Tonawanda News

August 14, 2013

DUVALL: Military sex assault reporting must change

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — When the numbers were first made public months ago I had the rare reaction of assuming there had to be something factually incorrect in the story I was reading: The military had estimated as many as 33,000 sexual assaults had taken place in the military.

Not over a decade. In a single year. 

How could that be right, I asked myself?

Making matters worse, only about 300 had been successfully prosecuted. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 instances of rape or sexual assault were prosecuted. It’s a stunning statistic, the kind of thing that makes you ask yourself what country it is we’re living in. This is the United States of America, not the Taliban’s Afghanistan or some remote tribal village in Pakistan where fundamentalists treat women worse than a heard of goats.

The resulting political debate has the military’s uniformed and civilian hierarchy re-evaluating the entire system and politicians, particularly two Democratic senators on the armed services committee proposing reforms.

There are reforms all involved agree should be undertake. Victims should be granted their own legal counsel to represent their interests. The military should empower those counselors to act on victims’ behalf and offer them meaningful legal tools to press for a full investigation and prosecution.

That’s a good start.

There remains a central debate, though, about how victims should report incidents of sexual assault: Should unit commanders remain in control of investigating incidents or should we break with longstanding military tradition and handle these allegations through an outside set of prosecutors who weight the evidence? There’s compelling arguments to both approaches and those two senators, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, both make convincing arguments. 

Gillibrand makes a simple point: The status quo of reporting sexual assaults in the military is broken beyond repair and needs fundamental reform. The practice of requiring victims — men or women — to report the incident to a direct commander by its very nature makes it unlikely a victim is willing to come forward. Handling such a serious and often difficult to prove allegation in-house compromises the entire process, subjecting it to interpersonal judgments rather than an objective reading of the facts.

The only way to fix it is create an independent investigative arm in which victims can have confidence they’ll be treated fairly.

McCaskill argues in favor of keeping the reporting inside the chain of command for several entirely practical reasons. First, she argues, the bureaucracy inherent in creating a system outside the military chain of command endangers victims. Those lawyers, sometimes half a world away, can’t protect a victim as ably as a commander who’s on the ground.

And requiring victims to circumvent commanders in reporting instances of sexual abuse absolves commanders of their inherent responsibility to prevent such crimes in the first place. Better, McCaskill argues, to force commanders to run a tighter ship and put the impetus on military brass to crack down on commanders who aren’t living up to a new, much more rigorous standard in preventing sexual assault.

From where I’m sitting, I have to side with Gillibrand — this is a problem that seems larger than the status quo can overcome. If 33,000 military personnel can fall victim to sexual assault clearly it’s a situation clearly out of control.

Furthermore, military leaders have claimed breaking the essential chain of command will lead to chaos. As we pointed out in an editorial last month, what chain of command is worth preserving — and what precisely is it controlling — if it leads to this culture of lawlessness? 

Continuing to grant unit commanders the ability to scuttle reported sexual assaults and create a culture of fear and shame for victims to discourage them from coming forward in the first place sends a message that things don’t really have to change.

There are sensible procedures that can be put in place that can protect victims from reprisals while still pursuing legal rights in an outside prosecutorial system. Outside prosecutors should be empowered to act immediately on behalf of a victim in much the same way police can for incidents of domestic abuse in civilian life, instituting a military equivalent of a restraining order while an allegation is investigated that commanding officers would be tasked with enforcing. 

Unit cohesion is a core tenant of military life and essential to keeping order where chaos could easily take over were it not for so many rules of the road. But it’s time we faced the obvious: Where it comes to keeping military members of both sexes safe from assault, chaos is the default and something drastic needs to be done to reverse the trend.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.