If women have a place in the military — and they do — then the military should be protecting them from sexual assaults or other unwanted sexual contact — and it doesn’t. Nor does it protect men, for that matter.
That’s clear from the huge, and growing, number of incidents ‑— 26,000 last year, a 40 percent increase over two years, according to a recent Pentagon report. Some may even have occurred at the Stratton New York Air National Guard base in Glenville, if what Retired Lt. Col. Sharon Dwyer Stepp, who handled claims of sexual assault there, says is true.
For more than a decade the military brass has been promising to fix the problem, but little has changed. That’s not surprising, considering the narrow, outdated attitudes of the generals called to testify this spring before Congress (which is now, finally, showing an interest in addressing the issue).
The generals still sounded as if they thought the only kind of rape is a forced, violent one. They seemed not to get what the rest of society has come to realize: Most rapists aren’t strangers in a dark alley with a knife, but acquaintances who take advantage of their position, or use alcohol or some other means to incapacitate the victim. They talked about a generation of soldiers used to “hooking up,” as if there were no difference between consensual and non-consensual sex. And they worried about false accusations (which are rare).
No wonder that, of those 26,000 incidents estimated by the Pentagon, only 3,374 were reported, and a mere 302 prosecuted. Many victims said they thought they wouldn’t be believed if they complained, or that nothing would happen to their assaulter if they did — and the numbers indicate they were right.
President Obama has spoken out forcefully on the matter, saying that all military personnel must be protected from sexual assault and all perpetrators must be held accountable and punished. But the military culture being what it is, that’s not going to happen unless these cases are taken out of the chain of command.
Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading voice on this issue, has come up with a bill that would do this. It would remove the decision to prosecute serious cases from commanders, for whom justice isn’t always the top priority, and give it to independent military prosecutors.
Gillibrand’s bill had bipartisan support, but committee chairman Carl Levin undercut it by introducing a bill of his own. Although his would make some positive changes, such as criminalizing retaliation against the complainer and having higher-ups review commanders’ decisions not to prosecute, it would still leave things with a chain of command atop which those same generals sit. That doesn’t sound like a formula for real change.
Gillibrand says she will keep her legisalation alive and try to make it part of the larger defense bill later this year. She should.