of mind, Allen said. “I’ll feel like, ‘Dang, we did something.’”

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