Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Thursday criticized the military’s lackluster approach to sexual violence, saying that some officials “looked the other way” rather than pursuing convictions.
These words came during the funeral of Jeremy Goulet, a former serviceman who was killed last week in a gunfight with police after killing two Santa Cruz, CA officers. Goulet, who had a long history of incidences involving sexual assault and harassment, was released from the Army with a “less than honorable” discharge in 2006 as part of a plea bargain in a rape case.
Had Goulet been convicted of rape under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he would likely be serving a sentence in a military prison. Panetta, who stepped down as Secretary of Defense two weeks ago, acknowledged the flaws in the military justice system’s handling of sexual violence while speaking at the officers’ funeral. “We do know that he had a history of sexual violence both in and out of the military. And for whatever reason, people somehow always looked the other way,” Panetta said. “And at some point, somebody pays a price.”
Sexual assault in the military has been granted a renewed spotlight this week, after Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin’s overturned Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s conviction of aggravated sexual assault, sparking outrage. Wilkerson — who was originally kicked out of the Air Force as part of his conviction — has been reinstated, though removed from the list of officers up for promotion by the Secretary of the Air Force. An estimated 19,000 instances of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) occurred in 2011 alone, though the actual number may be higher due to underreporting.
Panetta made promoting women’s rights a key part of his tenure at the Pentagon, including vowing to reduce the number of sexual assaults in the military. After Panetta signed off on changes that would allow women to serve in fighting roles inside combat zones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the integration of women into combat units could help reduce sexual assault.
During his confirmation hearing, current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pledged to continue Panetta’s work in this regard. Hagel is now being lobbied by several Senators, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), to do more — including looking into the Wilkerson case.