February 5, 2013

Shining A Spotlight On The Invisible War

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently lifted a long standing ban on women serving in combat.  A controversial issue that has naysayers claiming a small framed woman couldn't possibly handle the physical demands or endure the psychological and emotional pain found on the front lines or behind enemy walls.

While the privilege of serving in the military is not one that personally appeals to this writer, thousands of women see it as their destiny.  A selfless, courageous, not to mention mentally and physically challenging career representing America in a most profound way.  I will forever be humbled by those who enter any branch of the military, especially in our current climate of international discourse.

Sadly, the mental and physical toll of the job itself is increasingly overshadowed by an ugly truth that has become prevalent and grossly underreported.  Last year an independent film called The Invisible War was placed into the hands of Defense Secretary Panetta and within two days there was a game change in the way that sexual abuse is reported and investigated in the military.  The film chronicles the lives of several women and one man, representing thousands more in our military, who have endured sexual assault.

The statistics are staggering.  It is believed that 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted. Estimates put the number at 500,000 women who have been raped while simply trying to serve their country, which correlates to 50 sexual assaults per day.  The numbers also put men at a 1% risk of being assaulted, which tops the numbers at 20,000.

Each branch of the military has a system in place for reporting crimes.  However, upon further investigation it was discovered that the intimidation and retaliation from those investigating the allegations made it virtually impossible to receive a fair outcome.  Due to the fact that the investigations were conducted by the military personnel who were in the direct chain of command of the victim, and often friends or colleagues of the alleged perpetrators, it is believed that some 80% of sexual violations have gone unreported.  In fact, it was not uncommon for the victims to be advised of professional admonishments that likely would be attached to their service records if it was later discovered that their statements were unfounded.  It was strongly implied by the powers that be that if you came forward, you would probably end up losing in the end.  Essentially, our country's military was systematically perpetuating an environment of fear and intimidation, and in doing so, allowing the unspoken acceptance of criminal behavior from the sexual predators living and working alongside their victims.

Following Secretary Panetta's decision to remove the investigative power out of the direct line of command and instead to an independent facilitator, our country started seeing the embarrassing secrets that had been swept under the proverbial rug.  There was no branch of the military immune to the rampant occurrences of sexual assault. It was as prevalent from the lower levels of basic training to the most prestigious post at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC.  The same soldiers who protect The White House and its dignitaries.  The same soldiers who we proudly see at ceremonial performances.

According to the weak accountability within the military, the Defense Department estimates that only eight percent were ultimately prosecuted for their crimes and a mere two percent of those prosecuted received punishment.  It was not uncommon for the perpetrators or the victims to simply be moved to a new location in an effort to avoid the issue altogether.

So, here is what has occurred in the last nine months since the Defense Department stepped in and started cleaning house.  Independent investigations have commenced from each branch of the military.  Rules have been established making public the expectations of soldiers and the procedures that are now in place to investigate and protect the men and women who are the victims of a sexual assault.

Although, I still have my doubts.  On January 23, 2013 General Edward Rice and General Mark Welsh were questioned before the Armed Services Committee concerning the series of sexual assaults that went unreported at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.  The panel spent hours questioning the new procedures that were recently implemented to remedy the pervasive problem. While their answers appeared on the surface to be compliant with the newer stringent regulations, I could not help but agree with Representative Jackie Speier.  A fiery congresswoman from California, who has been a champion of this issue.  Representative Speier introduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act in 2011, and has spoken out on many occasions to her colleagues in the House of Representatives to keep this issue prominently in the eyes of Congress.   As Representative Speier began her questioning last week, she entered into the record a letter that was sent to General Rice in November 2012 asking him why, in the months of investigation, which included investigators, documents, interviews, and the ultimate implementation of protective regulations, not one of the victims was asked to testify.  That letter was never answered by General Rice and, frankly, he did not provide an acceptable answer during the January 23rd session either. Basically, 45 new rules were crafted by Lackland Air Force Base in 2012 without first including any testimony from the very people who were failed by the old system. It's as if they want the whole issue to go away with the appearance of an in-depth investigation, but they really don't want to hear the gory details.  Sadly, the gory details got them into this mess, and until they fully see the good, the bad, and the ugly, the problem is going to continue to be perpetuated.

As Secretary Panetta departs his post, we will have a new sheriff in town.  My hope is that whoever assumes the position will continue to fight for the basic human rights of our soldiers.  During the initial hearings where Senator Chuck Hagel gave an overall mediocre performance, he did commit to the continuation of Secretary Panetta's work concerning this issue.

This ugly reality that has plagued the military is incredibly infuriating and complex.  Of course, the issue of sexual assault is inexcusable.  But put aside the gross failure of the military to address this issue, thousands of honorable service men and women have been tainted by the hidden realities that have gone unpunished.  I have many friends who have served in all branches of the military, and they are among the most honorable and heroic people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.  My hope is that this will not cast a dark shadow on the thousands of men and women who have literally given their lives for our freedom. I ultimately believe that, in the end, knowledge is power and, in the years to come our military will be stronger and more resilient after dealing with this hidden evil. 

As for my personal opinion on whether women can and should serve in combat, hell ya! 

I would encourage you to watch The Invisible War, which was recently nominated for an Academy AwardA difficult yet important film that was the catalyst to giving our soldiers a voice when all they want to do is serve and protect the rights of Americans.


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