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The Washington Post’s She the People: With Women in Combat, will Military Finally Address Epidemic of Sexual Assault?

January 24, 2013

Thursday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will announce that the Department of Defense will lift the ban on women serving in combat roles. This announcement comes on the heels of Wednesday’s hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on the Review of Sexual Misconduct by Basic Training Instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.  During Wednesday’s hearing, the public learned that at Lackland, rape and sexual assault of enlisted women and men during basic training is almost commonplace. It has gone unreported for years because of a fear of retaliation and a culture and climate that undermines the effective punishment of assailants.

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Retired Air Force chief master sergeant  Cindy McNally, left, waits to testify before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual misconduct by basic training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, with her husband, center, and retired Air Force technical sergeant Jennifer Norris, a fellow Protect Our Defenders witness , on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23, 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The irony is that while Defense is ready to allow women to serve in combat roles, the Air Force (and probably other branches of the military) is still struggling with how to protect the women and men in its ranks from sexual assault by their peers and commanders during basic training. Rape and sexual assault should not be “incidental” to military service.

In June 2011, one woman filed a rape allegation at Lackland.  As reported by The Washington Post, “It has snowballed into potentially the worst sex scandal in the U.S. military since 1996, when 12 male soldiers were charged with abusing female recruits and trainees at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.”

To date, 59 survivors of sexual assault at Lackland have been identified. Thirty-two drill sergeants and training instructors have been charged with crimes or policy violations that range from rape to inappropriate contact after graduation.

There have been eight convictions; nine court martial proceedings are pending, and 15 other incidents are under further investigation.

One of the most jarring aspects of Wednesday’s hearing before the House Armed Services Committee was the simple optics of the number of members of Congress present at any one time (the room was almost empty), who testified (three men and two women), and in what order the testimony was given (the women veterans, both survivors of military sexual assault testified last).

The hearing took place just weeks after the conclusion of the 2012 presidential campaign where American women (and men) endured comments from the stone ages — transvaginal ultrasounds in the state of Virginia, abortion and former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo) declarations regarding  what he referred to as “legitimate rape,” Foster Friess’s reflections on women placing aspirin between their legs as a means of birth control, Wisconsin Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothmann’ s views about Wisconsin’s Equal Pay Act and statement that “one could argue that money is more important for men,” and the furor over whether Congress will re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.

If supporting the women and men of the U.S. Air Force who are survivors of sexual assault was not enough to get members to the hearing, the results of the election and the gender gap that exists should have been.

One would have thought that survivors of the Lackland scandal would have been there to testify. According to Claude Chafin, Communications Director for the House Armed Services Committee, none of the Lackland survivors were invited to testify and “as far as [Chafin] knows”, no Lackland survivors “came forward” and asked to testify. Rather than extend invitations to testify to any of the Lackland survivors, the House Armed Services Committee asked advocacy groups for suggestions as to witnesses who might testify.

Two men, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force’s top commander, and Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command,  testified first.

Gens. Welsh and Rice spent most of their testimony and time answering questions related to how the Air Force will change the culture, climate, instances of failed leadership and the lack of oversight of Military Training Instructors that are believed to be the root causes of the sexual assaults that have occurred at Lackland over the last three years.

The culture and climate at Lackland was best described by Gen. Welsh when he said that one has to ask why it was that on the “worst day of a victim’s life,” they didn’t go to their Air Force brethren for assistance. Welsh later testified that a “battle rhythm” was needed in addressing these issues.

Through the very personal testimony of retired chief master sergeant Cindy McNally and retired technical sergeant Jennifer Norris, the public learned that there are women and men in the Air Force who are raped, sexually assaulted, or who are the victims of other sexual misconduct repeatedly while in service to our nation. In each instance, the enemy combatant was a peer or commanding officer.

McNally enlisted in the Air Force in 1975 and was assigned to a Women in the Air Force squadron at Lackland. Early in her career, she was sexually assaulted by two of her instructors at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. She reported the incident, and her leaders didn’t “handle” it. She says that she knew then that she would never report another sexual assault.

At her first assignment, she was assaulted a second time. She didn’t report this assault.

Norris was 24 years old when she joined the military. She testified that she “was chemically restrained and raped by [her] recruiter and sexually assaulted by [her] technical school instructor at Keesler Air Force Base.” Norris stated that she didn’t report either incident because she “watched an airman … get swiftly booted out simply because she reported that one of her instructors made derogatory remarks to her during class.”

During a recess, one woman veteran spoke about “the first time” she was raped. Another said that she was “about six months pregnant” when she was assaulted.

Patricia Lee Stotter of Protect Our Defenders, an organization which seeks to “honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country” described military sexual assault as “an incest level of betrayal.”

McNally had proposed a solution to the issue of culture, climate and failed leadership that the generals are still grappling with. She stated:

“Our job as enlisted leaders is to define the standard, and make everyone understand that we have absolutely no problem removing violators in the blink of an eye. It is our duty to ensure that standards are met. If that is simplistic, I am okay with that. In the trenches where lives are at stake and the well-being of our troops is at stake, we need to be that simplistic.  We do the right thing or we suffer the consequences. It is called leadership.”

Additionally, she stated that the country needed to “remove the combat exclusion policy… Then we will be a fully integrated force. Being able to do the job should be the standard-not whether you are male or female.”

On Friday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who attended the hearing, will introduce the Protect Our Military Trainees Act.  The act  would “amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to protect new members of the Armed Forces who are undergoing basic training from the sexual advances of the members of the Armed Forces responsible for their instruction.” Among other things, the legislation provides that any instructor who commits a sexual act upon a member of the armed forces while the member is going through basic training is guilty of sexual assault if the instructor exercised any supervisory authority over the member during basic training.  The offender would be punished as a court-martial may direct.  Additionally, among other things, consent would not be a defense for prosecutions under the proposed Act.

On Nov. 16, 2011, Speier introduced H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act – or STOP Act – which would create a new office for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults in the military. Speier will reintroduce the STOP ACT for the 113th Congress in the coming weeks.

According to her office, “This legislation would remove sexual assault crimes from the normal military chain of command and place them in the hands of an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office within the Defense Department. The office, which would be made up of both military and civilian experts, would work with military investigators and oversee the prosecution of sexual assault cases.”

As Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) noted, “This is not a female problem; it’s a predator problem.”

Leon Panetta must have been listening.

Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.  Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

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