Heartbreaking stories of sexual assault perpetrated against
female soldiers and military contractors, including those of Maria
Leigh Jones, and Lavena
Johnson, have shown that women in the military face risk harassment, rape,
and even murder.
At an oversight hearing on sexual assault held by the
Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs last Thursday, Mary
Lauterbach, the mother of Maria, and Ingrid Torres, a victim of sexual assault
and an employee of the American Red Cross working with military bases, were
called to testify. The subcommittee had also subpoenaed Dr. Kaye Whitley,
director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SARPO) office, and
invited Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary for defense, to
But Whitley didn’t appear before the committee. When
Subcommittee Chairman John Tierney (D-MA) inquired why Whitley hadn’t shown,
Dominguez said he instructed her not to testify before the committee. Tierney
and Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) noted that it was illegal
for Whitley not to appear before the committee with a subpoena. "Dr. Whitley is
in serious legal jeopardy," Tierney said. "This is an unacceptable position for
the Department to take." As a result, he dismissed Dominguez before Dominguez
even delivered his testimony.
It’s unclear why the DoD isn’t willing to cooperate with
hearings on sexual assault, but from the Tailhook
scandal in 1991 to what appears to be deliberate resistance to cooperation
with Congress today, the DoD’s record on sexual assault is far from stellar.
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The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
estimates that one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, but
chances of sexual assault on women in the military are worse. Congresswoman
Jane Harman (D-CA) recently said
that 29 percent of women in the military have experienced sexual assault but as
little as 8 percent are referred to courts marital. The Pentagon reported
(PDF) this March that 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men in the DoD had
experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in the previous year.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) preliminary report (PDF) released
at the hearing last week surveyed a sample of servicemembers at 14 bases
domestically and abroad. Roughly half of the 103 who said they had experienced
a sexual assault in the previous 12 months chose not to report the incident,
the report found. Women who experience sexual assault in the military seem not
to report for a variety of reasons, including "the belief that nothing would be
done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would
gossip," says the GAO’s report.
Often the ways sexual assaults are addressed across the
branches aren’t consistent with one another, as Torres discovered. As an
employee of the American Red Cross, Torres worked with different branches when
she was stationed on bases in Japan,
Iraq, Korea, and Germany. While she had supportive
personnel in Korea, the
sexual assault response commanders stationed in Germany during her time there resisted her requests to keep paper records (so that her assailant, a doctor, might not
Some of the branches have volunteer Victim Advocates (VAs)
and other branches appoint them in each unit. Torres noted that the volunteers,
often women who had been through a sexual assault themselves, tended to be
better advocates than appointed ones since they had elected to fill the
position. VAs also need the power to operate outside the chain of command so
they can better protect victims from dangerous situations, Lauterbach said. A
VA with the power to accelerate a base transfer might have saved her daughter’s
Another solution that both Torres and the GAO report pointed
to is that sexual assaults can be reported in two different ways: restricted
and unrestricted. A restricted report allows a victim to confidentially report
an assault and not necessarily press charges against the assailant. An
unrestricted report, meanwhile, must be reported up the chain of command and
automatically triggers a criminal investigation. An unrestricted report is
especially problematic for women who have been assaulted by someone in the
chain of command. By giving all victims of sexual assault at least the option
to file a restricted report, more victims might be willing to report.
What SARPO ultimately needs, the GAO report concluded, is
"an oversight framework-including clear objectives, milestones, performance
measures, and criteria for measuring progress." But this is another area where
the DoD has shown resistance. Congress directed the DoD to form a task force to
address the issue of sexual assault in 2004, but it is only until recently that
the task force has a full group appointed and they have yet to meet.
Congressman Chris Shays (R-CT), the ranking member of the
oversight subcommittee, called for the formation of the task force in 2004 and
noted that at the time the DoD kept telling him they were "days away from being
fully operational." Still, no comprehensive database for tracking sexual
assault has been created and there continue to be large inconsistencies for how
SARPO policies are implemented.
But as dismal as it may look for victims and potential
victims of sexual assault in the military, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren has
recently shown new leadership on this issue. At a training session last month,
a commitment to the SARPO program. "We will work in the area of sexual assault
prevention, not just responding to the tragedy of sexual assault, but we want
to be a model in how we prevent sexual assault," he said.
It seems clear that the military has a long way to go in
addressing and preventing sexual assault. By creating clear and victim-friendly
guidelines that are consistent across all branches, as well as creating
high-quality training, the military might begin to prevent a number of sexual
assaults that occur. As the GAO report indicated, the DoD has taken some steps
toward addressing this problem, but the first step would seem to be