WASHINGTON, D.C. — A burgeoning scandal over sexual assaults in the military is fueling calls from congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support a bill that gives victims greater confidence that they’ll get justice.
At an emotional press conference on Thursday where former service members spoke of being sexually assaulted while in the military, Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard joined a bipartisan group in both chambers in pushing for reform.
The issue was a personal one for Gabbard, who served two tours of duty in the Middle East with the National Guard. Though she was not available for comment Thursday, she told CNN earlier this month that rape culture was prevalent during her first deployment to Iraq, to the point where soldiers were trained on protecting themselves from other soldiers.
“There was a heightened state of awareness because of incidents that were rising in the camp,” she said. “We were trained and briefed as soldiers about things to be aware of — travel in battle buddy teams. Don’t walk out alone even in a camp where theoretically you’d think you be safe.”
The measure, part of a growing push by Congress to do something about what appears to be a growing number of sexual assaults in the military and two recent disturbing incidents, would take decisions on whether to pursue sex abuse allegations out of the military chain of command and instead hand them to an independent military prosecutor. The change would also affect serious cases involving other alleged crimes with a sentence of a year or more in confinement.
The measure, proposed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and also co-sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, comes after a Department of Defense report last week found an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military in fiscal year 2012. That was over a third more than the previous fiscal year. Additionally, only about 10 percent of the cases — 3,374 — were reported.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called those statistics a “massive wake up call.”
At the press conference, victims spoke of the fear of retaliation if they reported the abuse. Supporters said taking the decision whether to prosecute cases out of the chain of command would make it easier for victims to come forward.
“Commanders must no longer be permitted to interfere with victim reporting and judicial proceedings,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a military sex assault victims advocacy group. She talked about a number of cases in which commanders overturned military convictions in sexual attack cases.
She noted that 51 percent of victims said they were attacked by a person of higher rank, and one-fourth said their attacker was in their chain of command.
The proposed reforms, she said, “are crucial to protecting victims from bias and intimidation, and will give them a fighting chance to achieve justice and prevent further attacks.”
Figures on sexual assault cases on Hawaii military installations were not available this week. However, the issue is a major one in the defense-dependant state. Gabbard said the proposed changes would ensure “that military sexual assault victims who come forward are guaranteed a safe, fair, and transparent process, free from fear of retaliation.”
She later said on the House floor: “This problem is absolutely unacceptable. In every branch of the military from day one, our service members are instilled with the values of honor, respect, and integrity. It’s what makes us proud to wear the uniform and is what makes our military strong. However, this epidemic completely undermines what these values and our service members represent.”
Hirono and Schatz also supported the measure. Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at the press conference that the record number of women in the U.S. Senate and the Armed Services Committee brings unique life experiences to Congress.
“Most women at some time or another has experienced sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances,” Hirono said. But the problem of sexual harassment is worse in the military because of the still largely male-dominated power structure.
She said later in a statement, “The brave women and men who serve should be protected when they sacrifice so much for their country. Instead, many are targeted and become victims of sexual assault and harassment, sometimes even within their own units.”
In a statement, Schatz, who was not at the press conference, said, “Sexual assault in the military is intolerable and tragic.”
The new proposal, he said, “puts military legal professionals in charge of prosecuting serious crimes like sexual assaults, leaving commanders to prosecute military missions.”
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also said she will co-sponsor the bill when it comes to the House. In a statement, she said, “I have maintained a close watch on growing revelations about the horrors suffered by our military personnel not at the hands of our enemies, but by other members of our military. This is inexcusable, and the fact that the problem has persisted this long is an indication of a number of very disturbing problems.” She said she discussed the issue Thursday with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to last week’s Department of Defense reports, 2,558 of the reported allegations were substantiated. Of those, 27 percent were for rape, 35 percent were for abusive and wrongful sexual contact, and 28 percent were for aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault. The other cases involved aggravated sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault and attempts to commit those offenses.
In a separate Defense Department report, the Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel for 2011, showed that more than a fifth of female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while in the military.
The report also found that 62 percent of victims who reported a sexual assault perceived some form of retaliation, whether professional, social, and/or administrative.
Also fueling the push for change are two embarrassing cases that recently came to light, the latest coming this week. A U.S. service member assigned to a sexual assault program is under investigation for allegedly forcing one subordinate into prostitution and sexually assaulting two others, according to NBC News. And two weeks ago the Air Force officer in charge of its sexual assault program was reportedly arrested in an Arlington, Va. parking lot for allegedly groping a woman.
At Thursday’s press conference, Jennifer Norris said she was raped while serving in the U.S. Air Force. “At first I was too afraid to report my assault to my chain of command, but two years later I was forced to report due to the escalation of the behavior and the fear that I would be raped again,” she said.
Norris, who did not serve in Hawaii, said she’d been reluctant to report the rape because, “in the Air Force, I witnessed first hand what happens to those who stepped forward to report their assaults. I did not want to be stigmatized for reporting my assault — as I tried to move forward with my career. Instead, the best option for me was to try and endure it, to suck it up and try and make it until I could get transferred somewhere else — only to have it happen over and over again, like a recurring nightmare.”
She never did get justice, she said, even when she did come forward. “My perpetrators were allowed to resign in lieu of Administrative Hearings, which would have become a matter of public record. My command never offered the chance to proceed with a court martial.”
She said, “If the chain of command had been removed from handling sexual assault cases before I was attacked I believe justice would have been served or perhaps it would have been prevented in the first place.”
Brian Lewis, said at the press conference, he was raped by a superior noncommissioned officer while he was serving as a petty officer on the USS Frank Cable.
“After the rape, I was told by my command not to file a formal report with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. When I was reassigned to seek medical help, my psychiatrist told me that I was lying about the rape and diagnosed me with a Personality Disorder. I was discharged with a General Discharge in August 2001. I have been fighting to correct my record ever since,” he said.
“The current system is broken. As in my case, commanding officers often fail to report rape and sexual assault because of personal biases and conflicts of interests,” he said. “Survivors in turn are afraid to report out of fear of being retaliated against, labeled with errant medical diagnoses, such as personality or bipolar disorder, and involuntarily discharged.”
He said: “The military has proven time and again that it is not capable of punishing the perpetrators or stopping the sexual assault epidemic. It is time to implement fundamental change and start doing right by our men and women, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in uniform.”