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Military's Shameful Record On Sexual Assault Must Be a Top Priority For Chuck Hagel

While the majority of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing today for secretary of defense centered on Iran, sequestration, and Israel, there is a topic of equal importance that Hagel has only given perfunctory remarks on: the issue of sexual violence in the military. 

According to the Defense Department one in three women in the military have been sexually assaulted. Thirty-three percent of victims do not report their assault because the person who assaulted them is a friend of the superior they must report to. Twenty-five percent do not report because the individual they must report to is the perpetrator. Of the 3,192 reports of sexual assault in 2011, only 191 were convicted at courts-martial. Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow solider than killed by an enemy.

During Hagel’s opening remarks on Thursday he stated that he would continue the work of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in combating sexual assault in the military. Panetta believes that the reported number of sexual assaults does not reflect that actual number of assaults, which he puts upwards of 19,000 each year. Changes in policies stemmed in large part from the release of the documentary The Invisible WarThe movie traced the stories of 36 individuals who were raped or sexually assaulted by those in the military, and it unearthed the mishandling of reports and cover-ups by superiors and commanders in charge.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) got Chuck Hagel to commit to providing stronger leadership on ending rape and sexual violence in the military. Hagel said he would institute a zero tolerance policy on violence against women. The defense department has a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault, but this policy has done little to stem the tide of abuse. It is disappointing that Hagel did not take his time to address specific systemic barriers that still exist to stopping sexual violence in the military. It will take more than just a commitment and policy changes to end the epidemic of rape in the military. 

See despite the introduction of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SARPO) by Congress, it has been ineffective in dealing with military sexual assaults. This is because SARPO has no enforcement mechanism and can only make recommendations. 

The military is also ill-equipped to deal with the after effects of sexual trauma according to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The policy that Panetta put forward was to ensure that each military unit had a Special Victims Unit. But there are significant barriers to accomplishing this including, where and when an assault happens. The collecting of forensic data is also not being addressed as individuals lack the training necessary to complete these exams. The GAO says these failures prevent the Department of Defense from adequately addressing sexual violence in the military. The GAO report also pointed to the failure of the department to put specific guidelines in place to address how sexual assaults should be handled. 

The San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base has been a startling example of just how systemic the abuse is, as 32 basic training instructors are currently under investigation upon allegations of misconduct by 59 trainees. There were also attempts to cover up, ignore, or downplay allegations. Even as it was discovered that reports were being covered up, there was still a failure to act. 

Rape and sexual harassment in the military cannot be tolerated, and it is being perpetrated by individuals who know they can get away with it. Hagel can help end this epidemic by removing the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes from the chain of command.

With his confirmation likely, Chuck Hagel has a duty to make the military a safer and more inclusive place for all those who serve our country. 

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