Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran who was raped by a fellow airman when she was 22 years old, is frustrated that she hasn’t seen much positive change in the two decades since her own sexual assault.
Wilken said that she and her fellow rape survivors were forced to navigate a military penal system that doesn’t believe them, blames them for the crimes perpetrated against them, and allows their assailants to go unpunished. Wilken herself was told that her sexual assault wasn’t “violent enough” to justify jailing her rapist. “The damage that has been done to me hasn’t been by the act of the assault, it has been the treatment that I have received through the process,” Wilken explained in an interview with USA Today. “It basically re-victimizes you.”
A recent report from the Pentagon revealed there were an estimated 26,000 incidents of sexual assault in the military last year, as well as an alarming spike in sexual crimes that went unreported. Several high-profile scandals in which military leaders are accused of assaulting their subordinates have come to light over the past several months. According to Wilken, that news is enough to trigger her memories of her own painful sexual assault.
“It is a wound that doesn’t ever heal,” she told USA Today. “You can make it feel better, but it doesn’t take much to rip the top off it and there it is again.”
Still, Wilken isn’t exactly surprised that the sexual assault crisis is gaining national attention. In some ways, it’s a good thing for the issue to get more exposure. “It’s kind of been the military’s dirty little secret for way too long,” she explained. “The culture is that if they can figure out a reason why you asked for it, or you are lying or maybe you deserved it, then it makes everybody feel better about looking the other way.”
Fortunately, the increased attention to the issue might help encourage some of the changes that Wilken and her fellow veterans have been pushing for. President Obama has called the rate of sexual assault in the armed forces “an outrage,” and both military leaders and members of Congress have agreed that action needs to taken to fix it. Last week, the House passed the Ruth Moore Act, which would help ensure that military rape survivors can receive the disability benefits they need to cope with the trauma resulting from sexual crimes. And the Air Force just named a woman to head its sexual assault prevention program — which will hopefully be an improvement over the last director, who was himself arrested on charges of committing a sexual assault.