Sex Assault Survivor: “they don’t make it easy to want to come forward”
Why military justice reform is stalled on Capitol Hill despite despite filibuster-proof support in Congress.
WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Congress has the votes to reform how the military prosecutes sex crimes and other serious offenses. But, there’s no guarantee the law will change or deliver the intended results.
About 20,000 service members a year are sexually assaulted or raped by another member of the armed forces according to the most recent Pentagon survey data. That’s as many victims as New York’s Fort Drum has active-duty personnel.
Most survivors never make an official report, those that do pursue justice rarely find it. A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that a third of military sexual assault victims experienced some form of retaliation, even if they never filed an official report.
“They don’t make it easy to want to come forward,” said a recent military sexual assault survivor who agreed to speak with Gray T.V.’s D.C. Bureau.
Last October, the military spouse reported a sexual assault by one of her husband’s fellow service members, knowing it might be her own family that faced consequences. “Should I report what happened,” she said while raising one hand before raising the other and asking, “or do we need to worry more about my husband’s job?”
She said despite concern about possible retaliation, they never truly considered staying silent.
Her attacker’s case went through a Navy disciplinary hearing process known as a ‘Captain’s Mast.’ A court martial wouldn’t be possible, she was told, without more than her word against his.
“It’s a real problem that we can’t find justice in this system,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a recent interview. Over the last eight years, she’s built support on Capitol Hill for a bill that would remove military commanders’ power to decide whether to bring charges when serious allegations are made.
Gillibrand argues leaving those choices entirely up to military prosecutors would prevent commanders from playing favorites, covering up crimes, or retaliating against those who report incidents. She said, it’s important to have, “someone who doesn’t know the accused or the accuser,” making charging decisions, “so there can be an unbiased judgement based on the facts alone.”
Her proposal has the votes to easily pass the Senate but delay tactics threatened by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have effectively stalled its momentum.
Getting around Reed’s objection would bog down the Senate floor for a week. That’s time Gillibrand says they cannot spare as leadership and the president work to pass their shared agenda through a narrowly divided Congress.
Gillibrand said she’s hopeful Sen. Reed will lift his objection, allowing for a speedy Senate vote. If that doesn’t happen, she’s willing to consider pushing the change through the military budget process later this year.
Reed’s not the only skeptic. Military leadership has signaled it may be comfortable pulling decion-power over charges like rape and sexual assault, but not every crime that carries a possible penalty of more than a year behind bars as proposed in Gillibrand’s bill.
Others, like Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr (Ret.), see the proposed reform as entirely misguided. “I believe it will make the problem worse,” said Spoehr, who currently directs national defense research at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Sexual assaults cases face long odds at court martial but he said the same is true in the civilian justice system.
Based on his past experience as a commander, Spoehr argues military prosecutors are less likely to take tough-to-win cases to trial. He said military prosecutors generally advise against pursuing a case that’s unlikely to result in conviction. But as a commander, he said acquittal is not the worst possible result. “If you don’t take [a tough] case to trial, the rest of the unit perceives that that person is getting off,” Spoehr said.
Gillibrand is unconviced by arguments that her proposal could backfire, responding simply, “it couldn’t get worse.”
In the case of the survivor who shared her story with us, the disciplinary hearing led to her attacker’s demotion, and ultimate retirement.
But, a later panel ruled that the evidence wasn’t strong enough to strip his pension. reflecting on the “At the end of the day, I do realize there were no witnesses to what happened,” she said, “but at the same time, all the evidence was there, all my girlfriends’ statements, all the timelines were right, everything was right in front of them to know that this man did this.”
“So it was a big slap in the face,” she said
She admits she’s not a policy expert, but said she did think removing commanders from the process would give victims more confidence in the system. She also spoke highly of how her husband’s command handled every aspect of the case.
However, she sees a need for much more dramatic reform than what’s called for in Gillibrand’s bill. She said, in her opinion, the system protects the wrong interests, “it felt like it was more for him than for me.”
She realizes not every change is simple or straightforward, but argued it would have been nice to see one woman on the panel that decided how her attacker would be discharged. The result was not what she had hoped but said she’s still glad she found courage to pursue justice.
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