Last year there were 26,000 reported sexual assaults in the military, a 35% increase over the previous year. Chances are good that part of the increase comes from an attitude change on the part of victims about stepping forward to report assaults they might have been afraid to report a year earlier. For whatever part of the increase comes from that, we should be thankful. Victims of sexual assault should never fear reporting these crimes. Unfortunately, in the military, victims are playing against a stacked deck. By rule, they are required to report crimes through their chain of command and not through any police agency that might exist in their branch. The command decides whether a crime which requires prosecution has been committed.
Sadly, many assaults in the military are committed by those same people. If they have the authority to quash an investigation, they will. The victim is thus twice violated, first in the assault, second in their quest for justice. Knowing this has certainly caused many victims to think twice about reporting the assault in the first place. After all, if the crime is not going to be prosecuted, why would victims subject themselves to the humiliation of having the assault documented on their record — with a note stating there was no cause to seek prosecution?
As I was preparing to write this article, a question was posed to me about how the rate of sexual assault in the military compared to the rate among civilians. My immediate reaction was, How could that possibly matter? Women in the military live under a completely different set of rules from civilians (I say "women" because while men are assaulted as well, and I don’t mean to diminish that, clearly the vast majority of assaults are against women).
First, of course, is the chain of command as mentioned earlier. Beyond that, though, is the fact that enlistment periods are firm. You can’t just walk away from the military the way you might if you worked at a bank. Simply leaving in the military could very well mean that you wind up with a prison sentence. So they’re stuck, in a way, and have to consider realities that don’t exist in civilian life. One of those is that if your plan is to make a career of the military, how is that plan affected by charging a superior with rape? In a perfect world, there would be no impact. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.
What all this means is that Congress and the Department of Defense have an obligation to extend protections to our service members that ensure predators are prosecuted. The first step has got to be offering an alternative to filing a complaint with the chain of command, especially if anyone in that chain of command is involved in any way. There are reasons for the current process, but there has to be a way to honor the lives of our service members that gives them a sense of dignity and justice.