Kimberly Hanks, a civilian female employee who works with service members, accused Lieutenant Colonial James Wilkerson of sexually assaulting her last March at a party. Although Hanks was said to have spent the night, Wilkerson and his wife denied charges of any assault. A repeat offense among other charges at an air base in Italy had Wilkerson sent to jail for one year and dismissed from service. However, his charges and dismissal were overturned by a commanding officer on the basis that Wilkerson and his wife came off as more “credible” than the supposed victim. From there, Wilkerson was reinstated and transferred to report in Tucson as a safety officer.
This affair comes as the latest example of an issue that has garnered attention in recent years — cases of sexual harassment, assault, and violence within the ranks of the U.S. military. The case of Wilkerson showcases just how broken the system is. Why?
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization that advocates for sexually assaulted and raped military members, pointed out a truth in the matter, one that is pervasive in similar reports about the Catholic Church and institutions such as high schools and colleges. “They are incentivized to sweep these cases under the rug. A commander's career is on the chopping block if a rape happens under his or her watch,” Parrish said. No one wants to take the rap for an incident as stigmatizing as a rape, and no one wants to have the R word associated with their group or cause. The military ranks of the United States are elite and aim to be untouchable. But what of accountability? What type of Air Force is the public meant to entrust and look up to that throws out a case of sexual assault in favor of one of its own?
Disturbing stories such as Hanks's and BriGette McCoy’s are not anomalies. Horrifying statistics from the Pentagon estimated that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in 2010, with only 244 cases ending in conviction.
The Invisible War, an Academy Award-nominated documentary written and directed by Kirby Dick, tackles the culture of the military and the fear that comes with reporting such cases. But female victims aren’t the only ones being ostracized. The military must contend with a general culture of silence and victim-blaming. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has spoken out against military codes that give higher-ups the ability to overturn sexual assault convictions, and has also criticized rules that allow assailants to be transferred to different bases rather than dismissed from the military. Unless we work on fixing this culture as a whole, the military will never be a truly safe place for women.