A new report released on Wednesday calls on Congress to pass new reforms related to sexual assault in the military, a problem that the Defense Department estimates occurred approximately 26,000 times over the course of the last year but may in fact be even higher.
The report from the Center for American Progress — titled “Twice Betrayed: Bringing Justice to the U.S. Military’s Sexual Assault Problem” — was first commissioned in the aftermath of several high-profile cases involving rape and assault in the military earlier this year. In the most damaging to the armed forces’ image, the then-head of the Air Force’s sexual assault response program was charged with sexual battery in Arlington, VA.
After laying out the history of the problem, the report pushes back on myths about sexual assault that occurs within the military, including statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault against men as well as women. In 2012, of the 26,000 military personnel estimated to have experienced sexual assault, 14,000 were men and 12,000 were women,” the report notes. The opening of new positions to women within the armed services is also dismissed as a reason for an increase in estimated sexual assaults.
Rather than seeing a trend towards improved reporting, CAP’s analysts worry that instead of being over-exaggerated, as some have claimed, that the numbers may in fact still be too low. “A significant percentage of cases, for example, are counted each year as a single ‘incident’ but involve multiple perpetrators and/or multiple victims,” the report explains, also noting that it doesn’t include information from the service academies.
Among the recommendations the report lays out, the most controversial is likely to be the support thrown behind a proposal to remove military sexual assault cases from the chain of command, stripping commanding officers of their ability to try cases in their units. The idea is a cornerstone of Sen. Kirsten Gilibrand’s (D-NY) legislation, titled the Military Justice Improvement Act, which has gained bipartisan support since it was first introduced.
In conducting research to critique the proposal, Larry Korb — a CAP Senior Fellow and one of the co-authors of the report — told reporters that other countries who have carried out such reforms and the results. When the United Kingdom, France, and Israel removed sexual assault cases from the chain of command, Korb said, there was actually no impact on military readiness. Should such a step not prove successful in reducing the amount of sexual assault in the military, Korb went on, the cases should then be moved to civilian courts as seen in France and Germany.
Less controversial recommendations include reforming Article 32 hearings within the military justice system, which can often be used — as seen in the case of two women at the Naval Academy — to conduct lengthy and intrusive public questioning about accusers’ sexual history. And while Congress last year extended federal whistleblower status to survivors who report rape in the military, the report also calls for this year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to make it a crime under Article 92 of the Unified Code of Military Justice to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault.
The chain of command “should be asking for forgiveness” from the thousands we have failed to serve and protect over the past 25 years, former Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Laich (ret.) told reporters during a press call. “When an American female service member serving in Afghanistan has a higher probability of being raped by a fellow soldier than being killed by the Taliban, I would submit that the chain of command has a problem,” he continued. Officers’ rank denotes no special legal knowledge, he also pointed out, arguing that legal professionals should handle these cases.
Anu Bhagwhati, a former Marine and founder of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), also spoke to reporters on the call about her experience while serving. “As a former commander, and a Marine who saw my own share of harassment, discrimination and betrayal, I saw swept under the rug often by senior officers often enough to know that sweeping institutional change is needed to give survivors of sexual violence a shot at justice.” SWAN helped draft the Gillibrand’s bill, Bhagwhati explained, arguing that it strengthens justice for both the victims and the accused.
“Military sexual assault undermines the trust that is the backbone of every military unit,” said IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff in a statement released on Tuesday alongside SWAN and the Vietnam Veterans of America. “When it happens, it must be aggressively and justly prosecuted. The Military Justice Improvement Act would allow the military to pursue criminals while maintaining the rights of the accused. This balanced, impartial system will strengthen the military justice system and encourage more survivors to report.”
Not everyone agrees, however, with Gilibrand’s plans, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the powerful chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin proposed his own set of reforms earlier this year, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), which leave sexual assault cases within the chain of command. Military officials testifying before the Senate in June also spoke out against the proposal, though many of their concerns were addressed within the CAP analysis.