Like many other Americans, I was mostly unaware of the sexual assault crisis happening in our military until I saw the film “The Invisible War.” The survivors’ testimonies and shocking statistics made the documentary impossible to forget.
Currently, the Uniform Code of Military Justice gives commanding officers the power to overturn military convictions — for example, if a soldier is accused of a sexual assault, tried, and then found guilty, the final decision of whether he or she is punished can ultimately rest with the commanding officer. Think how traumatizing it would be to be assaulted by a trusted coworker, report the assault (sometimes against the advice of your colleagues), go through a harrowing trial, and then realize not only will your assailant never be punished, you will be expected to work alongside, or, in some cases, under them as if nothing ever happened.
Fortunately, due to many survivors’ bravery and outspokenness, several members of the United States Congress, especially women like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Representative Niki Tsongas (D-Mass), and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) have been vocal proponents of changing how the military prosecutes these offenders. As of March 2013, Senator McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, drafted legislation that could take away some of the commanding officer’s power to overturn convictions and make the military more accountable in how they prosecute sexual assault cases.
“Giving military commanders with no legal experience the ability to completely nullify a jury’s verdict without even requiring justification is against everything that we believe about justice in this country,” McCaskill said. “I hope this bill starts a bigger discussion of how sexual assault cases are being handled by the military and how we can ensure that offenders are being held accountable.”
Senator Kirsten Gillebrand has recently gained Internet fame over a video released during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in which they were discussing a case where, once again, the assailant was found guilty and then the conviction was overturned by his commanding officer. In the video she says, “… if you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework, I am sorry to say you are wrong.” She also asked the military official if he thought justice was done — he declined to say whether or not he thought justice was done, and only repeated that everyone involved in the case had done their job.
Representative Niki Tsongas and her counterpart Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio) founded the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, which works to brainstorm initiatives on how to curb sexual assault. Representative Tsongas has said, “We have heard over and over again that it is not just the military’s sexual assault policies that must improve, but even more importantly the culture of the services when it comes to confronting these assaults.”
What these women and many other advocates and survivors are saying about military sexual assault is simply this: When a rape or assault is reported it should be taken seriously, and the rapist should be prosecuted and punished. Of course we should expect this from our military, but is it too much to demand that of them when civilian society can’t even get it right? Women are often cautioned to not walk by themselves at night, or encouraged to take self-defense classes, or to wear modest clothing to prevent assaults. Rapes are underreported, often due to victims’ misgivings that they will be given a fair trial or that their rapist will ever serve jail time. And, sadly, they are correct. Only about 3% of rapists ever spend a day in jail.
Now that our eyes have been opened to the horrific dismissal of military sexual assaults, we should remind ourselves to take rape and sexual assault seriously. Don’t support comments like, “Well she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk” or “He was flirting with him all night — what did he expect?” or use the word “rape” loosely or in a joking manner. Contact your congressional representative to encourage them to support legislation to combat military sexual assault or thank them if they are already doing so.
Rape is a violent, traumatizing crime; victims often experience physical or psychological side effects for years after the assault such as flashbacks, self-harm, substance abuse, and even suicide. We, as a society, need to stand with the victims, not the rapists, and demand justice be done in each and every case.
Written by Laurel Reed
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