Tonawanda News

Opinion

August 14, 2013

DUVALL: Military sex assault reporting must change

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.

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