The rate of sexual assaults on American women serving in the military remains intolerably high. While an estimated 17 percent of women in the general population become victims at some point in their lives, a 2006 study of female veterans financed by the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that between 23 percent and 33 percent of uniformed women had been assaulted. Those estimates are borne out in other surveys, and a recent Pentagon report on sexual assaults at the service academies found that in the 2010-11 academic year, cadets and midshipmen were involved in 65 reported assaults.
Too often victims are afraid to come forward. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimated that the number of attacks in 2011 by service members on other service members – both women and men – was close to 19,000, more than six times the number of reported attacks.
The problem has outlasted decades of Pentagon studies and task forces and repeated vows of “zero tolerance.” Mr. Panetta has promised that this time will be different. In February, he told Congress, “We have got to get our command structure to be a lot more sensitive about these issues, to recognize sexual assault when it takes place and to act on it, not to simply ignore it.”
Mr. Panetta has announced welcome reforms, including more money for training military investigators and judge advocates to prosecute sexual assault cases, more opportunity for victims to report crimes and request transfers and a system to collect and monitor assault cases. The director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or Sapro, Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog of the Air Force, has pledged to enact the reforms and provide more outreach and support for victims.
There is a lot of tough work ahead. A continuing poster campaign by Sapro, which had started before General Hertog took over, is disturbingly clueless. It carries the tag line, “Ask Her When She’s Sober,” as if predation could be combated through a grotesque parody of an etiquette poster.
The Defense Department’s record of prosecuting assault cases is dismal. In 2010, fewer than 21 percent of cases went to trial, for a number of reasons, including decisions by commanding officers not to prosecute or to impose non-judicial or administrative punishments. About 6 percent of the accused were discharged or allowed to “resign in lieu of court-martial” – quit their jobs. Only about half the cases prosecuted resulted in convictions.
There are also serious problems in the civilian world. It is even harder for military women to get away from abusers they work with or for; they can’t just quit their jobs or leave a combat zone. They must rely on commanding officers who act as investigators, judges and juries, in an extremely tight-knit workplace.
Members of Congress of both parties are trying to address these problems.
A bill from Representative Bruce Braley, Democrat of Iowa, would strengthen military penalties for rape, sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence and end the practice of giving convicted attackers nonjudicial or administrative punishment. It would ensure that allegations of rape and assault are referred to higher-ranking officers to address concerns that lower-level ones are too close to the accused and the victims. It would also allow service members to seek redress in federal court for the military’s failure to investigate or prosecute a sexual crime.
The Pentagon insists that it can reform itself, and we are aware of the perils of civilian intrusion into the military justice system. But for “zero tolerance” to become a reality, Congress may have to push reform forward.