The U.S. military seems to be trying to deal with its troubling pattern of sexual assault cases. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the military will begin new procedures for handling sex crimes, including creating a minimum rank for service members who deal with those cases.
This news comes after a story that ran this weekend on CNN detailing cases of women in each branch of the military who were diagnosed with a mental disorder and dismissed from the military after filing a sexual assault or sexual harassment complaint.
The stories are gruesome, telling of several women’s experience of serious sexual trauma, who are then essentially rejected from the military when they share what happened to them.
CNN has interviewed women in all branches of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, who tell stories that follow a similar pattern — a sexual assault, a command dismissive of the allegations and a psychiatric discharge.
Schroeder says a fellow Marine followed her to the bathroom in April 2002. She says he then punched her, ripped off her pants and raped her. When she reported what happened, a non-commissioned officer dismissed the allegation, saying, “’Don’t come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind,’” Schroeder recalls.
Moore says she was alone in her barracks in October 2002 when a non-commissioned officer from another battery tried to rape her. When she filled out forms to report it, she says, her first sergeant, told her: “Forget about it. It never happened,” and tore up the paperwork.
“It felt like a punch in the gut,” Moore says. “I couldn’t trust my chain of command to ever back me up.”
McClendon says she was aboard a Navy destroyer at sea when a superior raped her on the midnight to 2 a.m. watch. After reporting the attack, she was diagnosed with a personality disorder and deemed unfit to serve.
ThinkProgress reached out to Kayla Williams, a female veteran and author of Love My Rifle More Than You, who has written extensively about women in the military, to see if the CNN report sounded correct to her. Williams not only confirmed the CNN article; she told a similar sexual assault experience she witnessed:
While I was at the Defense Language Institute, a woman reported sexual assault — and was threatened with disciplinary action for having been drinking underage when the assault happened. She was later discharged with a personality disorder diagnosis. Stories like that [discourage] victims from coming forward, which prevents justice from being done. Since those who commit sexual assault are often repeat offenders, discharging victims while not vigorously prosecuting those who commit assault could also ruin the careers — and lives — of multiple victims while allowing criminals the freedom to continue. The Department of Defense has been making progress in fighting sexual assault within the military, but it has a long way to go. Treating victims of sexual assault seriously and with the dignity and respect they deserve, rather than sweeping cases under the rug with this type of discharge, is an important step in continuing that progress.
Military sexual traumas, as they are called within the armed forces, are shockingly common and on the rise. 19,000 incidents were predicted (PDF) in the last year alone. But there is little transparency on sexual assault cases, and the ACLU has requested more information through a Freedom of Information Act. A judge ruled recently that the armed forces were too slow in fulfilling the request, and ordered the records released by this time next month. The military has not yet complied.
In the mean time, the new regulations announced by Defense Secretary Panetta will hopefully provide some relief to victims: Not only does it change minimum ranking, it also requires military investigators to be trained in helping sexual assault victims and requires troops to have sexual assault awareness training when they go into active duty.