January 6, 2015

Two Years Later It's No Better. It's Worse...

Nearly two years ago I wrote a piece on an issue that has sadly found its way back into the media. It detailed the grim discovery of an ugly little secret within the US military. A glaring spotlight illuminating the rampant problem of sexual assault going unchecked and unpunished.

If you missed the original blog, let me bring you up to speed. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had just lifted a long standing ban on women serving in combat. A controversial issue that had 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.

With rich opportunities being made available to female soldiers, it was also revealed that increasingly high cases of assault within each branch of the military were becoming both commonplace and grossly underreported. 

So, who brought this issue to the public forum? In 2012 the award winning independent film The Invisible War was given to Defense Secretary Panetta and within two days there was a game change in the way that sexual abuse was reported and investigated in the military. The film chronicled the lives of several women and one man, representing thousands more in our military, who have endured sexual assault within their branch. Secretary Panetta vowed to remove the control of each investigation out of the chain of command and into the hands of independent investigators.

In 2012, the statistics were staggering. Some 20% of female veterans were sexually assaulted. Estimates put the numbers at 500,000 women who had been raped while simply trying to serve their country, which correlated to 50 sexual assaults per day. The numbers also put men at a one percent risk of being assaulted, which topped the numbers at 20,000.

Until 2012 each branch historically depended on their own procedures for reporting crimes. Yet upon further investigation it was discovered that intimidation and retaliation from those investigating the allegations made it virtually impossible to receive a fair outcome. Primarily because 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. As a result it was estimated that approximately 80% of sexual violations ultimately went unreported. It was not uncommon for victims to be advised of professional admonishments that likely would be attached to their service records if it was later discovered that their statements could not be adequately corroborated. An implication 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 widespread 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 estimated that until 2012 only eight percent were ultimately prosecuted for their crimes and a mere two percent of those prosecuted received punishment. It was also common practice 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 initially happened. The Defense Department stepped in and started cleaning house. Independent investigations commenced from each branch of the military. Rules were established making public the expectations of soldiers and the new procedures that were put in place to investigate and protect victims of a sexual assault.

We now sit two years later and the verdict is in. Last month the Defense Department released a disappointing statistic, which tops the cases of assault eight percent higher than last year. Still after two years, seven out of ten military victims do not feel that they can report their crimes for fear of retaliation.

Like many I have numerous 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 ongoing crisis will not cast a dark cloud on the thousands of men and women who have literally given their lives for our freedom.

If you want to learn more about this issue I highly recommend watching the documentary The Invisible War. If you want to voice your opinion you can always write or call your legislators. Ask what their position is on this issue and what they plan to do to ensure the safety of our military men and women.


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